Tom Rachman is on a roll. Two acclaimed novels and an excellent book of short stories about Trump’s America, all in a few years. Now comes The Italian Teacher, a novel about modern art and a dysfunctional family over 50 years. This is Rachman’s best novel yet. No mean achievement.
It begins in Rome in 1955. Charles (known affectionately as Pinch) is the son of two artists, Bear Bavinsky and his wife Natalie. Bear is an American painter, from that famous post-war generation of Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning. He’s “the archetype of an immoral Greenwich Village artist”, a creature of appetites.
By the end of the novel, he’s been through six marriages and fathered 17 children, most of whom he treats with cruel indifference.
Some people put a little sauce on the side of their meat. Bear “deluged his meat” with sauce. When he’s offered a plate of cookies he “grabs three”. Everyone else speaks. He “hollers”. He has an ego the size of the Guggenheim.
If you have seen Dustin Hoffman as the monstrous Harold Meyerowitz in The Meyerowitz Stories, you know what we’re dealing with. Bear, though, makes Meyerowitz look like an amateur megalomaniac.
Natalie, Pinch’s mother, is “an unknown lady potter”, insecure and unsure of her talent. She is definitely a one-cookie woman, no match for Bear with his monstrous ego.
In the middle is Pinch, their only child. The novel follows him from boyhood to old age.
He spends his life in the shadow of his overbearing father, desperate for his approval, or even his attention.
These are some of the best moments of the book. He, too, wants to be an artist, but has he got his father’s talent and personality?
The Italian Teacher increasingly becomes a story of three artists. Who will make it? Who will be great?
But it also asks larger, interesting questions about modern art. How do artists cope with rejection? And, above all, does anyone know what really makes a great artist? Art writers, dealers, academics — do any of them know great art when they see it?
But the most interesting story-line is about families. How do children deal with self-obsessed fathers like Bear?
The book is full of jaw-dropping moments when Bear’s ego leaves every one reeling in his wake.
He is one of the great creations of contemporary literature, full of destructive energy, always out of control.
This is an exciting new direction for Tom Rachman, who is fast becoming one of the most interesting literary talents around.
David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer