Don Lamb, distinguished professor of art history at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and the protagonist of Tiepolo Blue, is only forty-three, but while reading the novel I had to keep reminding myself of that fact. The professor is fusty beyond his years: he sees himself as a noble defender of the classical tradition, a crusader against those academics who concern themselves with the ‘fashionable irrelevances’ of ‘society, politics or psychology’ rather than ‘the fundamental things: proportion, light, balance’. There is no shortage of public figures expressing similar views nowadays, but James Cahill has chosen to set his arresting debut novel not in the midst of today’s so-called culture wars but in the 1990s, with the influence of ‘that dreadful man Jacques Derrida’ fresh in the memory and the term ‘political correctness’ newly in vogue.
Don is writing a book about his abiding love, the 18th-century Rococo painter Giambattista Tiepolo. He spends his time mapping out the symmetry of the skies in Tiepolo’s frescoes, trying to explain that their ‘infinite blue space’ can be ‘dissected, triangulated’ to reveal a ‘precise and beautiful geometry’. Tiepolo has for too long been seen as a mystical painter of ‘sweetness and light’. ‘No more,’ Don imagines the artist saying to him at one point. ‘Show them how classical I am.’
It is his conservatism that, paradoxically, leads to a series of radical, often troubling changes in his life. The first comes after the appointment of a poet in residence at Peterhouse, Erica Jay (‘a poetess’, sneers Val, Don’s ally and head of the department). Her first action is