The Meaningful Life

The Italian Teacher   Tom Rachman     (2018)

You may have run into someone like the fictional painter Bear Bavinksy: talented, brash, egotistical, smart, selfish, mercurial, ribald, cruel, a bear of a man. Unless you’re prepared to spar on his level, it’s best to steer clear of characters like Bear. But if he’s your father, you have to deal.

In this thoughtful novel, Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky is the son who lives in Bear Bavinsky’s shadow. Pinch is one of the many children whom Bear fathers by numerous wives and mistresses over a long career in the twentieth century. (The total—and startling—number of children is not revealed until Bear’s funeral.) In Pinch’s childhood, Bear abandons the boy and his mother, a ceramicist named Natalie, in Italy. Pinch puts together a life for himself, going to college in Canada with the financial assistance of his maternal grandmother. He suspects that he may have artistic talent, like both his parents, but Bear quashes his hopes. Pinch ends up teaching Italian in London, always seeing his life as much lesser than that of his father, whom he worships. I don’t think that “worship” is too strong a verb here.

Within the narrative of The Italian Teacher, centered on this fraught father-son relationship, Rachman is pursuing the theme of how to have a meaningful life. For decades, Pinch views his life and his work as insignificant because he’s not an internationally renowned artist. “To succeed as an artist demands such a rare confluence of personality, of talent, of luck—all bundled into a single life span. What a person Dad was! Pinch decided that perhaps he himself had ability too, but this was insufficient. He lacked the personality. The art world was always beyond him.” (273-4)

Pinch mourns his mother’s lack of fame also: “She was disregarded, and will remain forever so, among the billions whose inner lives clamor, then expire, never to earn the slightest notice.” (151) Can persons with great talent, in any field of endeavor, be fulfilled even if they don’t receive the acclaim of the establishment in that field? What if they don’t have the stomach for the political machinations necessary for career building? Can they construct rewarding lives solely through quiet, solitary pursuit of their artistic or intellectual goals, with internal gratification? Rachman considers these questions from many angles, and he allows his character Pinch to struggle to find answers, as Pinch also struggles to free himself from the domination of his father’s personality and reputation.

Toward the end of the book, Pinch takes up painting after years of artistic inactivity. "Pinch raises  his brush, leans forward on the balls of his feet, floorboards creaking. From the corner of his eye: all these painterly tools, a kaleidoscope of colors, his companions. Is that tragedy? That the peaks of my life are entirely inside? Other people—those I so craved—mattered far less than it seemed. Or is this what I pretend?" (309-310)

Read this novel with care, savoring the development of Rachman’s characters and his attention to identifying those “peaks” in life.

Kids in 1930s Australia

The Strays     Emily Bitto     (2014/2017)

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This mesmerizing novel from Emily Bitto, first published in Australia in 2014, is now available in the United States. Set in Melbourne, The Strays is the first-person narrative of Lily, who finds a fast friend in Eva when they meet as children in third grade. It’s 1930, and the worldwide Great Depression has led to downward economic mobility for Lily’s family. She’s a friendless only child of conventional parents, so she jumps at the chance to become one of “the strays” taken in by Eva’s parents, Evan and Helena Trentham.

Lily’s parents don’t have a clue what they are exposing their daughter to when they allow Lily to spend increasing amounts of time with Eva and her two sisters. The Trentham household is unusual, to put it mildly. Evan Trentham is a modernist painter in a society that prizes more traditional art. He breaks with convention in other ways, too, for example by walking around the house nude and by squatting to defecate on the patio in full view of his family and Lily. Helena is a frustrated artist whose inherited wealth keeps the Trenthams afloat. Evan and Helena are terrible parents, by any standards, seldom attending to the basic needs of their three daughters. The young girls have to scrounge in the kitchen to find minimal food to eat, but they have ready access to alcohol and marijuana.

Yet Lily is entranced by the Trenthams, their huge old house, and their overgrown gardens. She’s especially besotted with Eva, in what she calls “that first chaste trial marriage between girls.” (55) Novelist Bitto’s descriptions of the girls’ closeness are striking: “I felt giddy as we walked arm in arm to the train station, playing our usual game, involving one of us attempting to walk in time with the other, while the other tried to avoid being walked in time with. This led to such a strange, hopping, arrhythmic gait that we always ended up laughing hysterically, pulling on each other for support and lurching all over the pavement. Some of the other girls in our class aimed disdaining glances at us as they passed on their way to the station, but this pleased us.” (81)

Alas, the situation gets out of hand when Evan and Helena invite several young modernist artists to move in with them, creating a kind of commune. The sexual liaisons of the artists are not described in detail, because we’re hearing the story from Lily, who is a young innocent. “There was a darkness that fluttered at the edges of my feeling, a tiny trace of rot on the jasmine-scented air, aroused by these rumors of sex that wafted toward us on our chaste couch-back; but I swatted them away.” (102) Several shocking crises ensue, and Lily leaves the Trentham household permanently at the age of fifteen.

The Strays is set up in four sections, with the first and last sections set in 1985 and the middle two sections set in the 1930s, as Lily’s memoir, after a fashion. The language in these two middle sections is particularly rich in imagery: “The light in the foggy kitchen window was a deep blue. The jagged leaves of geranium pressed against the glass were coral, and we were staring out into deep water from some sunken domestic bathysphere.” (155)

I have a couple of very minor complaints about this novel. The ages of the characters don’t quite square with the timeframes (1930s and 1985). And the transitions in the last section of the book are somewhat ragged, as Lily goes back and forth in time, filling us in on the years between her childhood and her late middle age. But this piercingly moving story about loneliness and friendship and the choices we make is a winner.

For other historical novels set in Australia, try The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman and The Golden Age by Joan London.