The Italian Teacher Instructs on Art, Ego, and More

The Italian Teacher (2018)
By Tom Rachman
Penguin/Random House, 352 pages.

If the child is the father of the man, as Wordsworth famously put it, poor Charlie has no chance. He is the offspring of Natalie, a scattershot Canadian ceramicist, and Bear Bavinsky, a celebrated but bombastic modernist painter. We first meet Charlie and his sister Birdie in Rome in 1955, and to say that their household was unorthodox is akin to saying that chaos is unstable. Rome just happens to be where Bear has flung his paint pots at the moment. His is an enormous ego and before this novel winds to an end in the 2010s, his residences will have included Toronto, Rome, New York, London, France, and the Basque country. (Charlie’s nickname “Pinch” is an Anglicization of the Basque pintxo, the Basque version of tapas.)

Bear’s egoism has no bounds. He deplores contemporaries such as Lucian Freud, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and especially Picasso (“that clown,” in Bear’s judgment) though his lifestyle closely aligns with Picasso’s. That is to say, every few years Bear has a new wife and sires new children, so many that Pinch is later surprised to discover the final tally of his stepbrothers and stepsisters. Charlie/Pinch is our tragic central character. He knows his father is a rogue, yet he admires him and yearns for his approval, a need he nurtures across 7 decades. Think of it as an addiction, as Bear is always all about Bear. He makes promises he has no intention of keeping, expects to be fawned upon, basks in pubic adulation, refuses to sell his art to anyone other than museums, barricades himself in his studios, burns most of what he creates, yet claims Pinch is the only one of his children who “understands” him. He also gives Pinch a few art lessons, then crushes the lad’s dreams by telling him he will “never be an artist”–though it’s not clear he ever actually did more than glance as his art–and rudely dismisses Pinch’s academic desires to study Caravaggio.  

Like a moth drawn to the flame, though, Charlie wallows in the old man’s glory. He even attempts to write Bear’s biography. If you imagine this won’t give rise to a healthy adult, you are right, though perhaps not in ways you’d imagine. Rachman’s sprawling family saga takes us to a lot of places metaphorically as well as geographically. Rachman’s title is deliciously ambiguous. On the surface, it references Pinch’s one unassailable talent: his facility with languages. He is, for instance, Cilla Barrows’ Italian tutor at university. She is Pinch’s deepest love but one of several failed relationships. But maybe the book’s title draws us toward a different kind of teacher: Charlie’s childhood lessons? His artistic desires? An affirmation of his own inadequacies, real and imagined?

If you are an art fan, there’s a lot of “dish” in this novel. It certainly takes the piss out of pompous art critics, fashion-driven dealers, and deceitful gallery owners. There are also provocative observations about art itself. Bear delivers one of many opinions when he expounds that concrete isn’t necessarily less beautiful than a leaf: “Not that nature is better than artifice. Because art is artifice.” Later he opines, “There’s a gap always between what the object is and what the picture isn’t. That gap … is where the art is.” These two quotes alert us that this is also a novel about art, artifice, and whether there is a difference. If you can’t tell, does provenance matter?

Other themes include questions of self-worth, the blurry lines between right and wrong, the complexities of family, the corrosive toxicity of greed, and questions about the purpose of art and how we define an artist. Looming large above it all, both physically and metaphorically, is Bear Bavinsky, as thoroughly an unlikable figure as literature has seen in many a moon. You’ll hate the self-centered SOB, yet he fascinates to the degree that you can’t wait to flip the page to see what he does next.

Rob Weir

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