Does great art excuse terrible behaviour? What is it like to live in the shadow of a hell-bent genius? These questions drive Tom Rachman’s third novel. Returning, in part, to Rome – the setting for his international bestselling debut, The Imperfectionists – The Italian Teacher tells the story of a famous painter and his son, at odds with the trends of the 20th-century art world and with each other.
The protagonist is Pinch Bavinsky, a man with deep self-esteem issues and a talent for languages. But the central character is his father, Bear, a painter with robust appetites. We watch as Bear goes from being an iconoclast to a dinosaur to a canonized institution. Pinch’s mother is Natalie, an aspiring potter who he soon comes to understand is one of his father’s many wives. He grows up as an outsider, but always craving his father’s approval, yearning for his own place in the grandiose myth of Bear Bavinsky.
The novel is narrated in the present tense from Pinch’s perspective. One of Rachman’s deftest technical tricks is to make it feel as though the first half is lived through Bear’s eyes, before it allows Pinch (whose real name is Charles) to take over as Bear’s legend fades. Then the narrative takes its final turn, which is too good to give away. The story moves from Rome to Toronto to London to the Pyrenees, following Pinch’s loves, ambitions, and failures. Temporally, it travels in a straight line, moving sequentially through a supposedly average human life while also examining big questions about art, truth, beauty, and the enduring tension of the father-son relationship.
Rachman is a classically novelistic writer, his elements finely woven but on visible display. His command of characterization is impressive – Bear Bavinsky, in particular, exudes a sweaty, boozy reality. But his penchant for quirky names and flamboyant sentences can be a bit much, and whole pages could arguably be replaced with the bold-faced words, THIS IS A NOVEL.
The story makes for brisk, pleasant reading, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that its attitude tilts in favour of nostalgia for older ways of framing beauty. The Italian Teacher is a polished, almost wistful expression of established form: “innovation” is not in its vocabulary.
Despite this, it lives in the present moment, wrestling with the idea that, as one of Pinch’s several sisters puts it, “Even if a man’s important, he doesn’t get to live by different rules.” Invoking Caravaggio and Picasso, but nodding to contemporary figures and conversations, The Italian Teacher ultimately seems to give moral victory to Pinch’s flawed but self-aware approach. And yet, the Bear bits are undoubtedly the best – raising the question of what to do with the enduring notion, expressed by Peter Schjeldahl in a recent New Yorker piece about the icky-yet-celebrated painter Balthus, that “the moral and the aesthetic are fundamentally opposed exercises.”