Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher is a story of suppressed identity, reinvention, wasted talent, and a cynical look at the Art world told through the prism of a father-son relationship. While children of famous/wealthy parents may find doors opening that would be closed to the plebs, being the offspring of someone ‘great’ also brings its burden. It’s a curse to be the plain daughter of a beautiful actress, for example, and in Rachman’s book, it’s a burden to be the son of the great American painter, Bear Bavinsky.
When the novel opens in 1955, middle-aged Bear is living with Natalie, a young artist whose medium is pottery. Together they have a 5 year-old child, Pinch (Charles) and are currently living in quasi-exile in Italy while Bear’s last family (wife and children) remain in America. Natalie and Bear’s story is a familiar one: awestruck young artist meets icon and sparks fly. But the relationship is harmful for Natalie and her work; there’s one incredibly painful scene when Natalie tries to work and the incredibly manipulative Bear is ‘struck’ by the urge to draw. Bear is so intensely selfish, there’s room only for his ego, his needs, his demands. In another scene, they attend an art evening, and Natalie finds herself insulted and literally edged out by Bavinsky fans. Bear has a way of seeming to promote someone while he actually belittles them:
Bear reaches through the crowd, dragging Natalie to his side. “My miraculous wife, a serious talent in her own right,” he says. “Tell them, sweetheart.”
A mass of eyeballs turns to her.
“Now listen here, Bear,” someone interrupts. “You’ve simply got to tell us how…”
Nobody came to meet an unknown lady potter. They’re here for Bear Bavinsky, creator of expressionistic masterworks, wild colors crashing across each composition, a bare throat filling the huge canvas, or a roll of tummy fat, or a pricked shoulder. His detail portraits are too intimate–uncomfortably penetrating despite never once including a subject’s face.
The novel follows the trajectory of Pinch’s life through childhood, youth, middle age and beyond. Pinch continually struggles to attain his father’s approval, subconsciously copying his mannerisms, and even his pipe smoking. As a husband and father, Bear always loses interest quickly, continually moving onto to fresh relationships. And as Bear burns through wife after wife, continually fathering children, we see as the novel continues, Pinch’s struggles with his apparent lack-of-talent as an artist, loneliness, intimacy, sexuality, academia, etc.
Pinch makes a few significant relationships in his life, but they are all marred, in some way of another, by Pinch’s proximity to Bear. Bear’s reputation combined with his larger-than-life personality overshadow everything. At one point, teenaged Pinch, who’s been encouraged to paint by his mother, attends an art show in a rare moment with his father. Bavinsky spends the entire evening introducing his son as “artist of tomorrow,” and yet ultimately ensures that his son will never paint again. Pinch, constantly seeking approval, moves from painting to a career in academia where, again, his whole focus is pleasing his father through a sad ambition to gain academic prestige and write the definitive Bear Bavinsky biography. While Pinch’s mother, back in London, is loving and supportive, she sinks into madness, and Pinch finds himself avoiding her, and there’s the nagging feeling that Natalie, who was discarded by Bear, has no value, and that Bear’s judgement is mirrored in her son.
The Italian Teacher is overwhelmingly sad. I rooted for Pinch to jettison his quasi-relationship with his monstrous father, strike out, change his name and have a life of his own without the legacy of his father lurking in the background. It’s up to the reader to decide whether or not Pinch triumphed in the end. Looking at some reviews, I see the complaint that Pinch is a sad, frustrating example of a wasted life. It’s true that I struggle with character passivity, so there were many times I wanted to knock some sense into Pinch. Ultimately, the book, for this reader, is a poignant cautionary tale about a man who spends a lifetime trying to please a father whose opinion is worth exactly nothing.
This is primarily Pinch’s story, but it’s also a rather ugly look at the Art world, and just what constitutes “great work.” Artists/writers/creators are often given free passes when it comes to their personal relationships. There’s always that argument that Art is a jealous mistress and any great creator cannot juggle a single-minded devotion to work along with the demands of a family. And while this may be true, nonetheless, Artist as Complete Shit when it comes to personal relationships is impossible to excuse.
Rachman’s book has the power to induce the reader to examine familial bonds in light of the fictional Bear-Pinch father-son fiasco. What constitutes a father-son relationship? How much damage should anyone sustain before severing a close family relationship? At what point do we give up trying?