The Italian Teacher: A Novel by Tom Rachman (New York: Viking, 2018. 352 pp)
Tom Rachman was born in London in 1974 and raised in Vancouver. He attended the University of Toronto and Columbia Journalism School, then worked as a journalist for the Associated Press in New York and Rome for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His first novel, The Imperfectionists, was an international bestseller, translated into twenty-five languages. He lives in London.
Art of Personality
What holds artistic value? And what doesn’t? Where is the line between genuine beauty worthy of cultural esteem and something that is meaningless? Do we make art for art’s sake, or must it perform some economic function? And even more, does it take a specific personality to create art? In other words, would the same creation perform differently in the marketplace depending on who makes it?
Tom Rachman’s latest, The Italian Teacher, outlines a life lived in the in the shadows of a great artist.
Like Father Like Son
Charles Bavinsky, known as Pinch to those who love him, has a famous artist for a father.
Bear Bavinsky wears the asshole-as-artist card well. Famous for his impressionistic life stills, where he focuses on magnifying specific body parts. His early acclaim adds pressure to his output, and while he paints Pinch’s mother, Natalie, often in their Roman studio, most paintings see the flame after days-long painting sessions.
Difficult and distant, Pinch wants the affirmations of his father, but the closer he tries to get to his dad, the further away the relationships seems.
As Pinch grows up, he begins to follow his father’s path to paint and easel. By Pinch’s teens, Bear has departed his dearly beloved Natalie for a dearly beloved in Upstate New York. Pinch stays in touch with his dad, but his philandering father never really gives much to the relationship.
“In Rome, he sometimes wondered if Bear really was so splendid. But love sluices through the teenager just to stand before Dad, who grabs Pinch in a roughhouse cuddle, leaving the kid determined to upturn his whole life, to speak his mind, to denounce those who deserve it, to adore those who require it, to paint sublimely—suddenly certain that he will. Shy to be smiling like this, Pinch looks anywhere else” (59).
The Italian Teacher takes a magnifying glass to this Father-Son relationship. As Pinch chases the ghost of his father through space and time, the promise of his life diminishes.
Where he might have been a talented, accomplished artist in his own right, where his talent for linguistics and research might open avenues to a PhD, instead his energy remains focused on his relationship with his Father. In its wake, not only failed professional appointments, but also romantic ones. The only long-term, seemingly meaningful relationship is with his father, but even that is clearly transactional.
“’Let’s be clear, son. I said you’d never be an artist. And take a gander at yourself. Was I wrong? You honestly think I’d be tagging along to gallery opening of my own kid? Listen to me. Hear this. You work for me. Get it? You always worked for me’” (242).
And so Pinch grows up and finds his small plot to cultivate, teaching Italian at a language school in London.
But he has always wanted to paint.
When art dealers approach him to see if he has any of his dad’s paintings available for sale, Pinch begins to ponder an absurd concept. He knows Bear Bavinsky only wants his paintings in museums. So, everything Bear has painted since his early works rests in storage at a Cabin in rural France. If he can paint a replica and sell it on the down low, could he possibly even the playing field with his dad?
The Italian Teacher wrings its emotion from this relationship. It never glorifies its protagonist and antagonist. Pinch, given his personality, likely doesn’t have the moxie to create art professionally. Bear, a stereotype of the chaotic artist, elevates art over any other relationship.
Where’s the happy middle? Great art almost feels like a public utility. But, is it worth it at the expense of being there for your son?
Art is important. But, it can’t be that important.
Rachman asks some interesting questions in The Italian Teacher, entertainingly at that.
Verdict: 4 out of 5