Tim Parks Introduction - Essay

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.