The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman
Engaging from the first page, this is a story with two main themes. Firstly, art and the art market – if this book were to have a subtitle, Fake or Fortune’ couldn’t be more apt, as in that BBC TV programme where art dealer Philip Mould with sidekick Fiona Bruce try to prove the provenance of paintings said to be by great artists to those cognoscenti who are the experts in said artists. However, secondly, the heart of the novel is the relationship between ‘Pinch’ and his father ‘Bear’.
Bear Bavinsky is a painter of reknown, a womaniser with a big personality, serial husband and father. His paintings are typically close-up portraits of a naked sitter’s hands or limbs, and any that aren’t perfect are consigned to an oil barrel to burn. The scarcity of his work is part of his appeal. His first son, however, is the opposite of Bear in temperament, and Bear rarely seems to have time for him.
Alas, he was detained by work this morning; couldn’t be avoided. Pinch understands. Natalie has explained how ever one of Dad’s brushstrokes is the intersection of him and that instant – the slightest interruption, and art is obliterated from the record. Nobody hates this bullying fact more than Dad himself, who’d rather be horsing around here.
Pinch’s mother Natalie, a potter, lived too long under Bear’s creative shadow despite being an excellent craftswoman. Pinch too has a talent for art, but the teenager’s hopes are dashed by taking something his father said, to mean that he was talentless, rather than constructive criticism in Bear’s ebullient style. It’s this misunderstanding that the rest of the novel revolves around, leading Pinch to a life of regret and an act of folly – or it it bravado – to prove his worth to his father.
Rachman has some great fun with the art market that reminded me of Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty (reviewed here), but where Martin’s satire plays it straight, Rachman goes for the funny bone. There was a scene in a gallery where Pinch was working at an exhibition by a talentless art school graduate who will be the next big thing:
Barrows asks, ‘Sorry, Temple, just to be clear, what do they teach?’
‘Well you can’t teach art. You either fake it. Or you fake it. Right?’
I enjoyed but wasn’t overwhelmed by Rachman’s second novel, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, (reviewed here), but in that book Rachman did create some memorable characters. Bear and Pinch are better still. The Italian Teacher is an exuberant novel, surprisingly funny but also capable of being touching, particularly in the sections between Pinch and his mother. I had hoped it might catch the eye of the Man Booker judges for their longlist, but that wasn’t to be. I heartily recommend it though. (9/10)