Beginning in 2010 with his winning debut, The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman has channeled and championed lonely oddballs and misfits who feel marginalized, washed up, underachieving, or underappreciated. His first novel, a series of cunningly linked character studies, plumbed the disappointments and frustrations of the motley staff of a struggling English-language newspaper in Rome. His second, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (2014), was a more dizzyingly plotted quest for an absent father, but also rich in wit, charm, and empathy.
In The Italian Teacher, Rachman’s sympathies once again lie with the quirky and the sidelined — people who perk up like wilted plants when sprinkled with a few rehydrating droplets of kindness and connection. The book features a tight, propulsive narrative about a son growing up in the long shadow of his father, a famous — and famously ill behaved — painter. In lieu of the ink-stained wretches of journalism, where success is measured in scoops and front-page column inches, Rachman shifts his satirical eye to the high-end art market, where the arbiters of taste — gallerists and critics — remind artists that “popularity is a tan. It fades when out of the light.” (The same motivational prod, of course, could be wielded to drive novelists.)
But The Italian Teacher is about more than art and commerce. At its core beats one of literature’s perennial themes: the paternal ties that bind, sometimes to the point of choking. It is an issue that encompasses Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, as well as recent additions like Mark Sarvas’s Memento Park and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair (which features not one but two sons a generation apart, each sorting through his famous father’s troubling legacy). But in the annals of warped father-son relationships, Rachman’s novel deserves a special place for its ingenious form of filial retaliation.
The novel opens in 1955 in Rome, where five-year-old Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky lives with his young Canadian mother, Natalie, a dotty potter, and his famous, larger-than-life American father, Bear Bavinsky, “an oak of a man.” The household dances around Bear, who puts in long hours painting his signature Life-Stills — magnified close-ups of body parts. But the work has become an exercise in frustration, since he finds most of his new creations unworthy of his earlier masterpieces and destroys them before the paint has dried.
Pinch idolizes his father and feeds on any scraps of attention the great man throws his way. But within a few years, the seductive, overbearing Bear has moved back to New York with a new wife and family — his fourth but by no means last — leaving his sensitive son Pinch alone with his increasingly unhinged mother, who eventually relocates them to London.
The narrative, which spans sixty-three years — right up to 2018 — follows Pinch to college in Toronto in the early 1970s, back to London in the 1980s, and to a rustic, fly-infested cottage in France’s Basque country, where Bear spends his summers and has stashed his unsold canvases. The habit of trying to curry favor with his self-absorbed father propels Pinch from his own stabs at painting to doctoral work in art history, before he falls back on his language skills and finds work teaching Italian — a talent and identity completely separate from his father’s. Along his mostly lonely route, he occasionally connects with fellow oddballs, including a ravenously ambitious girlfriend who belittles Pinch for acting “like a worshipful little boy around his father.”
Rachman revels in his characters’ lows — and in tempting us into writing them off as losers. The lesson in his books is: Not so fast. Without giving away too much, I can say that Pinch stumbles into a secret, unexpected source of fulfillment and vindication, which he pursues over decades during holidays from his teaching job.
The Italian Teacher trots along at an engrossing clip, occasionally devolving into the ridiculous — including an over-the-top scene with an injurious bookcase, perhaps a strained reference to E. M. Forster’s famous death-by-bookcase scene in Howards End. A more bothersome misstep is Rachman’s habit of baldly spelling out his characters’ thoughts in italics, not trusting us to glean them if stated less directly.
Fortunately, he handles questions about art, craft, authenticity, identity, aesthetics, meaning, and value judgments with more subtlety. Bear pontificates to his son: “There’s a gap always between what the object is and what the picture isn’t. And that gap, Charlie, that’s where the art is.” Meanwhile, Natalie’s pottery teacher argues, “A pot is either correct, or it is not. Whereas art is never quite good or bad. Art is simply a way of saying ‘opinion.’ ” Pinch’s gallery-going college friends observe that “artists used to strive for beauty. Now they all want to ‘say something.’ ”
Rachman has great fun skewering tastemakers, including the “tin-eared typist” of an art critic whom Pinch courts to secure his father’s legacy. This man writes pompously of Bear’s “auratic resonance” and flags the “screaming irony” of the public’s keen interest in what “the grizzled legend” was up to during his last decades. There’s a screaming irony about his late work, all right, but — as readers discover — the fawning critic has missed it by a laughable mile.
Finally, let’s not forget the novel’s all-too-topical Heinous Genius question: Do brilliance and talent justify behaving badly? Bear Bavinsky is such a terrible father and infuriatingly selfish manipulator that readers will lose patience with him long before Pinch does. “The thing is, a nicer person, an easier person, would never have painted like that,” he argues in his father’s defense. Thanks in part to Pinch, his chosen but downtrodden son, Bear’s appalling behavior is whitewashed in a deliciously subversive way that ends up serving the greater good, if not the truth. But the question takes on new resonance: Should exceptionally gifted people “get to live by different rules?” Rachman’s response is exceptionally clever.