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The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman review – great art and monstrous selfishness | Books

In 2001, Marina Picasso published a memoir, Picasso: My Grandfather. “His brilliant oeuvre demanded human sacrifices,” she asserted bitterly, adding that “no one in my family ever managed to escape from the stranglehold of this genius. He needed blood to sign each of his paintings … the blood of those who loved him – people who thought they loved a human being, whereas they really loved Picasso.” The damage is well documented: Picasso’s second wife Jacqueline, his longtime muse and lover Marie-Thérèse Walter and his grandson Pablito all took their own lives. His son Paulo, Marina’s father, struggled with depression and died in 1975 from alcohol-related illness.

Does great art justify monstrous selfishness? Must the lovers and children crushed by the careless cruelties of genius accept their suffering as inevitable, even irrelevant? Can they ever claim their lives as their own? These are the questions at the heart of The Italian Teacher, Tom Rachman’s Costa-shortlisted third novel.

Bear Bavinsky (who disparages his “overpraised” rival Picasso as “that clown”) is a charismatic American artist of growing reputation in 1950s Rome. In his paint-splattered studio, where he lives in bohemian squalor with his young wife and son, he creates his “Life Stills”, huge, wildly coloured canvases portraying a single magnified detail of the female body, “a roll of tummy fat, or a pricked shoulder”, but never the subject’s face. Though he paints feverishly, Bear judges only a handful of the paintings he makes fit to keep. The rest he burns. He disdains private collectors in favour of galleries and museums who will put his work on public display. Of course his apparent indifference to commercial success only enhances his reputation. By the 80s Julian Schnabel is describing Bavinsky as “the greatest of the modern American greats”.

Rachman has terrific fun skewering the hyperbole and hypocrisies of the art world. While it is hardly virgin territory, he brings a shrewd eye and a knack for aphorism that lend his observations a satisfyingly sharp edge. “Popularity is a tan,” one dealer observes tartly. “It fades when out of the light.” Satire, however, is not his main business. Though Bear is the blazing sun around whom everyone in The Italian Teacher orbits, the novel’s protagonist is his son Charles, or, as Bear calls him, Pinch, after pinxtos, the little snacks served in Spanish bars. Pinch hero-worships his father and, like a snack, Bear swallows his son whole, feeding off his devotion and granting in return short bursts of attention cut with much longer periods of careless disregard. Pinch tries desperately not to mind. The work, he knows, must always come first. After Bear leaves for New York and a new wife, teenage Pinch, aching for his father’s approval, devotes himself to painting. His potter mother praises his talent but it is Bear’s brutally offhand dismissal that strikes home. “I gotta tell you, kiddo,” he tells Pinch. “You’re not an artist. And you never will be.”

A shattered Pinch turns to art history in the hope of writing Bear’s biography; when that plan stalls he takes a job as a teacher at a language school. His life shrinks, crushed between his yearning to live up to his father and the terror that he will end up like his increasingly unstable mother. Bear appears in his life in brief, bright, heart-breaking flashes, like a god or an avenging angel, smashing Pinch’s small certainties before vanishing again.

Pinch’s middle years are a study in neediness, disappointment and self-disgust: “With hideous clarity, Pinch sees himself: a pompous bore, a man he’d dislike.” While psychologically acute, this poses novelistic challenges Rachman appears at first not quite to meet. In its central third the novel slows to a crawl as Pinch limps through his lonely, colourless existence, unwilling to recognise his father’s monstrousness or admit his own collusion, unable to forge a convincing self of his own. Passively, unhappily, he sags into middle age. The plot, such as it is, sags too.

It seems a surprising miscalculation from a novelist of Rachman’s calibre until the book reaches its final climactic third and he delivers his sucker punch of a payoff. Against the odds, almost against his will, Pinch does something extraordinary, something that will ensure a complete reworking of the record and extract a kind of revenge that is both exhilarating and terrible. The final chapters recast both father and son in a different light, compelling us to revisit our assumptions, to look at them – and the novel itself – afresh. The satisfaction of the ending, and its moral ambiguity, underscore the impossibility of easy answers. Is the work all that matters? The critical and popular adulation that greeted the recent Picasso show at Tate Modern would seem to say that it is. But The Italian Teacher pushes us further. If success is at least as much about the artist as the work, and its value as much about the market as the artist, then what possible hope is there for authenticity?

Clare Clark’s In the Full Light of the Sun will be published by Virago in February. The Italian Teacher is published by Riverrun. To order a copy for £14.95 (RRP £16.66) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


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