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Books Author Tom Rachman on his new work and the deification of artists

Tom Rachman's The Italian Teacher is to a large degree about what kind of waves an artist can leave in their wake.

Fred Lum

Tom Rachman emerges from the gift shop, into an Art Gallery of Ontario lobby that is downright teeming for a Tuesday afternoon. The masses are gathered, of course, for the Yayoi Kusama exhibition, the long-in-the-waiting blockbuster show that was kept Toronto lined up, physically and digitally, for the past several months. He studies the scene briefly, but is hardly fazed, weaving this flood of people into the point he was making.

“This show is a perfect example: [Kusama, the octogenarian Japanese artist] is an eccentric, fascinating person,” the Vancouver-raised, London-based novelist explains. “If her work had been done by a retiring, shy character who dressed in entirely average fashions and had no history of mental troubles and all the rest of this fascinating tale, how would we evaluate her work?

“We have this fantasy that we’re looking at the art, but it always gains a certain essence by having an extraordinary life behind it,” he continues. “If you talk to people working in the arts, they’ll often say, you know, ‘We’re telling a story.’ They’re not selling the painting: They’re selling everything wrapped up in it, and the more unorthodox and subversive and sometimes even villainous the character of the person creating it, the more attractive that story.”

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Rachman has taken his own stab at crafting an artist’s extraordinary life with his latest novel, The Italian Teacher. Although the title, and ostensibly the focus, of the book belong to Pinch Bavinsky, this main character is one of those classically beset types who is ultimately a supporting character in the story of his own life. The overwhelming force of the novel is Bear Bavinsky, Pinch’s father, an unruly, philandering, prickly hurricane of an expressionist painter, who over the course of the novel moves from countercultural genius to overlooked has-been and ultimately finds a place as a rediscovered, underappreciated member of the canon.

Excepting his sexual appetites – it is eventually discovered that he has fathered 17 children – Bear is heedless to more or less anything other than his muse and his assumed legacy. In one of the novel’s early scenes, Bear forces Pinch’s mother to remain posed at her pottery wheel for hours on end, as Pinch keeps replacing the needle on the jazz record Bear needs to keep blaring away to complete his artistic zone. As soon as the painting is complete, everyone else’s day bent to the whims of the genius, Bear deems it unworthy, shreds it and burns it in an oil drum – his way of ensuring that only the best of him will remain, once he’s finally gone to that great pantheon in the sky.

The Italian Teacher is to a large degree about what kind of waves a person like that leaves in their wake. It became a particularly poignant question for Rachman as he was considering having his own child, wondering just how compatible a life of creation and a life of domesticity really are. Though the only thing Rachman really shares with Bear Bavinsky is early success – his debut novel, The Imperfectionists, was a bona fide worldwide bestseller in 2010 – there is nevertheless a deep worry that something that takes so much of your focus and drive can leave little left for others.

“I think, in any circumstances, I would be living the kind of life that Philip Roth described as a writer’s life, which is you’re in a room with the door closed and – well, he said a typewriter, but I have a computer in front of me. But in any case, the existence of a writer in terms of their writing life is, and remains, entirely uninteresting.

Tom Rachman spent time wondering just how compatible a life of creation and a life of domesticity really are.

Fred Lum

“But, approaching the prospect of parenthood, I wanted to think hard about whether it was appropriate – whether my work would be destroyed by taking that step or, much more gravely, if a child could thrive in the light of the ferocious devotion of trying to make it in the arts. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t perhaps overlooking all of the leads and sacrifice that would be required for decency towards a vulnerable human being.”

Bear would then represent an extreme answer to that quandary: He moves through life as though everyone is there to serve him. Rachman does such a powerful job of dramatizing just what effect it can have on the people who surround you, it seems to inevitably tie into bigger questions.

Namely, though it is a decidedly more personal affair, the novel in its way shares some of the concerns of #MeToo-affiliated public debate about what sorts of behaviour we are willing to put up with from people who make art. As Rachman points out, Bear does not belong to the most noxious strain of bad behaviour, those people who are wielding the power of their celebrity to dominate the bodies and minds of those they deem lesser – yet he is undeniably poison to those closest to him.

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For instance, not only does Bear succinctly crush Pinch’s own dreams of being an artist, he refuses to even remember the incident, and ultimately berates his son as being little more than a caretaker for his legacy. It’s analogous to the behaviour of someone such as Picasso – who Bear claims to have feuded with – in that it’s not utterly monstrous, but more than enough to wreck the lives of almost everyone around him, as Rachman poignantly explores.

Though each individual case will shake our perceptions in its own way, for Rachman, one of the more fascinating angles is the fact that we are never actually capable of separating art and artist: “The fact that you suddenly can’t appreciate their work as much because it’s so tainted just shows how closely connected those two are,” he points out.

For him, it’s a sign that artists occupy a rarefied, nearly deified place in our world: not just that they produce things that change how we might look at it, but that their existence itself becomes somehow essential to the fabric of our lives. Their biographies, in their way, mean as much to us as anything else they might leave behind.

“In a mostly secular world, there’s still an urge to find saints,” he explains. We are by now wandering through the AGO’s European installations, the crowds crammed away near the elevators, the dark quiet giving way to walls full of beatific revelations, the angels and Virgins and biblical scenes that were, after all, the font from which Western art sprung.

“Many of the stories of great artists use the sort of language that would fit with a Catholic saint. They have a vision that in their lifetime, they go through all sorts of suffering, they don’t care about worldly concerns – all of that sort of stuff because they’re devoted to their calling, and they pursue that notwithstanding the indifference of the world.”

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