Tom Rachman’s new novel, The Italian Teacher, narrates the mostly hapless life of Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky. An Italian teacher at a Berlitz-like London language school, Pinch holds a PhD in art history, has lived in several countries, adores his two tiny dogs, has back problems, has been in love, is once divorced, keeps a few friends. But what defines his life more than any of this is the mixed blessing of his famous father—and all the anger, jealousy, longing, and grief that father creates.
Pinch is the son of Bear Bavinsky, a modernist painter routinely compared to Picasso. Bear is a figure of Hemingway proportions, all dominance and machismo. If he finishes a painting he doesn’t like, he burns the canvas in an oil barrel. He parties; he cheats; preoccupied with his legacy, he obsesses about it with his son on the phone, insisting that Pinch is the only one of his children he can trust. But of course, the father also disapproves of the son—and the son is marred forever by that disapproval. The paternal motives are not exactly benign. When the teenage Pinch nervously unrolls a canvas he’s been working on—a close-up of a leg, modeled on Bear’s own series of “Life Stills”—Bear peers at it, then pronounces judgment. “I got to tell you, kiddo. You’re not an artist. And you never will be.”
Predictably, pathetically, Pinch spends most of his life trying to rebut that harsh verdict, to make his father proud. Aspiring to write his father’s scholarly biography, defending him to dealers and journalists, he even does his art-history dissertation on Caravaggio, Bear’s favorite artist. (Bear never reads it, not even the dedication.) Bear is a master of casual cruelty and humiliation, even attempting to paint Pinch’s girlfriend in the nude; when she later leaves Pinch, she takes a parting shot: “It’s hard for me to respect a grown man who acts like a worshipful little boy around his father.” Pinch himself doesn’t seem to disagree. Mired in disappointment, morose about his teaching job, he recognizes himself as “a pompous bore, a man he’d dislike.”