Novels about second chances can be as cloying as they are reassuring, but Tom Rachman avoids this by always returning to that wistful minor key, sensitizing us to loss yet surprising us with joy.
It is undoubtedly true that great artists can be horrible people. If you’ve found yourself wondering lately whether you can love the art while hating the artist’s behavior, Tom Rachman’s moving tragicomic novel “The Italian Teacher” provides savory and satisfying food for thought.
The artist in question is Bear Bavinsky, a world-renowned expressionist painter living and working in 1950s Rome with his second wife, Natalie, and their young son, Charles, better known as “Pinch.”
Viewed one way, Bear is the type of iconoclastic genius whose exploits have always intrigued us. He is charismatic, eccentric, driven, a man of voracious sensual appetites who is himself consumed by the need to create. Viewed another way, he is exactly the kind of entitled egomaniac whose philandering and casually abusive behavior have inspired the #MeToo movement. Rachman’s portrayal of Bear artfully straddles this perspective. We are charmed and disgusted, enthralled and appalled.
Bear is more or less oblivious to his family, who toss about in his choppy wake. Natalie makes pottery, although her own creative life withers in the shadow of her husband’s outsized presence. Like all his lovers she poses for his outsized depictions of isolated shoulders, hips, or hands, paintings that salvage the whole for spare parts.
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His son Pinch worships at the altar of his father’s greatness, his own selfhood almost entirely eclipsed. A more willful child might have rebelled at some point, but the shy, impressionable Pinch is no match for the gravitational pull of Bear’s mythic persona. Rachman’s novel follows the elliptical course of Pinch’s lifelong orbit around his uncaring father, who soon abandons the pair for other wives, other children.
Pinch strives to win his father’s approval as a son, then as an artist and then as a critic seeking to secure Bear’s lasting fame against the fickle fashions of the art world. The reader shares Pinch’s pathetic hopes and minor triumphs as he meekly navigates the world amid an engaging cast of fellow strivers, only to be cruelly disappointed again and again.
Of course the title tells us where Pinch will wind up. Yet it is just when he settles into the seemingly diminished, dead-end existence of an instructor at a foreign-language school in London that events suddenly take an intriguing and subversive turn that is destined to alter his relationship to his father’s legacy, and revive Pinch’s own moribund artistic life.
Rachman excels at deftly shifting his tone from light to dark, from somber to witty. Such key changes were one of the chief pleasures of his debut collection of linked stories, “The Imperfectionists.” Played out here in the strictly chronological order of a lifetime, these transitions are subtler and more surprising, resulting in a pleasing interplay of emotions. We feel strongly, yet like Pinch we aren’t always certain whether to laugh or cry.
Working with a muted palette dominated by quiet desperation, folly and regret, Rachman ingeniously fashions an audacious conclusion that is both deeply moving and redemptive.
Novels about second chances can be as cloying as they are reassuring, but Rachman avoids this by always returning to that wistful minor key, sensitizing us to loss yet surprising us with joy. Exploring the heart-rending rifts between life and art, Rachman gradually reveals the graceless beauty of one man’s most inartful life.
“The Italian Teacher” by Tom Rachman, Viking, 341 pp., $27