Great art is not a matter of sex,” Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky proclaims about a quarter of the way into Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher.
His friend Marsden replies, “What else would it be?”
Until that point, I’d been searching in vain to understand what was missing from Rachman’s third novel, despite finding so much to admire. The book tracks the lifelong relationship between Pinch and his father, the famed painter Bear Bavinsky, a tremendous narcissist with tremendous charm. (He has a long succession of wives, with whom he fathers a total of seventeen children.) Rachman evinces Pinch’s dynamic with Bear and his erratic mother, an unsuccessful potter named Natalie, and Pinch’s desperation for love from these figures shapes him in detrimental ways.
At a young age, Pinch observes his parents (for the sliver of time they’re actually together) with acute sensitivity: “Only Pinch sees that his mother’s laughter isn’t pleasant—she’s nearly in tears, pushing her husband back.” With her, Pinch feels a push-pull between love and repulsion; in one exchange, “[h]is pulse races, a sickening flutter, for Natalie doesn’t hear him anymore, as if his statements and hers were out of sync by minutes.”
With Bear, it’s different; Pinch idealizes the great painter: “Chilly with sweat, Pinch sits on his bed, leg jiggling. The murmur of his father’s phone conversation downstairs drifts up, punctuated by Bear’s thunderous laughter, each bolt of which hits Pinch with such love for this man.” Eventually, his expectations for his father begin to dovetail with reality—the seed of an inversion in their dynamic—but it takes an incredibly long time. The whole thing brings to mind Swiss psychologist Alice Miller’s 1979 book The Drama of the Gifted Child, which describes the damaging cycle in which parents, whose emotional needs were not met by their own parents, unconsciously require their children to step in and bridge the gap. To do so, particularly attuned children hide their true selves and present a false (a.k.a. good, lovable, acceptable) version, which mirrors their parents instead of vice versa.
Rachman not only details these relationships with relentless clarity and precision, he also explores deep questions about the nature of art, ambition, and value. Throughout, the novel interrogates the age-old question of how monetary value correlates with artistic worth, explored here through the fluctuating metrics applied to Bear’s paintings; the lack of value assigned to Natalie’s pottery; and, later on, the money paid for Pinch’s own efforts. (I can’t say more.) Rachman explores the broader question, too, of how much assessment—not just money, but opinion—has to do with art’s value. (Keep that question in mind as you read this very subjective review, will you?) Throughout, the characters not only evaluate their artistic creations in relation to others’ appraisals; they also reach moments of personal revelation—or maybe exactly the opposite—by suddenly “seeing themselves,” as though through others’ eyes: “With hideous clarity, Pinch sees himself: a pompous bore, a man he’d dislike.” Do other people’s opinions have anything to do with the value of our art? Do they have anything to do with the value of our selves?
But there is something hollow—cerebral and mathematical—about all of this depiction and interrogation. I read, I understood, I pondered, but I didn’t feel. I’m with Pinch’s friend Marsden: great art is a matter of sex, and sex is exactly what The Italian Teacher is missing. I don’t mean literal sex, of which there are some tepid descriptions. (“Pinch even engages in a few trysts with women whom Marsden introduces. These are affairs with boozy beginnings, sober endings.”) I mean urgency and desire. Propulsive energy. You know, emotion—if not rabidity. I’ve been watching a lot of Mozart in the Jungle lately. The sensual conductor, played by Gael García Bernal, yells over and over: “Play with the blood!” It’s what kept echoing through my mind as I read The Italian Teacher. Where is the blood?
I spent a long time thinking about what sapped this delicate portrayal of the blood. Some of it comes down to the language, which can verge on the diagnostic. At one point, when Pinch visits his mother in London, Rachman writes, “In less than an hour, they have regressed. While apart, each remembered their fondest version of the other. But the Natalie who wrote him loving letters is absent, replaced by the Natalie of hospital courtyards, hands shivering, struggling to pluck another cigarette from her pack, biting it out with her lips.” On the next page, “two days before departure, everything changes. They regress further still, becoming the best friends they were, perhaps are.” There is the flavor of the biographical about it, but biographical language is for books about real people. It does make a difference.
There is also a tendency to deescalate moments of tension instead of leaning into them. Moments of great drama somehow feel anti-climactic. “At first Natalie roared through a frenetic period of work, pulling overnighters at a pottery cooperative in North London, talking immodestly about her art—until, with crashing clarity, she saw herself: These pots were desperate, botched; she possessed nothing.” (There’s that theme again: self-perception; others’ eyes.) “Natalie struggled to sleep, grew paranoid, thin, smoking constantly. Once he came home to find her seated in the kitchen, a bread knife resting on her thigh. ‘Just need to go to bed for twenty-four hours,’ she said. ‘Then I’ll get on with things.’ Two days later, he watched her being led down a beige hospital hallway. Several spells in psychiatric wards followed.” I found myself coding the information I had been given—Natalie has now had a breakdown. She has now gone to psychiatric wards—without the attendant emotion. I ruefully called up the old “show, don’t tell” adage, but not in the way you might think: Rachman writes with rich and abundant detail. It’s the feelings underpinning these details that get lost.
The positioning of the narrator is also unclear. Several times, the narration veers away from the characters, regarding them with a weird sort of winking distance, even mockery: “Checking the master copy of that letter, Pinch sees with mortification that he professed himself ‘moist grateful’ for their consideration. And they moist certainly grant him none.” This, to me, felt like humor at the character’s expense. It was a little funny, but it mostly confirmed my own lack of investment in Pinch’s journey. If the narrator doesn’t have compassion for Pinch—if he’s going to mock Pinch for a laugh—then why would I?
Very early on, Rachman describes Bear Bavinsky’s “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.” This is a pleasure to read, inviting us to co-create Bavinsky’s artwork in our imaginations. But in the end, the description only highlights what the novel itself lacks. Bear’s “detail portraits are too intimate—uncomfortably penetrating despite never once including a subject’s face.” We get the face, here, in all its detail. It’s the intimacy we’re missing.
The Italian Teacher
by Tom Rachman
Published March 20, 2018
Tom Rachman is the author of two novels, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers (2014), and The Imperfectionists (2010), an international bestseller that has been translated into 25 languages. He lives in London.
Help the Chicago Review of Books and Arcturus make the literary conversation more inclusive by becoming a member, patron, or sponsor. Each option comes with its own perks and exclusive content. Click here to learn more.
Writer in New York City.