Review: The Italian Teacher

rachmanSo, I’ve been reading books from netgalley more recently as part of this blog and I’ve enjoyed it.  The books have been good stories, well-written and constructed, even if written by lesser-known authors and put out by lesser-known houses.  I’ve had better luck with the non-fiction than the fiction, but I have enjoyed the fiction as well.

Having said that, there’s a gap–an order of magnitude gap, a richter scale gap–between those authors and someone like Tom Rachman, who is truly a master.  What’s more, the difference is immediately apparent, found upon reading the first sentence of a book like The Italian Teacher.  You don’t even have to think about it.  You feel it.  The characters just leap off the pages, you enter the room where they are,  you can feel it and smell it.

That’s not to put anyone down.  But that’s what we are dealing with.

I say that.

And yet it brings up one of the central themes of the book, which is about the life of the son of a great painter.   Much of the plot revolves around the issue of copies…and the ability of artistic taste-makers to make taste, and the inability of supposed experts to tell the real from a fake and then, finally, the question of who cares and what difference does it make?

Which leads me to wonder if I had been told The Optimistic Decade was written by Tom Rachman and The Italian Teacher by Heather Abel, would all of these have reviewed by any different?

I don’t think so, but no one ever does.

We went to an exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts once that revealed the times that the DIA had been fooled by forgeries.   The surprising thing is that it is not that uncommon.

This is no surprise.  Wine experts can’t tell wines without the label, people prefer brands based solely on perception and surely we rely on cues like reviews and recommendations to pick our favorite authors.  That’s why myth exists–to help narrow the world down for us.

The main character shares this epiphany near the end of the book:

“Why is that leaf so beautiful?  Why does one thing contain beauty and another doesn’t?  The park, it overwhelms me.”  (He says “park” but means “back garden.”)  Almost makes me cry to look out that window.  But those concrete flats over the fence actually make me furious.  Not that nature is better than artifice.  Art is artifice.  Sorry, what was the question?”

And of course, that’s what is right.  Art is artifice and so is literature.  It is a representation, and yet it maintains a hold on us, sometimes to the point that we forget to see the world around us.

Note, also, the powerful irony of the parenthetical clause.  The fact that we’re talking about artifice and myth and labeling and in the character’s state, he’s actually using the “wrong” word to describe the garden.  That’s a very strong use of a layered detail.

There seems to be an uptick in people writing about art in fiction, but maybe that’s just my perception (once you start, you can’t stop).

Here’s the thing.  I never understood why the experience of seeing a copy of the Mona Lisa is different from the experience of seeing the Mona Lisa.  I know the copy is just a copy, but are not all the visual cues the same?  And, I know this makes me a heathen.  Still, I occasionally go on Google Art and look at paintings from museums from around the world.  That’s on a screen.  Is that the same?

Just to say this.  Strip away whatever you like.  Add whatever you like.  The Italian Teacher is a great story that is told as well as it can be.  Its flow is so natural.  Bad news just shows up, unexpected, as it does in life.  The characters are just great and in a couple of cases unforgettable.  Everyone one of them is flawed and yet laudatory.  This book is a pleasure to read.

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