Sad Sack

Tom Rachman
The Italian Teacher, by Tom Rachman (Viking, 352 pp., $27)

Tom Rachman made a spectacular entrance onto the American literary scene in 2010 with his novel The Imperfectionists. It concerned an international, English-language newspaper published in Rome from 1953 to 2007. Americans who traveled in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s might have recognized the Herald-Tribune as a model for the paper. Individual chapters, most of which could have stood alone as short stories, relate the fortunes of the unconventional, disparate characters around whom the publication of a newspaper takes place: the obituarist, the business reporter, the copy and news editors, French and Egyptian stringers, the chief financial officer, the publisher, and even a devoted reader. These chapters are told in the present tense, against the background of world events of 2007; each of them is followed by a shorter, parallel story relating the trajectory of the paper’s fortunes, from its founding by an American sugar-refinery millionaire at the beginning of the Cold War to its final days as a cash-starved operation eventually put out of business by a family-run board in 2007. The book was a great read, charming and bittersweet at the same time, and has been translated into dozens of languages.

Rachman appears drawn to the notion of life cycle. His second novel, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (2014), follows the life of the whimsically named Tooly Zylberberg from 1988 to 2011, although not consecutively, and careens from Wales to Thailand, New York, and Ireland. (The title is ironic, because great powers and world events form only the vaguest background.) The Italian Teacher likewise employs the life-cycle theme, which is underlined by most of the sections into which the novel is divided — “Childhood,” “Youth,” “Adulthood,” “Old Age” — and by the fact that individual chapters are often headed by a place and a year (beginning with “Rome, 1955”).

In part, The Italian Teacher returns to what made The Imperfectionists so successful, with the American art world forming something resembling an institutional background. The life cycle here concerns two characters: Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky and his father, the monumentally selfish artist Bear Bavinsky. We first meet them in Bear’s studio in Rome in 1955, when Pinch is five and Bear is 40 or so. Bear is a hearty, larger-than-life, hail-fellow-well-met figure whose paintings from the late 1940s were considered “expressionistic masterworks.” In 1953, Life magazine called him “tomorrow’s action painter,” conjoining “twentieth-century dynamism with classical forms.” Such encomia rested on an early series of “Life-Stills,” oversized portraits of body parts.

There are two ways to evaluate The Italian Teacher. One is by its story, which is an affecting one of a father–son relationship, against a background formed by a deliciously irreverent portrait of the contemporary art scene, in particular the various venalities at play when money and the au courant converge. By 1955, Bear has turned his back on this scene and become protective of his productions, to the point that, as the decades come and go, he refuses to release new works because he fears they will undermine his reputation for greatness. And we are talking about Greatness with a capital “G”: Bear appears to be an artist who cannot accept anything less.

Over the course of the novel, while it is reputed that he keeps only paintings that he deems worthy and destroys the rest, the early works and his reputation go into and out of fashion among the cognoscenti. No one, but no one, not even his many children from six wives, is ever allowed to enter his studio or to see what he is working on. Pinch is his father’s chosen deputy for protecting his “legacy,” a choice that determines — or, better, undermines — the course of Pinch’s life. It would be unfair to give away what Bear has been producing during the decades in the wilderness. Suffice it to say that The Italian Teacher ends with a sweet revenge, crafting in the process a satisfying con game implicating collectors, dealers, art journalists, and even the most venerated museums.

The second way to evaluate The Italian Teacher is by the way its author handles the narration of his story. It is not until over halfway through the novel that the contours of a plot emerge, and, for this reader, it was a slog getting to that point. If Tooly Zylberberg was an ordinary, unremarkable fictional creation, Pinch is, in his own estimation, “an insubstantial man.” By way of comparison, even the losers in The Imperfectionists are vibrant characters. Perhaps Rachman believes that covering a lot of ground, geographically, establishes character. This is far from true.

The Imperfectionists excelled at showing how people do things — for instance, writing a headline or compiling the background for an obituary — but in The Italian Teacher, Rachman rarely takes time to flesh out a scene: It is one darned thing after another. I was never convinced of son Pinch’s painting skills, while dinners in southern France are so much duck pâté with baguettes and bad red wine.

Before his death in London in 2011, in a life that includes lessons in Toronto, southern France, and even Larchmont, N.Y., Pinch progresses from being a sad, neglected child to being a sad sack. Despite graduate studies in art history and what we are to assume are his own considerable painting skills, all his efforts are subverted by his father. Even his desires for love end in humiliating failure, and the height of his professional achievement is that of Italian teacher at a private language school. He does make a couple of friends along the way, both of whom are astute at assessing Bear’s monstrosity, but Pinch remains trapped by his father’s aura. (I can’t help wondering to what extent Rachman was influenced by Daniel Kehlmann’s 2014 novel F, at least two elements of which — a distant, selfish father and the contemporary art market — seem echoed in The Italian Teacher.)

In his three novels to date, Rachman has displayed a fondness for the types of people who thrive best overseas, their lives running parallel but scarcely converging with those of the natives among whom they reside year after year. Like the subjects of these novels, many of us today also come originally from elsewhere. But Rachman has not done himself a favor by departing from the single, well-defined, circumscribed milieu of The Imperfectionists in favor of a sprawling canvas. He should have taken a lesson from Bear Bavinsky, who wasted his life struggling not to build on his early successes. For writers as well, there is no shame in returning to one’s artistic roots.

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