Tag Archives: father and son

Lovesong: Elizabeth Jolley

In Elizabeth Jolley’s darkly comic Lovesong  Dalton Foster has been “returned” to his former community. We know there are various officials involved in this ‘return’: some sort of rehabilitation centre, a prison, and “Grayhead” a prison officer. We also know that there’s been “repeated sessions of cure, rehabilitation it was called,” and that a “sentence and a cure in various institutions” have taken up half of Dalton’s life so far. So now, Dalton is back living in his old neighbourhood, just around the corner from his former home. There’s been some sort of arrangement, and he’s living in a drab boarding house, Mrs Porter’s Establishment “a Home away from Home for Homeless Gentlemen,” along with a motley assortment of lodgers: a completely potty piano teacher named Miss Mallow, Miss Emily Vales (who is always on the lookout for “Mr Right”), several painted young men who work as dancers in “the entertainment line,”  and two young men who live together–one a waiter with AIDS and TB and the other, a doorman who is “getting a bust.” 

lovesong

Dalton is alone, depressed, and let’s face: not all there.  He’s been offered a segue into so-called ‘normal life’ and society following his “cure,” through the patronage of a local family who happen to live in his old family home. He’s supposed to visit them upon occasion, but the mother, in loud telephone conversations to her sister, calls him the DP, the Displaced Person. During conditioning, the rehabilitation officer told Dalton about the need for “being sensible or being watchful,” yet Dalton is compulsively drawn to children. …

Life at Mrs Porter’s, “a houseful of discarded men and women,” is bizarre. It’s a “temple devoted to regret,” and there’s the spectacle of dear, departed Mr Porter’s hairball kept under a glass bell. Poor Dalton must wait for hours for the bathroom to be free, and he’s frequently pounced upon by the mad klepto Miss Mallow who repeatedly insists on showing him her incomprehensible references. Dalton is suspicious that Miss Vale, hunting for Mr Right, still recovering from thwarting an attempted kidnapping, is breaking into his room and reading his journals. Perhaps she is….

There’s a deep opacity to the novel. Things are seen through Dalton’s eyes, but he’s at best disturbed and damaged, at worst, deranged. He vacillates, unreliably, between the past and the present with flashes of his childhood, and it’s NOT a childhood that has been illuminated by later adult understanding.  The nomadic household was composed of his mother, his Aunt Dalton, and his father, named derisively Horsefly by his mother and aunt. What is going on between those two women as they shriek and intrigue, accompanied by the running joke that Horsefly is useless “The Excruciating Bore.”

“Like an officer’s boot, my dear,” Dalton’s mother screamed while they were dressing. “Like an officer’s thigh boot,” her voice intense with the pleasure of Aunt Dalton’s exquisite elegance resembling the handsome leg of a cossack, she said then, ‘”descending with virile intentions from his horse.” 

Dalton’s mother and Aunt refer mockingly to Horsefly as the Consul, but this is yet another way to humiliate the timid, gentle man who supports the family through hard, humiliating work.

“A Consul, yes” his mother would say, “but oh! why Trade of all things!” Her wailings were heard frequently from behind closed doors in either rented houses or the less fashionable hotels where they were often obliged to stay.

There are some sections which are notes taken on events within the boarding house, and in other sections depicting Mrs Porter and other guests, speech is written phonetically, so this may be a difficult novel for non-English readers.

I’ve read a few Elizabeth Jolley novels, and my favourite remains, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. Although we read blurbs of novels, reviews etc , it’s rare that we are unprepared for what’s inside the covers, but it’s always a wild ride with Elizabeth Jolley. There’s an eccentricity there that hovers dangerously close to madness. Jolley has a perceptive eye for irony, cruelty, and tragedy but laces it with human frailty and quirkiness. In Lovesong, it’s beyond eccentric, beyond quirky: it’s the Mad describing the Mad. Madness is the natural refuge for the human condition:

The last time he saw Aunt Dalton she was sitting up close to a horrible little plastic table banging a dish with a spoon and wearing a bib decorated with provocative slogans.

And kindness is the saving grace.

This novel is part of Lisa’s Elizabeth Jolley Week and also an entry in the Reading Australian Women Writers challenge.

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The Italian Teacher: Tom Rachman

Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher is a story of suppressed identity, reinvention, wasted talent, and a cynical look at the Art world told through the prism of a father-son relationship. While children of famous/wealthy parents may find doors opening that would be closed to the plebs, being the offspring of someone ‘great’ also brings its burden. It’s a curse to be the plain daughter of a beautiful actress, for example, and in Rachman’s book, it’s a  burden to be the son of the great American painter, Bear Bavinsky.

When the novel opens in 1955, middle-aged Bear is living with Natalie, a young artist whose medium is pottery. Together they have a 5 year-old child, Pinch (Charles) and are currently living in quasi-exile in Italy while Bear’s last family (wife and children) remain in America. Natalie and Bear’s story is a familiar one: awestruck young artist meets icon and sparks fly. But the relationship is harmful for Natalie and her work; there’s one incredibly painful scene when Natalie tries to work and the incredibly manipulative Bear is ‘struck’ by the urge to draw.  Bear is so intensely selfish, there’s room only for his ego, his needs, his demands. In another scene, they attend an art evening, and Natalie finds herself insulted and literally edged out by Bavinsky fans. Bear has a way of seeming to promote someone while he actually belittles them:

Bear reaches through the crowd, dragging Natalie to his side. “My miraculous wife, a serious talent in her own right,” he says. “Tell them, sweetheart.”

A mass of eyeballs turns to her.

“Now listen here, Bear,” someone interrupts. “You’ve simply got to tell us how…”

Nobody came to meet an unknown lady potter. They’re here for Bear Bavinsky, creator of expressionistic masterworks, wild colors crashing across each composition, a bare throat filling the huge canvas, or a roll of tummy fat, or a pricked shoulder. His detail portraits are too intimate–uncomfortably penetrating despite never once including a subject’s face. 

The novel follows the trajectory of Pinch’s life through childhood, youth, middle age and beyond. Pinch continually struggles to attain his father’s approval, subconsciously copying his mannerisms, and even his pipe smoking. As a husband and father, Bear always loses interest quickly, continually moving onto to fresh relationships. And as Bear burns through wife after wife, continually fathering children,  we see as the novel continues, Pinch’s struggles with his apparent lack-of-talent as an artist, loneliness, intimacy, sexuality, academia, etc.

Pinch makes a few significant relationships in his life, but they are all marred, in some way of another, by Pinch’s proximity to Bear. Bear’s reputation combined with his larger-than-life personality overshadow everything. At one point, teenaged Pinch, who’s been encouraged to paint by his mother, attends an art show in a rare moment with his father. Bavinsky spends the entire evening introducing his son as  “artist of tomorrow,” and yet ultimately ensures that his son will never paint again. Pinch, constantly seeking approval, moves from painting to a career in academia where, again, his whole focus is pleasing his father through a sad ambition to gain academic prestige and write the definitive Bear Bavinsky biography. While Pinch’s mother, back in London, is loving and supportive, she sinks into madness, and Pinch finds himself avoiding her, and there’s the nagging feeling that Natalie, who was discarded by Bear, has no value, and that Bear’s judgement is mirrored in her son.

The Italian Teacher is overwhelmingly sad. I rooted for Pinch to jettison his quasi-relationship with his monstrous father, strike out, change his name and have a life of his own without the legacy of his father lurking in the background. It’s up to the reader to decide whether or not Pinch triumphed in the end. Looking at some reviews, I see the complaint that Pinch is a sad, frustrating example of a wasted life. It’s true that I struggle with character passivity, so there were many times I wanted to knock some sense into Pinch. Ultimately, the book, for this reader, is a poignant cautionary tale about a man who spends a lifetime trying to please a father whose opinion is worth exactly nothing.

This is primarily Pinch’s story, but it’s also a rather ugly look at the Art world, and just what constitutes “great work.” Artists/writers/creators are often given free passes when it comes to their personal relationships. There’s always that argument that Art is a jealous mistress and any great creator cannot juggle a single-minded devotion to work along with the demands of a family. And while this may be true, nonetheless, Artist as Complete Shit when it comes to personal relationships is impossible to excuse.

Rachman’s book has the power to induce the reader to examine familial bonds in light of the fictional Bear-Pinch father-son fiasco. What constitutes a father-son relationshipHow much damage should anyone sustain before severing a close family relationship? At what point do we give up trying?

Review copy

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F by Daniel Kehlmann

Initially from German author Daniel Kehlmann seems to be something from a Woody Allen film, and that’s partly due to the insertion of the nebulous influences of a magician, but it’s also partly due to the dysfunctional family dynamics and the relationships between 3 male siblings–two are twins who are almost telepathically connected and yet vastly different from each other.

The book begins in 1984 with unemployed, would-be author Arthur, married to an ophthalmologist, taking his three sons to see a magician. There’s an immediate sense that Arthur is a slippery individual: an irresponsible disinterested father, husband, and human being, so it doesn’t seem too surprising to read that his oldest son, 13-year-old Martin, waits for over two hours for his father to show up for the outing or that it had been “fourteen years since he had tiptoed swiftly” out of Martin’s mother’s life. Martin’s step-brothers, Ivan and Eric, are identical twins who dress alike, are practically impossible to tell apart and “seem like an optical illusion.” And these early scenes set the tone for the novel in which chance, Fate, illusion, fabrication, and identity play large roles.

FArthur takes the boys to see The Great Lindemann: Master of Hypnosis, and since Arthur firmly believes that hypnosis doesn’t work on him, the choice to see the magician seems a little odd, but it’s a choice that indicates Arthur’s wish to stay always on the boundaries of life, skeptical, superior, and ready to slip out the back door if the feeling takes him. When Arthur is called up on the stage, a strange event occurs, which may or may not occur under hypnosis, and which acts as a lever to spring Arthur, yet again, from the domestic life he secretly despises. Abandoning his second family, he disappears to pursue a writing career.

No matter how often Martin thought back to that day, and no matter how much he tried to summon up that conversation from the shadows of his memory, he always failed. The reason was that he had imagined it too often before it took place, and the things they actually said to each other soon merged into the things he’d imagined so often over the years. Had Arthur really said that he didn’t have a job and was dedicating himself to thinking about life, or was it just that later, when Martin knew more about his father, he simply attributed this answer to him as the only one that seemed to fit? And could it be that Arthur’s answer to the question of why he had walked out on him and mother, was that anyone who gave himself over to captivity and the restricted life, to mediocrity and despair, would be incapable of helping any other human being because he would be beyond help himself, succumbing to cancer, heart disease, his life cut short, rot invading his still breathing body?

Arthur becomes a famous author, with his most memorable book being: My Name is No One. The book, which adds a meta-fictional aspect to the novel, with a main character known only as F provokes complicated  “theories” regarding its meaning, a “well-known radio talk-show host [who] voluntarily checked into a locked psychiatric ward after declaring on the air that he was convinced of his own nonexistence,” and instigates a “wave of suicides.” While Arthur more or less disappears and then reappears later in the book, his books and their meaning (if any) weave throughout the novel as the plot follows the subsequent careers of Martin, Ivan and Eric. Unable to make a living with his mastery of the Rubik’s Cube, Martin becomes a Catholic priest who munches bars of chocolate in the confessional. This section is hilarious, and poor obese Martin, unable to get a girlfriend, finds security in his identity as a priest, even though part of his job is to listen to the salacious details of the life of a chronic philanderer. Eric becomes an investment banker whose private life spirals out of control in conjunction with his professional malfeasance, and Ivan, an art historian becomes an art forger, manipulating the market as he bids on his own fakes. All of the sons are inauthentic in their own way–fakes, frauds, and a forger. Add to that the last name of all the male characters: Friedland, shaped by the example of a shifty irresponsible father, and it’s clear that F stands for a lot of things in this book, but more than anything else, F stands for Fate:

“Fate,” said Arthur. “The capital letter F. But chance is a powerful force, and suddenly you acquire a Fate that was never assigned to you. Some kind of accidental fate. It happens in a flash.

Each of the three sons narrate their own chapter on a particular day August 8, 2008, and these chapters are very funny indeed as we see how the three brothers have grown up, their lives intersect, and exactly what messes they’ve made of their lives. There’s a sense of both design (fate) and chaos here, as Ivan and Eric, in particular, attempt to scramble out of the webs of deceit they’ve created by their own Finagling. The chapter Family however is an exposition of genealogy, and it detracted from the novel overall. By the time this chapter appeared, it created not a diversion as much as a distraction. I wanted to return to the main characters.

F is a very clever, complex, Existentialist novel which asks some big questions about identity & the absurdity of life: how ‘Free’ are we (there’s that F again)? Can we escape our Fate? And how much does chance play a role in our lives? What of Family (role models & genetics)? F shows how Fate, Chance and Family all influence the lives we build for ourselves, but in the case of the males in the Friedland family, there’s equal emphasis on how these characters attempt to dig their way out of those messy lives.

There’s the sense, at times, that the author places Ivan and Eric under the microscope recording the absurdity of their actions as they scramble around attempting to disentangle themselves from the chaos their lives have become. Their father managed his quest for Self effectively by Abandonment: dumping his wife and children, and looting the bank account along the way in his quest for Self & the authentic life. Will his sons achieve the same? With its frantic energy and humour, F is funny & entertaining, and, for the most part the novel manages to juggle dense philosophical ideas well with plot; if you felt so inclined, you could probably write a paper on “Symbolism in F” or “Existentialism in F. Some readers may not enjoy the novel’s cleverness which at times seems to tug at the narrative and leaves the characters less than whole human beings and more ‘types.’ I appreciated the Woody-Allensque humour, the chaos, the absurdity, and the moral dilemmas everyone seems to ignore.

Review copy

Translated by Carol Brown Janeway

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