Seeing things as they really aren’t

Tiepolo Blue by James Cahill arrives garlanded with the sort of extravagant pre-publication puffs that are often the kiss of death for a debut novel. Set in the 1990s, it tells the story of Don Lamb, a professor of art history and fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge. Now in his early forties, Don once fell unrequitedly in love with a young man, but he has spent his resulting life cloistered in Cambridge, cutting himself off from the messiness of emotion and desire. His magnum opus is a monograph on Tiepolo, which argues that the artist’s skyscapes are composed in accordance with the “higher forms” – the strict abstract rules of classical proportion and Euclidian geometry. The novel will chart the unraveling of Don qua don.

This process begins when what looks to him like the contents of a skip appear on the college’s hallowed lawn: an old bed frame strewn with rubbish and flashing lights. It turns out to be a work of contemporary art, “Sick Bed”, commissioned by Peterhouse’s new master, a modernizer. Don regards this Tracey Emin-esque installation as a persecutory affront to his aesthetic credo. Egged on by his sinister Peterhouse mentor, Valentine Black, the seminal author of The Neoclassical Pose, Don appears on Radio 4, where he unleashes a disinhibited tirade against “Sick Bed”. This leads to the loss of his fellowship. But a new job opportunity miraculously emerges and Don heads off to run a loosely fictional version of Dulwich Picture Gallery.

What starts off as a campus novel soon shades into something weirder and much more mesmerizing. We can see, long before the myopic Don (who at one point mistakes an old gas canister for a Minoan vase), that our hero is the puppet of his Mephistophelean mentor’s machinations, a Lamb indeed to the slaughter. In London Don eventually discovers sex, but Cahill refuses to give us an uncomplicated, sentimental tale of “coming out” or of shedding repression to be “true” to one’s “real” self. This is a self-awakening can feel like a sleepwalk into a nightmare, as the atmospherics become, that becomes paranoiac. A gay sex club is rendered as a phantasmagorical underworld. Death in Venice stalks these pages.

The plot is propulsive, though the crafted ambience of unease simultaneously destabilizes the reader at every turn. The prose is fluid and precise but the tone equivocal, bathos merging into pathos, tragedy into farce and back again. In one late scene Don discovers how to search the new “World Wide Web” on a work computer. (Period details such as this are sparingly and unobtrusively.) A click away from “Sleeping Hermaphrodite” at the Louvre, he stumble on gay porn. As he gazes on first one then another arresting image, he suddenly becomes aware that he’s being watched through the window by a gaggle of giggling thirteen-year-old schoolgirls. The comic timing makes us laugh while also making us uncomfortable at our own voyeurism.

Oscar Wilde’s paradoxes – about the relationship between art and life, illusion and reality, true and false selves – lie half submerged throughout this bravura debut, but so does the vulnerability of Thomas Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach. The cartoonish names and knowing plot devices foreground the novel’s artfulness, as do the numerous erudite allusions. It is the moments when rawness and confusion burst to the surface that prevent this witty yet unnerving book from being too clever by half.

Blue Woman by Jonathan Page is “straighter” in every sense. In Tiepolo Blue women artists – including the explosively named Angela Cannon, the creator of “Sick Bed” – are seen by Don Lamb as scary fringe figures, and there is a playful distance between the author and his third-person protagonist. Page’s novel is also written in the third person, but irony is not his mode. Instead, his empathetic aim is to follow the life curve of a fictional female British painter, Rose Hartwood, from her interwar life as a pariah teenage single mother, via international fame in the 1960s, to her death in 2005 as a national treasure in her eighties.

Focusing on her domestic life, including her lovers, husband and children, the narrative explores the tensions between artistic and personal identity for a female artist with a family in the twentieth century. The title refers to what becomes Hartwood’s signature work, which she creates in the early 1960s by smothering her body in blue paint and rolling on a canvas, leaving a haunting imprint later regarded as a seminal, revolutionary statement. Rooted in the touch of her own skin, the painting called “Blue Woman” is about as far as you could get from a neoclassical pose.

Both novels are mostly written in the potentially static continuous present. Given that, it’s a measure of Cahill’s sleight of hand that he manages to inject his plot with such page-turning momentum. Technically, he does this by contextualizing the moment in a continuum of implied time. Take the opening sentences: “It is late September – and a new term. Don Lamb has spent the afternoon in Jesus College Library, reading letters from the eighteenth century”. We are in medias res, yet the specificity of “September” implies all the other months that have gone before it, “new term” looks to the future, while “has spent the afternoon” lets us know what’s been happening and specifies where we are. And then that subtly odd phrase, “reading letters from the eighteenth century” (rather than “reading eighteenth-century letters”), abruptly and disconcertingly deliteralizes the notion of time by seeming to personify a historical period as if it is capable of writing letters to Don Lamb. It is a hint to tell us, even before we see him, that he’s a man who is happier communing with historical abstractions than with real people in the here and now.

Page, by contrast, is more content to remain in the moment and to tell rather than show. His prose is pared-down, tending to monosyllables and parataxis, which lends it a poetic simplicity, but it occasionally feels slow. He is not interested in playing with his reader, preferring to spell things out directly, as in the following, where the symbolism of the wounded tree and the emotionally damaged artist is made explicit: “She draws the vase on the dresser, as she does Every other day, she draws the cherry tree in the garden below with its wounded, shining bark and the weathered wall that shields it. Drawing is how she heals herself”.

As a result, Blue Woman Initially feels rather tortoise-like, despite its historical scope, which includes the high drama of the Second World War. In one remarkable scene the young Rose is modeling for another artist in London when a bomb hits the house. She is left naked and exposed in the wreckage, an image she then turns into a painting that is only rediscovered and put on the market decades later, after she dies.

Yet the slow burn is perhaps appropriate for a tale that takes in the best part of a century. Although Page’s novel eschews wit and irony, its ultimate achievement is to make you care about its characters by gradually, creating the illusion that the writer is chronicling the actual lives of real historical individuals who exist outside the text. No one, by contrast, would mistake Don Lamb for a real person. What, then, does this say about the novel’s role?

Lucasta Miller’s most recent book is Keats: A brief life in nine poems and one epitaph2021

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