Tim Parks Essay - Critical Essays

Parks, Tim

Introduction

Tim Parks 1954-

(Full name Timothy Harold Parks; has also written under pseudonym John MacDowell) English novelist, translator, essayist, memoirist, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Parks's career through 2000.

Parks has established a respected literary career with a series of well-received novels, including Loving Roger (1986), Shear (1994), and Europa (1997). His witty, tragi-comic novels—which explore the strained relationships and obsessions that abrade families, lovers, and unbalanced individuals—are marked by their deftly controlled characterizations and dramatic tension. Parks has also been lauded for his increasingly complex use of literary techniques, including interior monologues and multi-voiced epistolary writing. An expatriate author, Parks moved to Italy long before he achieved literary success, working as an English-language teacher and translator. Parks has produced several well-regarded translations of works by respected Italian authors including Italo Calvino and Alberto Moravia. His original works have drawn considerable inspiration from his life as a British transplant in Italy. Parks's novels, particularly the memoir Italian Neighbors: or, A Lapsed Anglo-Saxon in Verona (1992), often call upon his experiences with various careers and his relationships in the community of expatriates to form the backdrop of his stories.

Biographical Information

Born in Manchester, England, Parks was the youngest of three children and was raised in an evangelical Anglican family. His father was a charismatic clergyman, described by Parks as “an intelligent man's Billy Graham.” The religious beliefs of his parents, along with family tensions caused by Parks's rebellious older brother, served as the background for Parks's first novel, Tongues of Flame (1985). Parks earned an undergraduate degree with honors from Cambridge University in 1977, and a master's degree from Harvard two years later. Finding academic life at Harvard stifling, Parks abandoned further graduate study and worked for a year at the Boston public radio station WGBH. Parks then returned to England, where he worked as a telephone salesperson. In 1981, he relocated to Italy with his wife, Rita Baldassarre, whom he married in 1979. The couple took up residence in Verona, where Parks began working as a teacher and later as a freelance translator and lector at the University of Verona. After the manuscript of Parks's first novel, Tongues of Flame, was rejected by numerous agents and publishers, he entered it in the Sinclair Prize competition. The book was chosen as a runner-up and was subsequently published by a British press that had previously turned it away. Tongues of Flame went on to receive the Betty Trask Award and Somerset Maugham Award in 1986, establishing Parks's reputation as a promising new talent. Parks's second novel, Loving Roger, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1986.. Parks lives with his wife and three children in Italy.

Major Works

Parks's first novel, Tongues of Flame, is narrated by fifteen-year-old Richard, the son of a vicar in a moneyed London parish. Richard witnesses the rebellion of his older brother, Adrian, who has reaped the pleasures of the 1968 counterculture. Richard, who is in the midst of adolescence, is divided between his father's traditional morality and his brother's rejection of it. The delicate détente established by the family is broken by the arrival of an evangelical curate into the parish. Caught up in the new curate's religious crusade, the parishioners, who now claim to speak in tongues, focus their spiritual fervor on Adrian. The heretofore neutral Richard tries to rescue Adrian from an exorcism by resorting to arson, but, in turn, only aggravates the situation further. The technique of using a first-person narrator is again employed in Parks's second novel, Loving Roger. The novel follows Anna, a young typist, who begins a relationship with Roger Cruikshank, an office executive and aspiring writer. While Roger superficially resembles the heroes of the romance novels Anna reads, his selfish and cruel nature reveals itself when Anna becomes pregnant and Roger deserts her. The novel opens with Anna stabbing Roger to death. The reasons behind the murder are then explored through Roger's prosaic diary entries and Anna's interpretations of them. In Parks's next two novels, epistolary formats take the place of first-person narrators, providing the author with the opportunity to use multiple voices. Home Thoughts (1987) centers on Julia Delaforce, who leaves her job in London to teach English as a second language in Verona. Having fled an affair with a married man, she exchanges letters with him and writes of him in her letters to others. Julia quickly loses her new job, leaving her among a group of unhappy British expatriates in a milieu of temporary jobs and shallow friendships. Letters between characters are again used to provide multiple points of view in Family Planning (1989). The story follows the Baldwin family, consisting of the parents and their four grown children. Each family member selfishly denies his or her responsibility to Raymond, their schizophrenic older brother. After their father runs away to Algeria and their mother is beset with insanity, the Baldwins begin a back-and-forth correspondence, arguing over family assets and blaming each other for the problems of their family. Parks's next novel, Cara Massimina (1990), is a comic thriller in which Morris Duckworth, an English teacher, devises a plot to advance socially when he meets a wealthy young woman named Massimina, nicknamed Mimi. Jealous of her family’s wealth and social standing, Duckworth decides to kidnap Mimi and ransom her to her parents. He begins travelling around Italy with the unwitting Mimi, leaving her briefly to return home to assist Mimi’s family and the police in their investigation. Morris begins to fall in love with Mimi, but when she sees a television report about her abduction, he is forced to kill her and dump her body into the sea. The novel's darkly comedic tone continues in its sequel, Mimi's Ghost (1995), which finds Morris marrying Mimi's sister and becoming part of their family's wine business. However, Morris is frequently visited by the ghost of Mimi, who speaks to him through his cellular phone and acts as his spiritual advisor. In Goodness (1991), protagonist George Crawley struggles to deal with the birth of a severely handicapped daughter. When unsuccessful surgery further complicates his daughter's condition, Crawley must cope with the moral and ethical dilemmas surrounding a life that is no longer happy or fulfilling. The psychological thriller Shear centers on geologist Peter Nicholson, who takes his mistress on a working vacation to a Mediterranean island. Once he arrives on the island, Peter's life quickly becomes complicated—the widow of a quarry worker arrives, plotting revenge for her husband's suspected murder; Peter has an affair with his translator, whose father is trying to control the emerging murder conspiracy; and Peter's wife informs him that she's pregnant, while threatening to have an abortion if he fails to respond positively to the news. Italian Neighbors is a nonfiction work about Parks's time living in continental Europe, in which he views his own neighborhood as an eccentric community and describes Italy as a land of paradoxes. The memoir's sequel, An Italian Education: The Further Adventures of an Expatriate in Verona (1995), continues Parks's exploration of his adopted land, discussing his eventual feelings of acceptance and further involvement in Italy's day-to-day life. In the novel Europa, Parks returns to the subject of teaching English as a second language. Framed by the interior monologue of forty-five-year-old teacher Jerry Marlowe, Europa follows Jerry and his fellow teachers as they travel to the European Parliament at Strasbourg to protest discriminatory working conditions. (They believe Italian schools give preferential treatment to teachers who are Italian.) Jerry, however, is more interested in his former mistress than his employment situation, and spends the rest of the novel obsessing about her. Destiny (2000) is also structured around an interior monologue. The narrator is Christopher Burton, a famous writer, who, while staying at a hotel in London, learns that his schizophrenic son has committed suicide. The death of Burton's son provides him with the opportunity to finally put distance between himself and his aristocratic Italian wife. The novel follows Burton over a three-day period as he makes a difficult journey from Heathrow to Turin to retrieve his son's body, then on to Rome, where the funeral will be held. During this time, the reader has access to Burton's troubled mind as he reflects on his marriage, the lives of his adopted son and daughter, and his career. Parks has also released a collection of essays, Adultery and Other Diversions (1999), consisting of thirteen pieces, the first and last of which focus on the subject of adultery. The other essays revolve around Parks's various recollections of journeying by car, his father's death, memories of ghosts, and living in Europe. In addition to his prose, Parks has also produced several translations of Italian-language works, including novels by Calvino and Fleur Jaeggy, and Robert Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.

Critical Reception

Reviewers have found Parks to be both an adept and an entertaining commentator on the flawed nature of relationships. Parks confronts his often ordinary characters with challenging situations and examines how their responses are shaped by environment and experience. With his first novel Tongues of Flame, Parks caught the attention of critics, who praised his concise and clear prose. In particular, the exorcism at the novel's climax was praised for offering a surprising twist to the usual coming-of-age story. Critics continued to applaud Parks’s technical mastery in his subsequent works, calling his writing both comic and ambiguous. Impressed with the multiplicity of viewpoints afforded by Parks's epistolary technique, reviewers have responded positively to the increasing range of voices presented in his work. While the prose in Parks's early works was appreciated for its clarity, his later works—most notably Destiny—have received mixed reviews for their disjointed, paratactic style.

Principal Works

Erotic Tales [by Alberto Moravia; translator] (short stories) 1985

Tongues of Flame (novel) 1985

Loving Roger (novel) 1986

The Voyeur [by Alberto Moravia; translator] (novel) 1986

Home Thoughts (novel) 1987

Indian Nocturne [by Antonio Tabucchi; translator] (novella) 1988

Family Planning (novel) 1989

Cara Massimina [also published as Juggling the Stars, 1993] (novel) 1990

The Edge of the Horizon [by Antonio Tabucchi; translator] (novel) 1990

Journey to Rome [by Alberto Moravia;...

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Criticism

Jo-Ann Goodwin (review date 17 October 1986)

SOURCE: “Ordinary Anguish,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 17, 1986, p. 1168.

[In the following review, Goodwin offers a positive assessment of Loving Roger.]

[In Loving Roger] Anna is a typist at TT, remarkable only for her ordinariness. She lives with her parents, who remain deep in mourning for her brother, Brian, killed in a car crash years ago. Anna's feelings are important to no one but herself. She remains cramped into a tiny box room, Brian's spacious bedroom next door maintained by her parents as a shrine. Her boyfriend, Malcolm, whom she has been seeing since the third year at school, digs up worms from her parents’ garden to use for fish...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

Michael J. Carroll (review date 24 January 1988)

SOURCE: “The Love-Death of a Typesetter,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 24, 1988, p. 3.

[In the following review, Carroll offers a favorable assessment of Loving Roger.]

“Roger lay on my new blue rug in the corner by the television and the lamp that seemed like it always had the funny orange bubbles rising in it that he hated. But I went to work just as usual.”

Thus begins Loving Roger: Anna at work; Roger lying dead back in her bed-sitter. Anna will do no work today; she will tell us of her affair with Roger, her lover of two years, the father of her child.

In telling this story of love to the death,...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

David Teagle (review date Summer 1988)

SOURCE: A review of Loving Roger, in Antioch Review, Vol. 46, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 390–91.

[In the following review, Teagle offers a positive assessment of Loving Roger.]

This second novel [Loving Roger] by British author Tim Parks opens nonchalantly with a domestic murder, and then winds backwards to examine with careful detail the events that led up to this rather passionless crime of passion. Anna, a typical, ordinary woman who works in a mediocre job as an anonymous secretary and lives with her parents in the shadow of her revered dead brother, falls in love with Roger, a gregarious co-worker with aspirations of being a playwright. The two begin...

(The entire section is 318 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 16 October 1988)

SOURCE: “Naked Tea,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 16, 1988, p. 3.

[In the following review, Eder offers a generally positive assessment of Home Thoughts, which he compares to the fiction of Kingsley Amis.]

“Evasion is paid for” is the moral of Tim Parks’ deceptively blithe novel about a gaggle of British expatriates living, scheming, gossiping and partner swapping in Verona.

In a sense, Home Thoughts is a second-generation Kingsley Amis novel. Its characters are seedy and comical; their intellectual poses mask a schoolboy greediness; their civility is a coat tattered by their own prickles.

In his...

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Peter Reading (review date 26 May–1 June 1989)

SOURCE: “Embracing Lunacy,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 26–June 1, 1989, p. 592.

[In the following review, Reading offers a favorable evaluation of Family Planning.]

Frank Baldwin has retired from his job as site-manager for a construction company after years of occupational globe-trotting. He and his wife Brenda are flying home from his last assignment in Algiers to their neglected property on the Lancashire coast, where they intend to settle. With them is their son Raymond. But something is amiss. “Smiling and as if addressing a tiny child, she held a finger over her lips in the direction of this hefty young man her eldest son.” Raymond is a maniac....

(The entire section is 632 words.)

Nicholas Clee (review date 30 August 1991)

SOURCE: “The Murderous Era,” in Times Literary Supplement, August 30, 1991, p. 19.

[In the following review, Clee offers a positive assessment of Goodness.]

Tim Parks's sixth novel [Goodness] (one was written under a pseudonym) returns to a subject he has explored in earlier books: that of mania lurking just below the surface of suburban lives. Goodness is also the second work of fiction published this year, following Michael Dibdin's Dirty Tricks, to suggest that Thatcherite individualism may contain the seeds of murderous ruthlessness.

George Crawley believes himself to be a good man, and his wife, despite having received a...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Tim Parks with Michele Field (interview date 6 July 1992)

SOURCE: “Tim Parks: The Novelist, an English Expatriate in Italy, Takes a Look at His Neighbors in His First Nonfiction Book,” in Publishers Weekly, July 6, 1992, pp. 35–36.

[In the following interview, Field provides an overview of Parks's life, career, his beginnings as a writer, and his experiences in Italy as recounted in Italian Neighbors.]

“I'd always sworn I wouldn't write a corny book about Italy,” declares Tim Parks. “After all, am I a novelist or am I a novelist?”

He is a novelist. However, Parks also belongs to another old and honored breed: that of expatriate author. And this second calling has led him, indirectly, to write...

(The entire section is 2019 words.)

Christopher Bray (review date 4 September 1993)

SOURCE: “Sermons in Stones,” in Spectator, September 4, 1993, p. 27.

[In the following review, Bray offers a positive assessment of Shear.]

A novel about an adulterous English geologist doesn't sound much like a sizzler, but just try putting Tim Parks's Shear down. I would have read it at a sitting were it not for part of the North London Electricity Grid going haywire one evening. Middle-brow fiction doesn't come better than this. The book has many of the ingredients of the thriller: the woman on the vengeance trail, the seductively enigmatic foreigner, the fat and overbearing politician (wonderfully sketched in two lines of dialogue), above all the...

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Nicholas Wroe (review date 10 September 1993)

SOURCE: “Following the Fault-lines,” in Times Literary Supplement, September 10, 1993, p. 21.

[In the following review, Wroe offers a positive assessment of Shear.]

Tim Parks is a versatile writer. In addition to translations of Calvino, Moravia and Calasso, he writes for the trade journal of the Association of Italian Stone Machine Manufacturers. In Shear, his sixth novel, the strands of his literary career come together in a powerful and impressive work.

Peter Nicholson is a geologist, sent by his London office to investigate a quarry on a Mediterranean island for his Australian clients. There is a dispute with the quarry owners, and...

(The entire section is 601 words.)

Frank Kermode (review date 4 November 1993)

SOURCE: “Dangerous Faults,” in London Review of Books, November 4, 1993, p. 24.

[In the following positive review of Shear, Kermode discusses the development of Parks's fiction in Loving Roger and Goodness, as well as praising his gift for “ventriloquy” and his ability to combine genres in Shear.]

This is Tim Parks's sixth novel. He has also done some serious translation—Moravia, Calvino, Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony—and written a lively book about his life in Italy. And now, by way of explaining the highly technical lexicon of Shear, he tells us in an Author's Note that he did ‘years of work for the...

(The entire section is 2111 words.)

Jonathan Yardley (review date 10 July 1994)

SOURCE: “When the Earth Moved,” in Washington Post Book World, July 10, 1994, p. 3.

[In the following review, Yardley offers a positive assessment of Shear.]

In the highest and most laudable sense of the term, the British novelist Tim Parks is a professional writer. In less than a decade he has published six novels and one work of nonfiction; he has also translated, from the Italian, Roberto Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. All of this has been done with uncommon skill and most of it has received critical praise, but with the exception of Italian Neighbors, an idiosyncratic travel book, none of it has made much of a dent on the collective...

(The entire section is 1036 words.)

Jonathan Keates (review date 27 January 1995)

SOURCE: “The Italian Underbelly,” in Times Literary Supplement, January 27, 1995, p. 22.

[In the following review, Keates offers a positive assessment of Mimi's Ghost.]

Most modern English fiction with an Italian setting has tended to opt for Tuscany or Umbria to furnish suitable backdrops, confident that décor and a few authenticating allusions to works of art and the bloodier vicissitudes of medieval history will do the trick when localizing detail is required. Few of the novelists who use this Chianti-and-frescos formula have ever actually spent long periods in Italy themselves, or sought to investigate the infrastructure of social ritual and traditional...

(The entire section is 617 words.)

Albert Read (review date 28 January 1995)

SOURCE: “So He Kissed Her Older Sister,” in Spectator, January 28, 1995, p. 33.

[In the following review, Read offers a mixed assessment of Cara Massimina, stating that it “teeters between artful construction and lively implausibility.” However, Read finds the novel’s sequel, Mimi's Ghost, “muddled and uninvolving.”]

Tim Parks, besides being a writer, is a part-time English teacher in Verona. He has now written two novels about an English teacher in Verona who elopes with an Italian 17-year-old heiress. He pretends to kidnap her; he claims the ransom, murders her and marries her sister. You can almost see Parks slumped in a sweaty classroom,...

(The entire section is 791 words.)

Christopher Merrill (review date 24 March 1996)

SOURCE: “Foreigners in the Family,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 24, 1996, p. 6.

[In the following review, Merrill offers a positive assessment of An Italian Education.]

In his first book of nonfiction, Italian Neighbors, the British novelist Tim Parks chronicled his initiation into the Veneto, exploring the lives of a people less celebrated in literature than Tuscans—and no less eccentric. A signal event for this expatriate was the birth of his first child, and in An Italian Education, the delightful sequel to Italian Neighbors, Parks uses his children's upbringing as a way to “understand how it happens that an Italian becomes...

(The entire section is 926 words.)

Nicholas Wroe (review date 19 July 1996)

SOURCE: “Honest, No Pidgin,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 19, 1996, p. 7.

[In the following review, Wroe offers a positive assessment of An Italian Education.]

In an illustrative anecdote early in this study of Italy and the Italians, Tim Parks recalls how the representative of a courier company in Verona once told him that a package could not be picked up from him for forty-eight hours because they were too busy. The reason they were too busy was because they were so fast. “It seems pointless arguing with such logic”, writes Parks, and so instead, in An Italian Education, he has tried to explain it.

Parks, a self-confessed...

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Keith Miller (review date 11 April 1997)

SOURCE: “European Unions,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 11, 1997, p. 26.

[In the following review of Europa, Miller commends Parks's shrewd observations concerning European unification and his evocation of the teaching life, but concludes that the novel's “mazy, paratactic style can easily grate.”]

We are presently slouching towards an election in which the issue of Europe, however little discussed, is bound to arouse bitter passions. Those of a sceptical persuasion may take comfort from this interesting if rather tiring novel, which presents the new Europe as simultaneously a tragedy and a farce.

Europa is a fevered,...

(The entire section is 803 words.)

Penelope Lively (review date 12 April 1997)

SOURCE: “A Coach with a Cargo of Sex,” in Spectator, April 12, 1997, pp. 41–42.

[In the following review, Lively offers a positive assessment of Europa.]

The format of Europa is an exotic gloss on the country-house detective novel—a finite group of characters cloistered together over a prescribed period. Six foreign lectors from Milan University, with an accompanying body of students to lend moral support, are taking a coach trip to Strasbourg to present a petition to the European Parliament over their pay and terms of employment: a sober and mundane background to what is in fact a prolonged howl of anguish, self-reproach and sexual reminiscence by the...

(The entire section is 660 words.)

John Derbyshire (review date 20 September 1998)

SOURCE: “When Love Goes Wrong,” in Washington Post Book World, September 20, 1998, p. 4.

[In the following review, Derbyshire offers a generally positive assessment of Europa, despite the novel's “unsatisfactory ending.”]

Tim Parks is an Englishman who has lived most of his adult life in Italy. Since the publication of his first book 13 years ago, he has toiled away in the vineyards of literature, turning out novels (Europa is his ninth), translations, and essays about Italian life. Long residence abroad has freed Parks from the provincialism that afflicts much current British fiction. He has developed a clear and distinctive voice, which he uses...

(The entire section is 840 words.)

Gabriele Annan (review date 5 November 1998)

SOURCE: “Pricks and Kicks,” in New York Review of Books, November 5, 1998, pp. 44–46.

[In the following excerpt, Annan offers a favorable assessment of Europa, which she regards as “a virtuoso tragic-comic tour de force.”]

The novels by Louis Begley [Mistler's Exit] and Tim Parks [Europa], one American, the other English, present a violent contrast in tempo, temperament, and tone, and yet they have a lot in common. The half-hidden theme in both is free will: or rather its absence, which both heroes come to recognize and furiously resent. Both are highly cultivated, well-read, self-aware WASP males exercising their considerable...

(The entire section is 1971 words.)

George Walden (review date 11 December 1998)

SOURCE: “Prisons of Desire,” in New Statesman, December 11, 1998, pp. 46–47.

[In the following review, Walden offers a positive assessment of Adultery and Other Diversions.]

“One admires those books,” writes Tim Parks, “whose complexity of content and vision gets closest to the grain of experience.” Hardly original, perhaps, yet the sentiment bears repeating. The grain of experience is of necessity irregular, yet a lot of contemporary writing suffers from an excess of self-regulation, as authors do their best to prove themselves regular guys. So the grain of experience is smoothed or polished away, as truth becomes gunged with sentiment, larded with the...

(The entire section is 709 words.)

Antony Rouse (review date 2 January 1999)

SOURCE: “A Good Baker's Dozen,” in Spectator, January 2, 1999, pp. 30–31.

[In the following review of Adultery and Other Diversions, Rouse recommends the collection for readers already familiar with Parks's writing, but suggests that newcomers to his work should start with Europa.]

Tim Parks is a writer who has earned our careful attention. He is the author of two successful books on his life in Verona, has translated Italo Calvino and has done a couple of thrillers. His latest novel, Europa, was on the Booker short-list. He could clearly, if he chose, write an epic poem, a history, the Chancellor's next budget speech, pretty well anything.

...

(The entire section is 656 words.)

Anita Brookner (review date 28 August 1999)

SOURCE: “Signposts Pointing the Wrong Way,” in Spectator, August 28, 1999, p. 36.

[In the following review, Brookner offers a positive assessment of Destiny.]

Facts emerge slowly from the matrix of this excellent novel [Destiny], slowly because its unreliable narrator, Christopher Burton, has to cope not only with the critical condition of his marriage but with various ailments of an intransigent nature. He is in the Rembrandt Hotel, Knightsbridge; he has just enjoyed a very large breakfast—unwise, in view of his recent heart bypass operation—when he receives a telephone call from Italy which informs him that his son has died. The death has taken place...

(The entire section is 864 words.)

Nicholas Fearn (review date 13 September 1999)

SOURCE: “Lost in Thought,” in New Statesman, September 13, 1999, pp. 53–54.

[In the following review, Fearn offers a favorable assessment of Destiny.]

The English like their great writers to entertain, and when a great writer's work falls short in this way, they demand that it at least be readily comprehensible. They also know by now where they can stick their preferences when they read a book by Tim Parks. In Destiny he has produced another novel that refuses to compromise, another that could certainly not be called an entertainment, although even in this regard it has its moments. Light reading it is not, and if one did not know better it would be easy...

(The entire section is 603 words.)

Jenny Turner (review date 30 September 1999)

SOURCE: “Tucked In and Under,” in London Review of Books, September 30, 1999, pp. 62–63.

[In the following review of Destiny, Turner praises the novel as “a tremendously attractive book,” but finds shortcomings in Parks's “static and solipsistic” evocation of personal crises, particularly those involving dysfunctional families.]

‘Can this beautiful young model be thinking?’ Tim Parks asks at one point in this book [Destiny]. ‘One hopes not,’ the argument continues, as Parks's narrator looks through an airline magazine. ‘You do not think, I thought, seeing pictures of people pleasure-making on the beach, perhaps in an...

(The entire section is 2395 words.)

D. J. Enright (review date 10 August 2000)

SOURCE: “Speaking in Tongues,” in New York Review of Books, August 10, 2000, pp. 55–57.

[In the following review, Enright offers a positive assessment of Destiny.]

The opening of Tim Parks's Destiny repays study; it sets the scene neatly, and is the only sustained upsurge of clarity and single-mindedness we shall experience for quite a time:

Some three months after returning to England, and having at last completed—with the galling exception of the Andreotti interview—that collection of material that, once assembled in a book, must serve to transform a respectable career into a monument—something so comprehensive...

(The entire section is 3248 words.)