Jo-Ann Goodwin (review date 17 October 1986)

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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 bait; and constantly but unenthusiastically suggests that they should marry.

In the midst of this mediocrity and boredom, Roger Cruikshank arrives to work as a typesetting executive at T. T. Tall, blond, middle-class and egotistical, he seems to Anna to have stepped from the pages of the romantic novels she constantly reads. The relationship they embark on is conducted in terms of deepest secrecy. Only Neville, Roger's closest friend and a Cambridge academic, is allowed to know of their mutual involvement. When Anna becomes pregnant, Neville is the only outsider to know the identity of the baby's father.

As the novel proceeds, the pressures engendered by the relationship become increasingly hard to control. Roger goes to America on behalf of TT and is, predictably, unfaithful. Anna, left alone to endure her pregnancy and the birth of the child, examines her commitment to Roger and begins to understand the dangerous nature of her feelings. We realize that her self-assertion will be violent, bloody and irresistible.

In Loving Roger Tim Parks exhibits an astonishing control over the tone of his writing, and it is this discipline which makes the novel such an impressive achievement. Roger is a nightmare of self-regard, his attraction to Anna partly physical, but largely based on his desire to “write.” He regards her as an excellent source of material—she recounts the office gossip, which he intends to use in a play, with an honesty and perception that Roger finds fetching and surprising.

The bulk of the novel is written in the first person, and it is the voice of Anna we hear explaining her obsession, describing the humiliation and anger she feels with the same honesty which so amazes Roger. Anna is a triumph: her experience points to the truism that none of us is ordinary. Even those who read The Far Pavilions are also capable of anguish. Those who ignore this do so, as in Roger's case, at their peril.

It is Roger, for all his pretensions to artistic status, for all the hours spent at the typewriter composing his poetry and plays, who is ultimately mundane. The excerpts from his diaries are characterized by an entirely adolescent desire for self-dramatization. Therein lies the core of the problem; Anna is an adult, and Roger simply refuses to accept life on adult terms, insisting on remaining a sort of enfant terrible, living by a set of rules formulated at school and university: all of which will lead, inevitably, to the violent denouement of the novel.

Michael J. Carroll (review date 24 January 1988)

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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

(This entire section contains 537 words.)

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Thus beginsLoving 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, British author Tim Parks sets himself a number of obstacles: The climax is revealed in the first few pages. The narrator is a vacuous 20-year-old secretary whose thoughts and expressions derive from television and romantic fiction. The narrator does not merely tell the story; she addresses us, making our “presence” the reason for the story. We are not to be told the Truth, but only whatever version of it the narrator is willing for us to know. There is almost no dialogue. There are incredible events that we are expected to accept as credible.

These are formidable obstacles, and Parks does not totally overcome them. However, their use is not mere literary conceit; Parks knows what he is trying to do; the extent to which he succeeds is impressive.

When Anna meets Roger, the company's new typesetter, she finds him to be bright and articulate. Roger is concerned not only with appearances (he does not want anyone at the office to know of his affair with Anna), but also with the Meaning of Things. Or is he?

Each time we think we know what is happening, something occurs to make us doubt ourselves. We sense possibilities both Anna and Roger seem to be missing. Who is really the victim? Who the perpetrator?

There is the startling possibility that Anna is being manipulated by Roger into being his instrument of self-destruction. Or is Anna merely setting herself up?

Be warned that Parks does not give away all at the beginning. The book ends with an ambiguous postscript, one which opens whole new—even frightening—possibilities. Parks does not cheat; the revelations that occur throughout—startling though they may be—are almost never inconsistent.

Anna's narrow perspective proves liberating. Since we know Anna is missing much of what is going on, we do not have to accept her interpretations. This allows us a wonderfully multifaceted perspective. We see the Anna that Anna wants us to see, but seeing through her words, we also sense how she might be perceived by her colleagues and friends. And, beyond this, there is some suggestion as to who Anna might really be.

Occasionally, Parks puts words and ideas into Anna's mouth that seem out of character: “I was thinking I shouldn't have let my rage be dissipated in this silly expedition.” But even such phrases and ideas verge on the possible—after all, do we really know this woman?

Loving Roger should prove an enjoyable and controversial book. It will keep you thinking long after you put it down.

David Teagle (review date Summer 1988)

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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 a clandestine affair that is wracked with uncertainty and emotional turmoil on both sides and eventually leads to Anna's becoming pregnant. Having the baby only complicates their already fragile relationship, and a second pregnancy leads to the final, deadly confrontation.

Both Anna and Roger hold fast to their opposing visions of reality, each taken from different ends of the literary spectrum. Anna fantasizes a life drawn from television soap operas and pulp novels, while Roger is equally deluded by “high” art and the romantic myth of the misunderstood genius writer (complete with a death before age 30). Their relationship is a doomed maze of silence, miscommunication, and mistrust, reaching common ground only through sex.

Parks has produced a well-crafted novel laced with wry, sardonic humor, and one that succeeds on each of its many thematic levels: the futility of love, the uneasy juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, and the detachment of writers, unable to refrain from dissecting their lives into art. All this is encased in a chatty, informal style, written in the voice of Anna, which is perhaps Parks's ultimate achievement. The personification of a female voice by a male writer is often a risky venture, but one that comes across here in a vivid, fresh, and most importantly, believable manner.

Richard Eder (review date 16 October 1988)

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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 prime—Lucky Jim and the novels that followed—Amis reflected the tensions and pretensions of postwar Britain, when such things as the welfare state, a certain theoretical idealism, trendy life styles and cultural liveliness were all in the air, if largely to be satirized. There was bounce to the awfulness and a tendency to happy endings.

With Parks, the schoolhouse has been leased out for executive training seminars. It is, as one of his characters puts it, “Thatcher time.” Just what that means, of itself, is not particularly clear. There's no sign that the author is happy about it. What he is saying, though, is that it's winter for the grasshoppers and time to take ant lessons.

Home Thoughts begins with a joke and turns sad. The joke, in the epigraph, consists of Robert Browning's lines: “Oh to be in England, now that April's here,” followed by a comment in a secondary-school exam paper: “Why didn't he go home then?”

The sadness takes form slowly in Julia, the protagonist. At 33, she has come to Verona to teach English at the university. It is a flight from a messy life.

Moody and acerbic, she possesses a bristly charm that has won her a place in her London circle of aging bright young things. Aging is the point; her long off-again, on-again affair with Lenny, a BBC producer, has come to seem unbearable.

Years before, when she was pregnant, he had wanted to marry her; she had an abortion, instead, to avoid tying herself down. Now the seriousness is hers, and he, married to an actress, wants to keep things light.

Expatriate life in Italy is a classical kind of escape. Julia joins her compatriots at the university: Alan, a frustrated novelist and his wife, Elaine; Colin, an aging Scottish radical with a sexy young wife, Marina; Flossy, a lesbian militant, and Sandro, an Italo-Canadian Don Juan.

Before long, Julia is sleeping with Sandro; who will also be sleeping with Elaine, Marina and a middle-aged Italian woman professor. Apart from romantic permutations, the little band devotes itself to academic intrigue and listening to the BBC.

There is comedy in it. Parks gives a splendidly wacky excerpt from an English conversation manual written-by Sandro's professor, who is a paranoiac.

Mary—so the lesson goes—informs Jane that a man is at the door; Jane tells her that it is her grandfather.

“Mary: There's a cat on the sofa. What am I to do?

“Jane: The only important thing for you to do is to let Grandfather in. He may be tired and anxious to see me. It was he who helped me when I was in trouble two years ago. He always gives a hand to everybody.

“Mary: All right, the door isn't far away: He'll soon be in.”

The comedy turns darker. Colin loses both Marina and his job. Elaine leaves Alan; he runs over and kills a young bicyclist, goes into depression and makes several feeble attempts at suicide.

The darkness comes not so much from what the expatriates find in Verona as from what each of them has left behind. Julia discovers that escape has no savor to it. She writes to Diana, her former roommate, that the affair with Sandro has no intensity or urgency; that it lacks reality.

“You meet people here, Flossy, Sandro, and you imagine they'll be to you what other people have been to you in the past. You're in a hurry to change, to set up home. Only then you find they're not what you expected at all and that you can't simply choose to be intimate with them. Or sometimes it's as if none of us were quite all here. …”

Expatriation is the obvious evasion but not the most important one. The truly crippling escape was the life that Julia and her circle have lived in London. Her depressions, her restlessness, her continuing obsession with Lenny, all stem from the same thing: her abortion, years before.

“This is the turning point,” she writes Lenny, “the point in my life at which the past becomes more attractive than the future, the point beyond which fantasy is always for another parallel life which branched off from mine at that crucial forking of the ways. A sort of suicide, if you like.”

The lives of Julia and her circles—in Verona and in London—are contrasted with that of her London roommate. Considerably too neatly, the flighty Diana marries a businessman. He is a kind, grave banker who lives entirely in the life of his Thatcherite time; without evasion.

When they have a deformed baby, not only do they keep it—in contrast with Julia's abortion—but he quits his business to run a foundation for the handicapped. He will run it on sound business principles.

Clearly, there is a great deal of authorial arranging in Home Thoughts. Its Londoners and expatriates are card figures, for the most part; and Parks deals with them, sometimes amusingly and sometimes relentlessly.

On the other hand, Julia, even though she is something of a familiar type, does manage to move us. She is vociferous and sometimes unbearable. Yet her final moments, when she pursues the logic of her evasions by taking up an entirely anonymous life in Vicenza—duller and more remote than Verona—have a real, unforced sadness to them.

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

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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.

Tim Parks's ironically titled new novel Family Planning, as well as demonstrating the futility and wrong-headedness of complacent expectation, nags at the conscience concerning responsibility—of the individual, the family and the State. As the plot unfolds (straightforward narrative alternates with miscellaneous epistles), the development of Raymond's malady is traced from his bright boyhood and adolescence to his present unmanageably violent, schizophrenic condition. He seems to be a text-book Freudian Oedipal case—a mum's boy in mum's bed when the execrable Frank (whose solution to any problem has always been to skedaddle from it) first deserted his family to work abroad. But Parks does not dabble in pretentious psychological speculation. It soon becomes apparent, as the Baldwins’ other grown-up children, Garry, Graham and Lorna enter the arena, that the entire family, in some way, shares the father's inability to accept and face up to fate's vicissitudes. Even Raymond, in embracing lunacy (and, concurrently, Islam), may be attempting a retreat from undesirable reality. And the heretofore indomitable Brenda chooses dumb-struck inertia rather than acknowledge the atrocities to which she is subjected as, with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, the gruesome tribulations of the House of Baldwin are fulfilled.

That it all seems so uncontrollable yet bound to happen is what makes the story compelling. At one point a character steps aside, like a chorus in parabasis, to remark that “the problem with novels about loonies was that it just seemed a gimmick to get everybody biting their nails waiting for some awful act of Sunday People violence to happen. It was corny.” Parks himself avoids corniness in his nail-biting narration. He also manages to be funny, compassionate, frightening and precisely observant. The glimpses he gives us of Garry's amorous entanglements in a London bed-sit, Graham's travails at the Leeds Access Insurance Company and Lorna's husband Fred's thwarted attempts at an impeccably planned career in academe are neat little social satires. The characters are sympathetically treated—whether or not they accept the burden of their hapless kinsman (who, despite the fleeting attentions of the terrifyingly credible-sounding “Green Trees” institution, remains irretrievably, magnificently crackers).

It is the implicit ethical issue, though, which is most forceful:

Don't get obsessed with plans. … Don't bank everything on some job or contract or piece of property or prestige. … Remember that at any moment anything may happen. To anyone. … Be ready to write things off. … We are all headed for emptiness one way or another. But just because a person has been transformed in this way I still believe we have some sort of a duty to them. …

Against which humane and sensible sentiments are set the intransigent realities of the NHS:

They come all this crap about community therapy and it being better for him to be in the family, but it's all economics in the end. The only person in the country who doesn't want him in a home is the Chancellor of the bloody Exchequer. Until he goes and kills somebody and then they'll all pretend how shocked they are before letting him out again in a couple of years’ time so he can do it all over again.

Nicholas Clee (review date 30 August 1991)

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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 fair amount of evidence to the contrary, encourages his belief. The reader of George's narrative knows him to be an insufferable prig. As Iris Murdoch showed in The Nice and the Good, there are events which will find out all but the truly good, or the truly cynical. For George, such an event is the birth of his handicapped child.

Everything goes well for George until Hilary's arrival. He has escaped from his stifling childhood home in west London, where he lived with his self-sacrificing mother, racist grandfather, retarded aunt and flighty sister, to university and then to a successful career in computer software. He becomes a network planner, someone who, from a keyboard, attempts to solve huge organizational problems. He marries the eligible Shirley (“she would never embarrass you … plus she was an eager lover and she swore blind that she didn't want kids”). They acquire suitable friends. “Margaret” creates the right climate for them, and they prosper.

Then Shirley decides she does, after all, want a child. George tries to assuage her by buying her flowers and bringing home brochures for flashy new cars; when this does not work he announces that he is going to commit adultery, and does. The couple break up, and are tearfully reunited. Shirley becomes pregnant.

Hilary has Christenson's syndrome, involving, in her case, severe physical deformities and mental retardation. Everyone has their own explanation for this disaster. George's mother, the character in the novel who best represents goodness, thinks it is her fault. Shirley believes Hilary's disability to be a punishment for adultery (she has had an affair too). George believes that a failure to confront disability in the family is to blame, and that Hilary represents a problem that must have a solution: he even draws a flow chart. The proposed solution brings the novel to a climax that is both farcical and frightening.

An outline of this novel, with its signpost of a title, makes it sound schematic, but it is not. Parks's gift is for evoking, often in sinister detail the everyday: gestures, idiosyncrasies of speech, the minutiae of suburban existence. As in Loving Roger (1986), he sustains the voice of a blinkered narrator with convincing control. Just occasionally, in Goodness, the irony is too broad, particularly in George's sporadic flashes of cynicism (“Mistresses, one feels, shouldn't have periods”) seem out of character with his usual self-deceiving pronouncements. But these are quibbles.

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

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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 Italian Neighbors, currently out from Grove.

Though hardly “corny,” the book concerns the Italian village of Montecchio, near Verona, which the British-born Parks now considers home. As his first nonfiction book, Italian Neighbors—called “delightful” and “amusing” in PW (Nonfiction Forecasts, May 18) for its “evocations of sights, sounds and smells”—reflects his adult life more straightforwardly than any of his fiction thus far.

Parks has lived in Italy for 12 years. By his own account, he arrived an unambitious young man seeking little more than a regular income as an English teacher abroad. Nonetheless, in Italy he ended up writing six novels; his sojourn there has coincided with the making of his career as a writer.

He has balanced the writer's life with steady work as a translator. At first, he translated technical journals (and he still offers his services to a publication about quarrying equipment). But he is much better known for his translations of Italian novels, most recently Roberto Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, forthcoming in winter 1993 from Knopf in the U.S. and Jonathan Cape in the U.K.

Parks seems almost as proud of Calasso's book as he might be of his own. “I really get a lot out of a book like Calasso's,” he says, such as “techniques I'd never seen anybody use before. In fact, I've borrowed some of them for my next novel.” Parks reveals that the edgy “clippedness” of Italian Neighbors was inspired by the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi, whose books The Edge of the Horizon and Indian Nocturne he translated.

Most of Parks's Italian friends—though not necessarily his Italian neighbors—are, like himself, writers-in-exile. He continues to teach languages part-time, stitching together a reasonable living without unnecessarily compromising his pursuit of fiction. Some of his literary peers in the United Kingdom reckon him lucky to be out of Britannia and distant, too, from New York: less likely to become a prey of the unwanted worldly temptations of those two publishing centers, he may be more “his own writer” than some are. For his part, Parks believes that living among foreign writers and absorbing their influence is always a good thing; by the time that influence wends its way onto the page, it has been transformed by the writer.

Parks's current residence in the provinces also suggests a certain symmetry: even when he was a boy and his family lived “in” London, their actual address was suburban Finchley. Italian Neighbors is about suburban life, too—in some ways, perhaps even more specifically suburban than typically Italian.

For in the book, Parks evokes an “ordinary goodness” that he believes most “ordinary” people possess, whatever their nationality. And this moral preoccupation links Neighbors to its predecessors in his fiction, from Loving Roger (1987), whose readers presumably learn to forgive a “good” murderer, to Goodness (1991), about a fairly smug “self-made man” and software executive who falters when forced to come to terms with his child's physical handicaps. “Goodness’ is the message I'd like to get across,” Parks acknowledges.

And yet he claims that “it was such a surprise to find myself writing the [new] book.” Not only was Italian Neighbors a clear departure from fiction; unlike his novels, it was conceived at a publisher's suggestion, seemingly bound for the niche built and filled by Peter Mayle's Year in Provence and Toujours Provence—an outsider's fond assessment of a foreign culture that he takes steps to adopt, in some measure.

However, nothing could be further from a Continental idyll than the village of back-biting, status-conscious, security-obsessed neighbors encountered by Parks when he settled in Montecchio. (Though all of those chronicled are true to life, their names have been changed.) And the writer's determination to behave neither better nor worse than his neighbors may only compound the irony.

In Parks's place, many of us would not hesitate to stamp such neighbors as out-and-out wrong. There is, for instance, the tax inspector who makes and breaks rules, the people who keep savage dogs, and a host of others with attendant peccadillos. Yet somehow Parks finds redeeming features in all of them.

Perhaps surprisingly, Italians themselves rather like the book: it presents them as eccentric, opinionated and less manipulated by bureaucracy than other Europeans. However, Parks is guessing that Americans of Italian descent who nurse romantic pictures of peasant innocence will regard him as ungenerous.

“I am sure there are people who are totally right or wrong,” he comments, “but my experience tells me it is more interesting when they're not.” The literary consequences for him? “That nobody should be presented as totally right or wrong.”

As the son of a clergyman, Parks no doubt has earned his moral realism. He was born in 1954 in Manchester, England, where his father was a “traditional but very evangelical” Anglican “from the left wing of the Church.” Rev. Parks became quite a popular public speaker in both Britain and the U.S., “an intelligent man's Billy Graham,” reports the novelist with a shrug of ambivalent pride. “But I used to squirm listening to him. My parents were dangerously close to the pushy, ‘progressive’ side of religion.”

As a boy in a drama-filled household, Parks mainly just kept his head down. He was the youngest of three children—with “an elder sister who was very ‘pro’ my parents, and an elder brother whose rebellion was very unpleasant. He hurt my parents a great deal.”

The family relationships have found their way into Parks's fiction—Tongues of Flame, for instance, is very nearly an account of his parents’ participation in the charismatic prayer movement. But more broadly, it was his acquaintance with dedicated, righteous people—and with outright rebels like his brother John—that has most profoundly marked his handling of characters in fiction.

As a benefit of his childhood, for example, Parks inferred from his parents the idea of a “vocation”; writing books became less a career for him than a way of life, a larger purpose to which he was called. “I don't believe there is any moral virtue in anything I do, or any ‘meaning’ in what I do, but I do have a sense that this is what I do,” he says.

He takes a rolled-up-sleeve, “come off it” approach to the mysteries of a writer's job. His are the square shoulders of a squash player, not—apparently—those of someone who spends his days hunched over a keyboard.

He is quite candid when he refers to his writing career as a near-miss.

Before the career had indeed given any signs of beginning, it found an impetus at Cambridge University, where Parks studied as an undergraduate. At first, he declined even to apply for admission there, supposing the fabled university to be a snobbish place. (He is a man who appears to detest pretensions of all sorts.) Instead, he applied to two good provincial British universities—and was rejected by both. Then, offered a chance to sit for the Cambridge entrance exam, he took it—and not only passed but won a scholarship.

Against all his expectations, he loved Cambridge, though more for its sports and for the private reading he accomplished there than for its social life. He didn't contribute to university writing groups or magazines, “because I didn't know that I wanted to do that. I was reading, not writing, you know.”

After finishing at Cambridge in 1977, he decided to go to the U.S.—“for adventure, and to get away from girlfriends.” He was offered graduate scholarships by both Vanderbilt and Harvard, and chose Harvard, where he earned an M.A.

“I went there under false pretenses—only to check out America. Still, it was sitting in the Widener Library that started me writing,” he recalls. Some of his readers count his years of study in America as a significant influence on his work, though Parks himself remains unsure of how those years affected his fiction.

Ask him about his personal life, though, and he'll grant that the Massachusetts influence is undeniable. That's where he met his future wife, Rita, a onetime tutor in Italian at Harvard who now has her own career as a translator. Parks's account of the birth of their first child—they have two—is a high point of Italian Neighbors.

In America, as in England, Parks the student found himself scoffing at academic practices. He felt at odds with the American system of extensive footnoting, and was dismissive of some scholars. One indication of his characteristic bluntness is the exasperated volley of interrogatives he summons, years later, when discussing his graduate student self: “‘Why don't you just read what I've written?’” he demands today. “‘Why do I have to quote sources—do you think I am going to lie to you?’”

Even now, he can barely tolerate the task of research, and he looks down on fiction writers who conscientiously incorporate facts into their stories. “The kind of book I like is one where the writer is not worried about his ‘research,’ the kind that can tell me something without checking out what watches were like in the 16th century. And that's the kind of book I write.”

Since leaving England for the States and then for Italy, Parks has returned “home” only briefly. Yet he considers himself essentially a British writer, and admits that the time may come when he will need to return to London for the good of his career.

“I am more appreciated in America, and better reviewed. But I can't think of any big names among British writers who haven't, like me, made their little adventures [abroad] into literary exercises.”

His evaluation of his literary countrymen is honest and mixed. In his judgment, most British novelists—he mentions, for a start, the A's, from Ackroyd to Amis—fail in their experiments, but he admires them for at least trying out new approaches to fiction (unlike, by his lights, their American counterparts). “The way Ackroyd goes about doing a novel is a very interesting way, very much of an intellectual process.”

How about Tim Parks's work? In self-appraisal, he is similarly frank. “My stuff went through slush pile after slush pile. You start thinking you are not very good. I very nearly stopped.” Parks had written three or four novels before Tongues of Flame, which was the runner-up in the 1982 Sinclair-Heinemann prize for unpublished fiction. Because the two judges who had voted for it were Fay Weldon and Marina Warner, Heinemann decided to publish it anyway. Tongues went on to win other literary prizes, and was published in the U.S. by Grove's Fred Jordan, “the only editor I've ever trusted.”

In Britain, Parks's books have gone from Heinemann to Collins and back to Heinemann; in America, his original writing has been published by Grove and his translations commissioned by Knopf, New Directions and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. After being represented by a number of agents, including Wylie, Aitken and Stone, he is now a client of Curtis Brown both in New York and London.

Parks is plainly pleased by the rush of attention he has received after a long, slow start. And recently, he has learned that translation and nonfiction have one thing in common: writers and translators do not have to “invent” anything to do the work. He sighs as he observes this. For despite his vocation for writing fiction, the material of nonfiction in fact comes easier to Parks—especially, perhaps, when it comes from the neighbors.

Christopher Bray (review date 4 September 1993)

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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 question-marked death that our hero is out to explain. But there is more to it than that. This is a novel of several strata. Peter Nicholson, the geologist in question, has travelled to an island in the Mediterranean on behalf of an Australian woman whose husband has been killed in an industrial accident. A piece of stone broke away from a building he was working on and shattered his skull. Nicholson, a vain and self-serving type with a propensity for abstracting life into metaphor, is there to check that all is satisfactory at the quarry, but really he has come expecting a holiday. Accordingly, he has brought with him his young mistress with whom he claims to be in love. Within a short time of arrival, however, he has bedded a local dusky maid and learned that his wife back home is pregnant with a third child. Soon after, his none-too-stupid client confronts him, wondering how good a job he is doing. Could such a man, she asks, ever be genuinely concerned about a woman who lost a man she really loved? And from here on in things get worse and worse for Nicholson. His life begins to fall apart.

Parks delineates this dilapidation with an avaricious translucency. Like the piece of stone that inaugurates the book's plot his paragraphs break unpredictably in the middle of things:

Much as he sympathised, he changed direction and walked straight over to his driver at the door. Who spoke no English. For which he was rather grateful.

These staccato rhythms stab their way through the book ensuring always that the reader is kept on his toes. Not that there's much chance of his falling asleep. Aside from being a satisfying existential intrigue, Shear also works well as a novel of information.

Reading it I realised how long it had been since a novel had actually taught me anything. And Parks manages this without asking any ponderous, pseudo-philosophical questions about the status of narrative.

He is far too intelligent a writer to burden himself with such sophomore endgames. Instead, he offers us a beginner's guide to geology and architecture (gained, one learns, from his work as a translator for the trade journal of the Association of Italian Stone Machine Manufacturers) which, save for the following passage, contrives never to talk down to the uninitiated:

There was an elegant travertine table … where his drink refracted the light in faintly trembling curves on a cenozoic froth.

Passages like that can easily estrange, but, as usual, the luscious touch of Parks's prose ensures that we are enrapt.

Parks's use of his central metaphor is masterfully controlled. One does not cringe when Nicholson compares that piece of rock's fatal flaw with his own character:

He had always half-admired those people who made their lives too complicated to suffer: three marriages, five children, mistresses. The pain of shear lay in the resistance surely, not the breakage?

In fact, Nicholson tends to see everything through his geologist's eyes—he describes daylight as being like potassium-aluminium silicate, unpleasantnesses ‘cement’ in the back of his mind, as children's sandcastles dissolve in the sea he is moved to chew the cud on his failing marriage—and even the dead man's wife is given a speech about love's ability to move mountains. Yet one never feels that one is being offered the unmixed ingredients of a bad poem. There is not a trace of preciousness here.

At just over 200 pages this is an icily perfect novel. It could have gone on twice as long and I should not have complained. Normally one would worry about an author who feels it necessary to expand upon his creation in a preliminary note. Not so here. This is the best new novel I have read all year. It is a must for any holiday suitcase. The pleasure offered by Shear is sheer.

Nicholas Wroe (review date 10 September 1993)

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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 Nicholson has been briefed to find fault with the site and to write a damning report. He is accompanied on the trip by his young mistress, Margaret, with whom he intends to spend most of the four days, either on the beach or in bed. This plan is soon disrupted, first by the appearance of the widow of an Australian worker killed at the quarry, and then by a fax from his wife informing him that she is pregnant.

Hazel Owen, clearly unhinged by grief, is looking for the reason for her husband's death. With her young daughter in tow, she haunts the quarry and Nicholson's hotel, asking questions and threatening revenge. Peter's wife makes it clear that unless he responds quickly and enthusiastically to her news, she will have an abortion. When Nicholson explains the mechanics of a rock fall, he speaks of more than just geology.

Imagine a man released from the pressure cooker of home for a week. His heart expands, doesn't it, his mind opens. Like a sponge when you let go. Well it's the same with the rock when you pull it from under the hill and slice it up. Stress relief. And as it expands, it fractures, in a cobweb of tiny cracks. Resistance to shear is reduced, it becomes more fragile.

Shear then occurs when “pressure is applied in at least two different and not diametrically opposite directions.”

As Peter, reluctantly, becomes more involved in the dubious activities of the quarry and Hazel's plight, so his personal tribulations increase in intensity. By the time London instructs him to drop the case, forget his report and come home, it is too late for him to walk away from his tasks. He has already begun the exhausting work of digging deeply into the self and into the mysterious events he has stumbled on.

Parks handles his material with certainty. The intricate geological imagery, although studded by an uninhibited use of industrial and scientific language, is never seen to be crudely bolted to the narrative. The subtle links between client and contractor are illustrated in a range of relationships. The classical allusions are poignant and evocative. This technical mastery allows Parks to present with absolute clarity the complex motivations that drive Peter Nicholson on.

As the moral and emotional pressures intensify, so the imperfections of the rock are mirrored in the characters and the situation. Nicholson is pulled by demands from himself, his wife, the clients, his mistress and his boss. At stake is the marriage, the life of an unborn child, his career, his relationship with Margaret and potentially the lives of many, if the stone he approves for building is not safe. It is inevitable that all decisions and choices will emerge as suspect. Even integrity can be “just a cover for escape.”

The dust-jacket quotes a description of Tim Parks as, “the best British author today.” On the evidence here, there should be no reason to be so parochial in praising him in future.

Frank Kermode (review date 4 November 1993)

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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 Italian quarrying industry’: consequently ‘a huge burden of geological/mechanical vocabulary … was bound to shape the terrain of some novel or other.’ This is, quite properly, not an apology; he has won the right to shape his own terrains. As he is still (at a guess) under forty he can't be said to have lost much time in doing so. He has won several prizes and on his jackets great names affirm that he is not only prolific but very good indeed.

Shear is by a long way his most ambitious book and it probably contains the best clue to the nature of his gift. It isn't, as one might have thought from the first book, Tongues of Flame, and indeed from other books in which everything builds up to some horrific climax, a passion for apocalyptic endings, though Shear doesn't fall short in this respect. But it lacks one of the characteristics of the straightforward thriller it in some way resembles—namely, a plot line uncomplicated by the prose that carries it. The really distinctive quality, however, is rarer, more valuable and probably more durable than effective plotting; it could be called ventriloquy, an unusual power to assume appropriate voices.

Thinking of the earlier books, one might have been content to speak merely of control of tone. In Loving Roger, for instance, the narrator is a young woman, Anna, though there are interpolated diary passages and letters by her young man. In this book the pleasure of the big bang at the end is renounced, or rather transferred to the beginning, as in a detective story: the young man Roger is already lying dead on the floor of the girl's bedsit on page 1, and we are only to find out why this happened, so there's not going to be a blaze—Parks rather likes big fires—or some other terminal catastrophe. Roger's death is overdetermined, rather dreamlike (Parks goes in for lots of dreams, rather more persuasively than some). And since the girl is good, intelligent but by the insecurely snobbish standards of her lover uneducated, lovable because simple or even vulgar, the writer, by using her voice, has renounced not only the more convenient male organ but also the cultural and linguistic refinements available to the Cambridge male graduate. The interpolated, arty, self-pitying prose of Roger is there partly because it provides an illuminating contrast with Anna's, whose favourite reading (The Thorn Birds,The Far Pavilions) may be held to have debased her sensibility but has no effect whatever on her sensible way of talking.

This is not just a trick, but evidence of seriousness. Loving Roger is about a relationship that is in itself not unusual, and sexually satisfactory, but which is bound to come to grief, for reasons that have nothing to do with sex but much to do with gender, snobbery and character. Roger wants to be a playwright but for the time being works in an office. Anna works there too, but as a secretary, and the division between executive and secretary is absolute, except when the executives take the secretaries to bed. The basic story, the private tragedy, is in complicated dialogue with the conditions of a conventionally unmoral world, as inevitable as offices are, with their hierarchies, gossips and flirts; a world in which all are in a sense innocent until forced into a sphere where innocence is no defence; where young men and women are, without immediate penalty, at once scared and assertive, serious and treacherous, loving and unfaithful.

Roger is delighted to have a baby, but not keen even then to move in with its mother, a woman he despises not only for her choice of reading matter and her sentimentality, but for her parents. The baby is great, but he has to think of his career objectives; if this quite passionate and valid relationship interfered with them everyone, he persuades himself, would regret it. ‘He said we had to be very careful not to come to grief with getting too attached to each other.’ Anna's reflection on this statement is more penetrating than anything in Roger's own self-examination in his journals and letters: ‘he didn't want life to be real till he had decided so.’ Occasionally he catches, but does not hold, a hint that she is really more intelligent, as well as much simpler and much more honest, than he is. In his diary he writes: ‘One notes, in passing, the strong sense, the strong sense of disbelief that one is really alive, one is really in a situation with other people, a situation where one is obliged to do things, where history, of a kind, is being made.’ Reading this diary entry, Anna says: ‘Obviously anybody who uses phrases like “one notes in passing” at this point, isn't going to do anything at all.’

There are other well-placed indications of the kind of world we are contemplating—the commonplace, lecherous, giggly world; the world of the affected and ambiguous undergraduate friendship, prolonged in envy and used against the girl; the world, also, of the single parent. But the girl doesn't merely live in the ordinary world, she knows how to value it, understands how it is possible for people to live in it with untroubled consciences from day to ordinary day, yet be driven to commit the rather extraordinary act of murder as if, despite appearances, it were brought on in the ordinary way of things, people and the world being what, in the end, they are. To do all that Parks had to write very carefully in a rather low style, a proof of ventriloquial skill, and an indication of his courage. The book conducts its dialogue with the world while risking rejection as one more unadventurous, over-domesticated, modern English novel.

Goodness, his last novel before Shear, has a different voice but the same courage. Its title is actually what it is about—one of those thematic titles, like Sense and Sensibility or Futility, which, as Northrop Frye pointed out, establish a different programme from that set out by titles like The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, or Roderick Random. Here the tone is petit-bourgeois comic, the male ‘I’ living with his girl in ‘quite a decent semi’. At 14 he had a ‘moral code'—‘I would never be gratuitously mean or violent … but then nor would I ever put up with anybody or any situation that made life unbearable.’ When his sister Peggy is suspected of wanting to have ‘a simple suburban abortion’ his mother raised the issue ‘to a vast metaphysical showdown between good and evil’. Peggy, it turns out, doesn't want the abortion; and does not share his rational explanation of why she would be right to have one: ‘I wash my hands of you all, I thought.’

In fact there is nothing new about this kind of plot. The hero knows what, on his inadequate calculus, is the right thing, and will do it, consistent with his getting on. His selfishness almost breaks his marriage, which is saved by a baby, but a terribly deformed one. It is a situation deserving to be called unbearable. The agony of dealing with it is described in sober detail; it goes on for years, much longer than his adolescent resolve would have permitted. How George got out of goodness into the comfort of his moral code, his ‘complete normality', is the substance of the tale. There is a fiery Parksian climax, and an anti-climax. You learn the difference between the story and its narrator: the story knows there is something extraordinary called goodness but he doesn't. At the end he still doesn't but is quite content.

Goodness has now been followed by Shear, a more remarkable book, harder to read despite its good story; the large extension of ventriloquial power means that the language of the book is saturated in technical terms relating to every kind of stone, every kind of accident to stone, every way of cutting and shaping stone; you need a glossary not only to understand the geology but to understand the people, who, like stone, may be subject to shear. What was shear? asks the mistress of the geologist hero. Shear occurred ‘when pressure was applied in at least two different and not diametrically opposite directions. Wind and gravity, for example, in the case of a thin slab taken half-way round the world and carelessly hung above a Sydney thoroughfare. In his own case it might be libido and loyalty, kids and work.’ But he wants to find out his own ‘shear strength’.

Parks goes out of his way, in the Author's Note, to explain that in writing the novel he was aware of a close analogy between that process and the way in which rocks form: under conflicting pressures of tradition and vision ‘disparate sediments are gradually aligned, they crystallise, become a recognisable mass, a rock different from any other rock.’ This rock certainly is different, though some of the sediments can be quite easily identified.

The central figure, the geologist (third person this time), is sent out to a Mediterranean island to inspect a granite quarry on behalf of some Australian clients who suspect they've been sent a kind of stone not in accordance with the contract. A man working high on the face of a Sydney skyscraper has already been killed. His widow has travelled from Australia to the quarry and tries to make the geologist help her discover the cause of her husband's death. She is only one of the women he has to deal with; he has left his pregnant wife in England and brought his mistress along with him. During his few days on the island he also has an affair with his not very trustworthy interpreter. Great demands are made on him, and not only sexually: the interpreter is the daughter of the rather sinister quarry boss; his wife is urging him to telephone; the mistress is refusing his offer of marriage; and the Australian widow is making demands on him which he would rather not meet, and need not meet, for the company that sent him has told him to drop the investigation.

Part of the ‘sediment’ that goes to the making of the moral dilemmas of this amoral man derives from Victorian fiction; one thinks of Lydgate in Middlemarch, another professional, having to decide whether to cast his vote for Bulstrode. Indeed Parks's big theme is what George Eliot called moral stupidity, and what happens when events force someone to stop being morally stupid.

The prose of Shear is full of rocks, the history of rocks and the dangerous faults in rocks. Much of the action takes place either in a blaze of light on stone or sand, or amid the nauseating din of the quarrying machines. The craft of the geologist-author is to bring his man to the point where it would be possible for him to escape the pressures, not diametrically opposed, that would test him to shear point. But the Australian woman, and the strange, wise little girl she has brought with her, complicate the issue. There is a moral decision, unwillingly taken. The climax, if you've learned enough about the quarry machinery to follow what's going on, is technically spectacular and also spectacularly technical.

What is impressive about this novel is that it expertly mixes genres—the sort of thriller that flourishes lots of technical detail, the detective story, the sex story—yet is also an ‘experimental’ novel in that it does unusual things with prose. And, once again, it is serious: the ordinary life, the professional expertise, are suddenly hoisted into the unfamiliar moral world, where the choices are not those of every day, and the imperatives override plausible evasions—the scene of that metaphysical showdown between good and evil. Parks deserves at least some of the extravagant praise lately heaped upon him. There are those among his contemporaries, also regularly praised on book jackets, who look rather pallid, somewhat trivial, in his company.

Jonathan Yardley (review date 10 July 1994)

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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 consciousness of American readers.

There can be no more telling mark of Parks's professionalism than his refusal to let public apathy get him down. Many a fine writer or artist has come aground on the shores of indifference, but so far Parks has refused to let it faze him. If anything, in Shear he shows signs of being willing to meet the public halfway—to give it a genuinely arresting, suspenseful story without in any way compromising the integrity of his work. Shear is hardly a “commercial” novel, but it moves at a far more rapid pace than any of its five predecessors and it can be read purely as entertainment, though there is far more to it than that.

Like all of Parks's novels, Shear is misleadingly short. Misleadingly, that is, because there's scarcely a novelist around who can get more into less than Parks; only Anita Brookner, in most other respects a very different writer, comes immediately to mind. Parks's sentences and paragraphs are dense; with no words wasted the reader's intent concentration is required, for every word carries its full measure of weight.

Shear, in its scant 200-plus pages, takes us through five eventful days in the life of Peter Nicholson. He is a 40-year-old British geologist who has been dispatched to a Mediterranean island to investigate allegations that a quarry there sold bad granite to a contractor in Australia. One sheet of the rock, cut as cladding for a highrise building in Sydney, fell and killed a worker. His widow is now making a nuisance of herself, claiming that “there was something wrong with the rock,” and questions of responsibility are being raised.

Nicholson has been chosen for the assignment in the hope that he will be too distracted to investigate thoroughly. His mind is not on his job but on his 22-year-old mistress, Margaret, who has accompanied him to the Mediterranean while, back in England, his wife awaits the results of a pregnancy test. The assumption is that Nicholson will be far more interested in matters amatory than in those geological, and that as a consequence he will write an authoritative but exculpatory report that will permit the quarry and the contractor to get on with business.

The presumption is that the rock had come apart as a result of shear: “When pressure was applied in at least two different and not diametrically opposite directions. Wind and gravity, for example, in the case of a thin slab taken half-way around the world and hung thirty floors above a Sydney thoroughfare. In his own case it might be libido and loyalty, kids and work.” Thus the parallel is established at the outset: the same forces that apparently tore a slab of granite apart are at work on Nicholson himself, dividing him bitterly between his old life and his new one, between the familiar and the unknown, between Anna at home and Margaret on the island.

Four months ago he had been a man for whom “passion was a thing of the past,” but now there is not merely Margaret, there is an avalanche of excitement and ambiguity. A woman assigned to him as interpreter by the quarry radiates allure, “a danger that is too exciting,” and Nicholson succumbs. The insistent widow, Hazel Owen, speaks to him of her belief in God and in justice as defenses against a selfish, mechanized world bent on realizing investment at whatever human cost.” A fax from his wife arrives: “Test positive. You to play.” Margaret tells him that at trip's end they must part. Hazel gives him the broken slab that killed her husband, and in it he finds an “enigma” that he “must unravel.”

As the complications intensify, so too does the novel's thematic intensity. This isn't merely a book about a man caught in his own version of shear. It is also about the eternity of geologic time and the evanescence of human time, and thus about Nicholson's longing to seize the dying day:

“Their lips met. There was that extraordinary feeling of slow dissolution. Breaking off was like the shock of waking. He stared at her. Presumably there had been and would be millions of girls like her: as there were millions of years, millions of mineral combinations in constant flux, that vertiginous abundance of everything. Yet once again he had the illusion nobody could ever combine so perfectly with himself. If only the lots … would come out in his favor.”

As a geologist and a man of order, Nicholson believes that everything should be kept “in its right compartment, or discreetly deployed along the right surface of oneself.” But in life as in nature, it isn't so easy: “It was when nature's compartments began to break down that everything precipitated. Though that, too, was nature. When you raised the temperature, usually.” Hereabouts the temperature is getting higher by the moment; what began as an erotic adventure has turned into love, while what seemed to be a pro forma inquiry has become a high-stakes venture into the mysteries of the quarry.

As epigraph for Shear, Parks takes a line from Aeschylus: “The mortal cannot go fearless through these many-colored beauties.” How Peter Nicholson arrives at that state of fearlessness and what happens as a result are the turning points of the novel. Parks himself seizes the moment, wringing it for every ounce of suspense, then casually presenting his heart-breaking climax with the offhand skill of an actor throwing away his best line. Book by book, he just gets better and better.

Jonathan Keates (review date 27 January 1995)

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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 prejudice underlying Italian life, let alone absorb the rhythms of daily existence which their presence as tourists scarcely disturbs.

That Tim Parks, so far from being a tourist, had become almost an honorary Italian, was evident from his Italian Neighbors (1992), the shrewdest of engagements with the subtleties of plain living in a Veneto suburb. His novels, too, have staked out this territory, and their world is recognizably the Bossi and Berlusconi fiefdom: of gloomy chandeliers in the darkened soggiorno; a plastic crucifix on the office wall where the chicken-farmer's nephew is fiddling his tax returns; sex and childbirth on the family's hand-me-down letto matrimoniale; and the aged onorevole Andreotti, still unfingered for his associations with the Mafia. “Italy, it was heartening to think, was still that kind of place”, reflects Parks's hero, Morris, with no apparent hint of cynicism, after a chastening spell in prison.

Morris plays to its fullest extent that attractive role in which Italian women so often delight to cast Englishmen; eternally amateur, ingenuous, clumsy, incapable of focusing instinct or seizing opportunity, yet always enchanting in his gaucherie and misplaced good intentions. Whether or not he murdered Mimi, the girl who ran away with him in Parks's novel Cara Massimina (to which this is a sequel) scarcely matters—though since Mimi's Ghost transforms him into something along the lines of a serial killer, previous experience undoubtedly comes in handy.

Mimi—a dead hand beside which Mr Casaubon's looks a mere limp wrist—refuses to leave Morris alone. The Blithe Spirit syndrome takes over as her shade becomes his minder, his agent, his manipulator, and, at the end of the book, most bizarre of all her ghostly manifestations, his spiritual director, driving him to crime, sexual anarchy and near-sainthood, all in the name of the inner tranquillity he manages to achieve in the book's closing pages.

“He would accept his mere humanity and live the only way one could; from day to day, from hand to mouth.” Such an acceptance is only made possible through a grotesque sequence of comic mishaps which leads Morris to murder, first, his penny-pinching pompous ass of a brother-in-law, Pollo Bobo, and afterwards, his wife, Paola, whose obsessively knowing voice with its exasperating habit of calling him Mo we long to throttle.

The surrounding cast—including Hobbes, a benevolent homosexual aesthete and avatar of a more detached British expatriate tradition, and Bobo's wife Antonella, the ultimate good egg with whom Morris reads the Bible on the sofa after supper as part of his redemptive programme—form elements of a drama in several simultaneous modes and keys, brought off with an unfussed accomplishment typical of the author. Social realism, complete with moonlighting Third World migrants and obtuse carabinieri, shades winningly into the black comedy of nocturnal corpse-swapping before something a little more earnestly Catholic in outline takes over. Perhaps the real instruments of Morris's salvation, however, are those we find so compelling in Parks's consistently assured grasp, the muddy cocktail of indulgence and asperity offered by contemporary Italy, and the posthumous glamour of Mimi, irresistible as incubus, siren or tutelary goddess.

Albert Read (review date 28 January 1995)

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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, daydreaming it all up, as some wretched Italian schoolboy opposite him tries to decline ‘to be’.

In Cara Massimina, Parks's alter-ego, Morris Duckworth, is dogged by feelings of failure. He puts it down to his working-class roots, his North Acton origins, his mother's early death and his brute of a father. As he scrapes together a living teaching English, he has a growing sense of life passing him by while all around him his pupils indulge unthinkingly in beauty and riches, living ‘with the grace of emperors’.

Then he meets sultry and impressionable Massimina. Mimi—as she is known for short—makes eyes at Morris across the classroom and invites him to dinner at her house. Her mother, of course, disapproves of this impoverished Englishman as a suitor for her daughter. Morris, astounded at the opulence of the family's surroundings, wants what they're having. Mimi wants something else; and so they elope.

At this point, the plot of Cara Massimina teeters between artful construction and lively implausibility. Morris, still not as rich as he wants to be, sends a message back to the mother announcing that her daughter has been abducted. Meanwhile, they travel through Italy—staying in Vicenza, Rimini and San Marino—with Mimi blissfully unaware of the pictures of herself in the newspapers. In the afternoons, Morris makes fleeting return visits to console the family and to help the police with their enquiries, before rushing back to Mimi. (If this was a film it would have a hectic soundtrack and rapid cross-cutting as Morris runs for the last train, hurtles up the stairs and dives under the sheets a split second before Mimi steps out of the shower.)

The farcical romp turns sour when Morris clubs two tourists to death. They have seen an article in the paper about the kidnapping and threaten to expose him. Now we are in the realms of black comedy—except Morris has neither the charm nor the wit to make it funny any more. Before, we had felt a sneaky admiration for his motives; his approach to getting rich seemed acceptable when it didn't hurt anybody.

Now it is too easy. He just bludgeons his way through problems and, through a series of miracles and oversights, he always gets what he wants. It is not that Morris is particularly shrewd, it is just that the Italians around him are particularly stupid.

The couple eventually reach Sardinia and when Mimi eventually turns on the television and sees a picture of herself beside her weeping mother, Morris beats her to death, ties her up in a bag, and throws her into the sea.

In Mimi's Ghost, the bludgeoning continues. Morris has pocketed the ransom, married Mimi's older sister, Paola, and established a firm foothold in the family's wine business. But he is still discontented: now that he has money, he hankers after something more—something indefinable.

He mainly hankers after Mimi, and finds that in many ways she is still with him. He talks to her on his mobile phone; the picture on her gravestone gives him a surreptitious wink; he sees her likeness in Renaissance Madonnas. All around him are ghosts of Mimi, but all he has ‘fleshwise’ is lazy, uninspiring Paola.

For the first hundred pages we follow the faintly tedious plot of a power struggle between two men competing for control of the family wine company. Morris wants to buy wine in cheap; Pollo Bobo, his brother-in-law, wants to keep on producing their own wine. So, true to form, Morris hits him on the head with a paperweight and spends the rest of the novel languidly dodging questions from confused Italian policemen.

Morris Duckworth should be a figure of dashing amorality. His escapades should make you laugh, gasp and ache for Italy. But they don't. Mimi's Ghost lacks the structure of its predecessor (no double-crossed, star-crossed lovers on the run) and as a result it is muddled and uninvolving. The initial seeds of conflict are harder to identify, and by the end, the story runs into the ground. The sequel, without the arresting premise of the original, is a mistake.

Christopher Merrill (review date 24 March 1996)

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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 an Italian, how it turns out (as years later now it has turned out) that my own children are foreigners.”

An Italian Education opens during summer vacation along the Adriatic Sea, when Parks and Rita, his Italian-born wife, learn they have set out on what her family and other Italians can only view as an exercise in folly: the birth of a second child. Parks thus leads us through childbirth and house hunting, encounters with insurance agents and schoolteachers, adventures in school and in the countryside, all with an air of amusement and an eye for the details that shed light on a society.

“I can't help thinking that while the trend away from formal discipline is clearly general across the Western World,” he writes after watching a little girl misbehave in a pediatrician's waiting room, “no people is perhaps as perplexed as the Italians with the whole problem of how to make a child do what it does not want to do. Perhaps because Italian parents so rarely find any good reasons for not doing what they want to do.” This may, in fact, explain why celebrations go on long after their original motives—religious or otherwise—have been forgotten. And why the national debt is so high.

Parks weighs his family's experiences in Montecchio, a village near Verona, in a series of chapters titled after Italian words and phrases. It is as if language itself holds the key to his discovery of where “Italianness might lie.” His meditation on what he calls a “triumphantly Italian expression”—tengo famiglia—is a fine example of his gift for explaining certain dynamics of Italian life through sayings his neighbors take for granted. The literal translation—“I support a family”—does not begin to cover all the meanings of the expression, which also carries with it suggestions of sacrifice, power and social duty. “So that if anyone ever asks you what you have achieved in life,” he declares, you need say no more than tengo famiglia to be beyond any possible reproach, and when the judge is about to pass sentence on you for theft or political corruption, your lawyer will always plead, “But your honor, my client tiene famiglia!” He supports a family. And this both excuses him for what he stole (he stole it for his family!) and makes it more difficult to put him in jail (what would become of his children?).

His is, indeed, a sharp wit, which keeps him honest, entertaining and precise in his judgments—of himself as well as of his foreign neighbors, friends and family.

An Italian Education ends as it began, by the Adriatic. Seven years after the impending arrival of Stefi brought cries of folly (postponing the writing of Parks’ book), Rita is back in Montecchio, pregnant with a third child (“Madness,” says her father), and Parks is left to care for the children. Michele and Stefi, are decidedly Italian, he knows that now, and the sight of clowning teenagers prompts him to remark that “one of the reasons I've stayed in Italy is that I believe, perhaps erroneously, perhaps sentimentally, perhaps merely in reaction to my own childhood of church bells and rainy weekends—I do believe that kids have a better time here, that adolescence is more fun here.”

His idea acquires a certain gravity, though, in the person of his father-in-law, a corpulent man with a penchant for starting projects and never finishing them. (The vacation house in Pescara, for example, which still lacks its third floor and slanting roof, reminds Parks “of a bunker for some forgotten conflict, or for an overspill of unwanted refugees.”) Beset by his children's endless demands (money, apartments), the sacrifices he will nevertheless make for them until he dies, it is fitting that Nonno—as Michele and Stefi, his grandchildren, call him—be given the last word. “No better place to grow up than Italy,” Parks teases him.

“Spooning foam into his mouth like a big baby, the crumbs of a second brioche on his lips, my father-in-law is quick to correct me: ‘No better place,’ he says, ‘not to grow up!’”

The author of seven novels, including Goodness and Shear, Parks supports himself by teaching at the University of Verona and by translating the works of Italo Calvino, Roberto Calasso and Alberto Moravia. Which is to say, he writes about Italy from the privileged position of an extraordinarily well-informed outsider. His appreciation for the customs and rituals central to a country at once determined to leave its peasant past behind and dedicated to many of those same ancient values takes on new meaning when it comes to his reflections on child-rearing. Suspicious of travel books, in An Italian Education Parks has created instead a small masterpiece in the tradition of expatriate literature, the kind of work that depends on long and loving involvement with a place. We are fortunate that he has made such an investment.

Nicholas Wroe (review date 19 July 1996)

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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 “frigid Anglo-Saxon”, has lived in Italy since 1981, working as a novelist, translator and teacher. He is married to an Italian woman and they have a son and two young daughters. Seeing his children in an environment so very different from the Blackpool where he grew up prompted him to question “the nature of this world my son is growing into.” In conducting his exploration of the influences which make Italians so Italian, from the privileged position of the informed outsider, he assesses Italians from pre-birth to adolescence and then on to the post-childhood dependency which he sees as the curious situation of many of his Italian contemporaries.

After Italian Neighbors (1992), his first astute and witty book on life in the Veneto, Parks was characterized as a sort of up-market Peter Mayle: a writer who provided engaging local Mediterranean colour without pidgin Italian and disingenuous sentimentality. With An Italian Education he seems more like Desmond Morris, relentlessly observing his young children and their friends. Again, however, he has succeeded in writing a thoughtful and humane account of a society undergoing rapid change while simultaneously respecting apparently eternal values.

Sitting on a crowded beach in Pescara, he observes people all around him, “without exception doing exactly what is expected of them.” Which, of course, is something more complex than doing what they're told, or doing what they are meant to be doing. For Parks detects at the heart of the Italian character an “absence of any relation between what ‘should’ and what ‘can be’, between rules and reality.” Italian children learn this when their parents tell them, with apparent vigour, that it is too late for them to be up, they are too young for wine and have already had enough cake. They are then poured a little wine and they grab a pastry. Their parents follow this sort of logic when not paying taxes or obeying new regulations about back-seat car safety-belts.

Parks does not eschew clichés or national stereotypes, because he is aware that there is much truth in them; also, in examining them, he proves that they are only part of the truth. While children are both spoilt and frustrated, and the adults are both emotional and Machiavellian, Parks still feels that Italy is probably one of the best places to bring up children. The point of King Lear, he believes, must be lost on most Italians, who would ask, “Why didn't Cordelia put on a bit more of a show for her foolish old father? For there are times when a little falsehood is expected of you, because appearance has a value in itself, indicating precisely your willingness to keep up an appearance,” and he realizes that the observance of these conventions confers real benefits to all concerned.

In focusing so closely on his own children and immediate circle, in order to illustrate a larger whole, Parks avoids the home-movie syndrome, and adds convincing objectivity to his analysis by explicitly linking domestic episodes to larger more general points. Michele's love of fishing and Steffi's exuberant approach to pocket-money enhance rather than detract from his thesis. He ranges widely. Obvious influences on the Italian character such as the role and status of the mamma, or the impact of Catholicism, “still the default setting in a hedonistic society,” are neatly and comprehensively analysed. But so are the minutiae of house purchase, the treatment of refugees, the methods of insurance salesmen and, of course, football.

Parks's novels contain startling insights into human motivation and character, leavened with stylish black humour. In An Italian Education he filters the raw material of human behaviour to reveal some fundamental truths, and he takes obvious pleasure in dissecting the Italian language and its many proverbs and figures of speech, too. His interest in language is infectious, even if on occasion he slides into the territory of Teaching English as a Foreign Language, as he examines the etymology of verbs, the uses of blasphemy and the mysteries of dialect.

Parks is often brutally honest, not least about his in-laws. It initially shocks when he accuses his mother-in-law in print of the theft, or the “borrowing,” of his wife's cosmetics. Then one realizes that this cultural tagging game cuts both ways. Brutal honesty is what is expected from “Teem” as he is called. In fact he is loved for it, because this is what is natural to him. He is an icy northern Protestant after all.

Keith Miller (review date 11 April 1997)

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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, obsessive interior monologue by Jerry Marlowe, one of a group of foreign-language lecturers from Milan University on a coach trip to Strasbourg, where they will make representations to various subsets of the European Parliament. At issue are the lecturers’ working conditions, which are less cosy than those enjoyed by their Italian colleagues, and therefore, perhaps, discriminatory under European law. The hijacking of a progressive and benevolent piece of legislation by such a band of desperate, self-serving hacks sets a tone of cynicism and absurdity which seeps through the entire book. The journey itself is a mock-heroic progress: a craven pilgrimage, an Odyssey of opportunism.

Jerry has been practising European integration on a more localized level, and he has the scars to prove it. He has left his Italian wife to pursue a spicy and intellectually invigorating affair with a French colleague, pointedly unnamed until the final page. This affair has itself ended “very, very badly”; she has been sleeping with a German colleague as “the final piece in a mosaic of friendship,” and cannot understand Jerry's violent, possessive jealousy. Jerry is given to believe that he is insufficiently “European” for things to have worked out between them: that is, according to her, insufficiently enlightened, sophisticated and rational; or, according to him, insufficiently selfish, equivocal and faithless—though in fact he is all of these things.

Jerry has no truck with the Enlightenment. For him the most preposterous thing about the preposterous Avvocato Malerba, a law lecturer who has come along to help brief the delegation, is not his EU tie but the fact that he prefers Spinoza to Nietzsche. Descartes also takes a hammering: “The world must be as it appears to be, the Frenchman deduced, because a perfect God would not wish to deceive us. Nothing has been explicable since.” Even classical Greece, generally claimed as a model by modern liberal democracy, is for Jerry dark, mysterious and chaotic; the birth of Europe an affair of perverse imperatives and tribal enmities.

Perverse imperatives also hold sway over his present life. He joins the delegation, even at the cost of missing his daughter's eighteenth birthday, not through solidarity with his colleagues, whom he mostly despises, nor in any hope of saving his job—which he realizes he would be lucky to lose—but because he notices that his ex-mistress and their German colleague have signed up for the trip on consecutive lines of the form, possibly even using the same pen. Other male lecturers cite a more straightforward reason for participating. Several students, mostly female, all excited by what they see as an idealistic crusade, have joined the delegation, and may look kindly on even the most blundering seducer. The resulting manoeuvres, along with the anaesthetic trappings of modern travel and the bland standardization of the new Europe, are drolly noted by Jerry in the midst of his febrile introspection.

Even if not an unreliable narrator in the usual sense, Jerry is not entirely reliable. He spends much of the novel knocking back whisky, cheap red wine and Bromazepam, but it is misanthropy that clouds his judgment most fatally. He is creative enough to account for the standardization of vegetable sizes by the EU in terms of Plato's theory of ideal forms, yet he sees the scrubbed and floodlit façade of Strasbourg cathedral as something banal.

Tim Parks captures precisely the atmosphere of those marginal teaching jobs which one only takes in the absence of other opportunities, and which one gradually becomes too fearful to leave. The bluff, misogynistic badinage of lonely middle-aged men is rendered with due distaste, but also a kind of crude poignancy. Best of all is the way the narrative adroitly hopscotches between the personal and the political. The unpredictability of foreign-currency exchanges echoes the volatility of human relationships; the irony of siting Europe's legislative capital in a town which does not know whether it is French or German is made to emphasize the melancholy statelessness of a twice-divorced Welsh-Asian lecturer, the obscenely vivid but manifestly ill-starred Vikram Griffiths. But lovers of the full stop had better look elsewhere. Europa’s mazy, paratactic style can easily grate. Jerry Marlowe is perhaps not, in the end, a man with whom to share a long journey.

Penelope Lively (review date 12 April 1997)

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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 narrating lector, Jerry.

The concept is a clever framework for reflections about cultural identity and what it means to be European. Jerry's lost mistress—who is of the coach party, which may be the very reason he has joined it—is French, the wife he has left is Italian. He remembers their utterances in English, though that is not what they spoke. He sees his own mind as ‘a great dubbing process’. And this mind is made the central matter of the novel by means of a virtuoso presentation of interior rambling. Jerry's thought-flow, defiantly short on punctuation, repetitive, obsessive, is given in great rolling waves of sentences which build and swell for 20 or 30 lines until finally they crash exhausted against a full stop. The difficulty with this is not the manner, which is brilliantly done, but the fact that Jerry's archetypal process of thought becomes more compelling than his thoughts, which are those of a thoroughly unappealing fellow who has treated his wife miserably and who thinks of women as ‘totties’ and as nothing but sexual fodder.

His male colleagues are no better—the ghastly Colin, with whom he notches up ‘tottie’ acquisitions, an obnoxious Indian Welshman called Vikram Griffith whom Jerry unintentionally displaces as the party's spokesman and who will provide an unexpected twist towards the end of the tale. The accompanying bunch of nubile Italian girls are seen simply as potential shagging material, and are apparently only too willing to comply. Jerry's loutish persona makes it hard for the reader to identify readily if at all with his anguish at the loss of her—the unnamed lover over whom he obsessively broods. And she sounds pretty unattractive too—casually deceiving her husband with Jerry and then two-timing Jerry with another lector whom she then describes as not being at her level in bed.

Jerry becomes more tolerable and indeed more interesting when he allows his torrent of obsession and reminiscence to be interrupted by his reflections on cultural identity. There is a perceptive deconstruction of signage in a motorway service station, where language has been abandoned in favour of those ubiquitous logos of a crossed-out dog, a figure with a skirt. He notes that the sandblasted and floodlit cathedral at Strasbourg has been reduced to an attractive decorative landmark, but even that detached observation swings back to his manic thoughts of her as he wonders if eventually the image of her may become equally drained of meaning.

We are told that the lovers read and discussed books together—Chateaubriand and Constant and Xenophon and Thucydides. The episode of her ultimate betrayal of him turns on a reference he once made to her about Napoleon's sexual requirements from Josephine. This theme of shared cultural reference is set against that other one of disparity, but both are eclipsed by the overpowering sexual jealousy and loss; and this comes over with great effect, however much we may resist the dire Jerry—even a man who thinks of women as ‘totties’ must be allowed ordinary sensibilities, I suppose. Tim Parks vividly creates the endless re-running of seminal moments in an affair—what she said, what she did, that masochistic reopening of wounds. The effect is pathetic, risible and always convincing, as the coach hurtles through the heart of Europe with its bickering and lascivious cargo.

John Derbyshire (review date 20 September 1998)

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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 to tell stories about the commonplace human psyche under great stress. I cannot say I think as highly of Parks as some of my literary acquaintances, who have praised him very extravagantly; but he is a serious writer working with serious themes, and Europa, in spite of an unsatisfactory ending, is a novel well worth the effort required to keep track of its narrative thread.

Here is what happens in Europa. In Part One, a group of lecturers and students from an Italian university set out in a bus from Milan to petition the European Parliament at Strasbourg. Their petition concerns the unfair treatment of foreign teachers at the university, which, the teachers and their student supporters believe, violates some provision of European law. The whole excursion is the brainchild of Vikram Griffiths, a half-Welsh, half-Indian lecturer and lecher who has, as we say, difficulty with relationships. A movie is shown on the bus: “Dead Poets Society,” with Robin Williams. It rains steadily.

In Part Two the group checks in to a nondescript hotel in the Strasbourg suburbs, takes dinner at a German restaurant in the city center, returns to the hotel, searches fruitlessly on foot, in the continuing rain, for a decent bar, goes back to party briefly in the hotel lounge. In Part Three the actual presentation of the petition to a committee of the European Parliament occurs, but is interrupted by a tragic event.

All of this is narrated by one of the foreign lecturers, Jeremy Marlowe. Like the author, Marlowe is an Englishman in his mid-forties living in Italy. He is a few months out of a passionate four-year affair with a colleague, a Frenchwoman, who is among those going to Strasbourg with the petition. The affair destroyed Jeremy's marriage and still dominates his thoughts, and his narration.

Thus the book's principal topic is amorous obsession—which is, as Robert Burton pointed out, a species of melancholy. To the portion of humanity susceptible to that malady, Jeremy's slow drift toward madness will be all too credible. Here is the whole grisly catalogue: the hopelessness so shamefully akin to grief, yet angrier and more resistant to resolution because the grieved-for still lives; the compulsive picking at the wounds of betrayal and regret; the endless circular recollection of-all that happened with the loved one; the stalking and threatening; the whirlpooling of all thought and experience, all understanding of history and literature and science, down into a horrid solipsism: “‘Does he have daughters?’ Lear asked, of anybody remotely unhappy. And even this unexpected analogy, Lear, Cordelia, leads me back to HER … Everything is past, I tell myself, and yet because of that more present than ever. As if the only paradise one might ever set out to explore were paradise lost.”

Those who understand, will understand. Those who do not may read Lolita, Tennyson's “Tithonus,” or—for light relief—Hazlitt's Liber Amoris.

For a backdrop to the anguished seething in Marlowe's heart, Parks has used the forms and symbols of European unity. As obvious and desirable as this latter project may seem to Americans, its appeal in Europe herself is limited to some small cliques of bloodless technocrats and millenarian ideologues, and to the ignorant young. Even to those not actively hostile (most of the English people I know regard the whole thing as a bankers’ racket), “Europe” is a cold temple, with no gods in residence—a state of affairs illustrated perfectly by the featureless Meditation Room in the European Parliament building, from which Marlowe narrates Part Three.

There are some lesser irritants contributing to the erosion of Marlowe's sanity. Bad art, for example: that silly Robin Williams movie, an even sillier book given to Marlowe by his daughter, Italian pop music, cheap reproductions of mediocre paintings hung in hotel bedrooms. Also the repetitive occurrence of certain numbers, attention to which is one of the surest markers of incipient lunacy. (We all knew where we were with Louis Farrakhan, didn't we, when he launched into that long exposition on the significance of the number 19.) In Marlowe's case the number is 45—his age, seat number on the bus, the adored one's telephone area code, etc.

Curiously, the novel's printer has had the last laugh here: One of the few numbers in the book that is not composed of the digits 4 and 5 is the one on the door of Marlowe's Strasbourg hotel room, 119. This fact is revealed on page 119.

Gabriele Annan (review date 5 November 1998)

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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 sensibilities in Europe. Parks's Jerry is a middle-class English academic; Begley's Mistler an upper-crust New Yorker. Jerry is the first-person narrator in Europa, whereas Mistler's Exit is written in the third person. It makes very little difference: everything that happens in Louis Begley's novel is seen, felt, and judged by Mistler: he is just as much the “I” as Jerry is. Besides, Begley's minor characters are definitely minor and more schematic than Parks's.

Jerry and Mistler both show off (or maybe it's their authors who do; but it suits the characters anyway) their familiarity with European idioms and preoccupations: the pages bristle with Italian and French italics. Mistler uses the Italian subjunctive “with gusto,” and in Europa the climactic sentence is in Greek—demotiki, not classical; the many quotations from Thucydides, Plutarch, and other ancient authors are in English, though. Jerry is a classical scholar by training. Both men are sensitive to the language around them, and often pained by its ugliness (Mistler) or idiocy (Jerry). They are also discriminating in many other overlapping but fundamentally divergent ways; and both have sexual fantasies, memories, and even experiences in explicit and exciting detail. But there the similarity ends, and it's significant that Begley preserves his distance by calling his hero by his surname, while Jerry's surname hardly ever crops up at all. Mistler might consider Jerry a little loutish. But then, Mistler is in his sixties, while Jerry is forty-five and unhappy about it. …

Moving from Begley to Tim Parks is like moving from Rameau to Kurt Weill or from Ingres to Jackson Pollock; from static to hectic, from tenue to hysteria. Europa is a virtuoso tragicomic tour de force, very funny, with quirky, appealing characters, an unpredictable story, and a shocking denouement. Stream-of-consciousness embraces philosophical reflection and running—no, galloping—commentary. Details of behavior and environment are pungently observed as they race by, and Parks's mimicry can compete for accuracy and comicality with the very best stand-up comedians—Woody Allen, say. Jerry isn't Jewish, but like Allen he is a schlemiel with too much brain and self-awareness for his own good.

The sentences of his inner monologue go on for entire paragraphs, and the longest paragraphs can tumble on for pages. Yelps of recognition, dismay, pain, rage, and urgent sexual need bob along on the torrent. It's like rafting down the Upper Rhine—except that such metaphors are off limits because at the heart of this novel is a polemic against cliché, with special reference to the sanctimonious new clichés of European Union—consociativismo for instance, a loathsome Italian coinage for “the sad glue that keeps couples and countries and coach [i.e., bus] parties together”; or, even worse, “United Colors of Benetton.” Actually, the topical clichés of Europe merely reflect the cliché-ridden condition of mankind as a whole.

The tempo of Parks's prose mimics the journey of a chartered bus across the Alps, with its endemic torture of piped music, piped video, and “the strong and nauseating smell of plastics and synthetic upholstery.” It begins when Jerry joins a delegation of foreign-language teachers and students from Milan University. They travel overnight to Strasbourg to protest to the European Parliament about Italy's discrimination against foreign “lectors,” or instructors, who don't have tenure, whereas their Italian colleagues do. Jerry has no interest in the cause. He has always seen

this job … as a mere steppingstone, a sensible way-station, an income to tide me over while I picked up my ticket to somewhere else (until, like my marriage, it became a desert island, a place of loathed and ultimately terrifying convenience), if I lose my job, I will have lost the last element in life, after wife and daughter and mistress, that gave me any sense of role and identity.

Jerry feels no guilt about leaving his wife with the cruel explanation that he found her repulsive. He loves his daughter, whose eighteenth birthday coincides with the expedition to Strasbourg and makes him feel guilty about missing her party; his mistress left him two years ago. Still, there he is, with his beady eye on his fellow passengers. All but two of the students are girls, mostly very young, naive, and touchingly well-intentioned as well as sexually desirable. They have been collectively christened “totties” by Jerry's crude and lecherous English colleague Colin, who makes relentless passes at them and draws Jerry into deplorable tottie-talk.

Jerry is there because of his former mistress, a French lector and a leading spirit in the delegation—desirable, enormously sexy, intelligent, ambitious, and a Euro-prig. Their affair ended when Jerry hit her after discovering that she was two-timing him with a German lector named Georg. She defended her infidelity on the grounds that Georg was having a grim time looking after his little boy while his wife lay incurably sick in the hospital; going to bed with him was part of the “mosaic of friendship” (a prize priggish cliché) and it was immature of Jerry to object. Jerry has been pretending that he has got over her, but he knows he hasn't and “that the very instant I took this decision was also the instant I recognized and recognized that I had always recognized that coming on this trip was one of those mistakes I was made to make.”

Until the last sentence in the book, Jerry never names his former lover.

If I never say her name, although I think of little else but her, it is partly because that name is still so powerful that its very articulation causes an emotional seizure, an immediate tension that I feel physically, but also and perhaps more importantly, because by never saying it I keep it that way, I prolong its power, I prevent its dilution in repetition, in the way a word like Europe has been diluted into thin air with all the times everybody says Europe this and Euro that, though once it was the name of a girl a god became a bull to rape and half the heroes hoped to find.

The brilliance of this passage lies in the ingenious but legitimate way it links Parks's two main themes: the eternal one of obsessive love, and the topical one of the clichéification of Europe, plus the recurring motif of the classical scholar's nostalgia for the ancient world:

the way they lived inside the natural world, at home in it in a way we never can be, the patterned constellations over their heads throbbing with deities, the deep wells they drew their water from encircled by serpents, and not a single holy text (I'm thinking of pre-Orphic times) or social manifesto, or sniff of political correctness to slip a credit card between themselves and the sacred.

Apart from the mannerly Georg and the unmannerly Colin, the lectors on the journey include a harsh Greek lady, a bland German surgeon's wife, a smug Irish novelist, and a terribly correct Italian avvocato not too correct to bed one of the students. All these characters are ironically seen to a Dickensian extent, and it seems a miracle that Parks has found room for them (and a few others) in a mere 262 pages. Even more lecherous and chronically plastered than Colin is Vikram Griffiths, a voluble Welshman with an Indian mother. He claims to be the only colored member of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, and is the instigator and organizer of the protest trip. He has two divorced wives, an analyst, no money, a custody struggle over his child, disgusting catarrh, and a smelly dog on whom his otherwise rejected love centers and who slobbers all over the bus. In spite of these inconveniences. Jerry manages to see and convey Vikram's considerable charm and even greater pathos, and the others see it too: besides, political correctness compels them to make an effort to love the representative of not just one but two minorities.

The second part of Europa opens in Strasbourg with a memorable description of cafard. Jerry is lying on his hotel bed.

All I can see is that headlights pass at regular intervals stretching and flitting over wall and ceiling, their yellow glow softened by the synthetic mesh of the curtains, but with swift shards, as though of unpleasantly illuminating thoughts, where the material doesn't pull to at the top. Attended by a slight rise and fall in the background swell of traffic noise, the intermittent brightness passes, a split second before the auditory peak, over a reproduction of something from Picasso's blue period, a reproduction so flat in its printed melancholy, and so poorly framed in what must be extruded poly-something-or-other, it immediately makes you aware of all the other reproductions of famous paintings bought in bulk no doubt for all the other fifty or so rooms of this prefabricated, out-of-town hotel so suitable for accommodating large and unprosperous groups of coach travellers—pensioners, strikers, pilgrims. …

There follows a meditation on Picasso's lovers in their cheap reproduction, which ends:

You can see these two are at the thousandth attempt now, I mean of recapturing whatever it was, they're years, if not decades on, so that it's not really a conscious seeking they're engaged in any more, they're not expecting to recapture anything, but more a sort of mysterious imposition, this clasping, this rehearsal of intimacy, this placing of cheek against cheek, a blue and green ceremony they have forgotten the origins of, like the ceremonies Plutarch mentioned in Quaestiones Graecae and suggested were the most faithfully observed of all, the ones nobody could understand or explain to him any more.

Vikram gets so outrageously drunk during the delegation's dinner in Strasbourg that the lectors decide he is unfit to present their petition, and they elect Jerry to do it instead. And so he does, stringing together clichés with the best of them. His excellent performance is interrupted by a shriek (in Greek) from the Greek lector: the humiliated Vikram has been found hanging in a lavatory of the parliament building. Even this is not quite the end of the story.

After identifying the body, Jerry spends four hours alone in the Parliament's piously nondenominational Meditation Room. His thoughts are not unlike Mistler's except that they refer to the Greek gods and not to Christ:

The thing that most terrified the Greeks was that they would be deceived by the gods. They would receive a message. A dream, an oracle. Attack now, Agamemnon. Clearly it was a message. Clearly it came from the gods. But it was the wrong message. It led to defeat. Or they would be invaded by a passion. Phaedra's for Hippolytus. Clearly it was an invasion. Clearly it came from outside, from the gods. But it was the wrong passion. It led to madness. To suicide. As whole nations can be led to madness and suicide sometimes, on the back of the wrong dream, the wrong passion.

Jerry, of course, doesn't believe in the gods (though he may wish he did): he puts Vikram's death and his own infatuation down to an “enzyme shift.” The only difference, for Parks, is in the nomenclature: God the Father, the Greek pantheon, enzymes—it's all the same ineluctable and beyond human control.

George Walden (review date 11 December 1998)

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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 humour of evasion, or sweetened with moral politeness till it rots your teeth. In Parks there is irregularity aplenty and the grain is rough. “Job and marriage are our two greatest prisons … clearly it is very exciting when you start destroying everything … I could never feel as much anger towards the Nazis as one feels, on occasion, for the obtuseness of a colleague, or wife, or child, or editor.” Just gimme the facts, ma'am, said the detective in the spoof Dragnet (as I recall), and that is what Parks does.

These essays/reflections/autobiographical tales [in Adultery and Other Diversions] are a perfect vehicle for him. You can see why the late Joseph Brodsky admired him. Parks is a sort of moral subversive: he respects the forms in the sense of grudgingly observing them, but nothing more. A family man, he follows official policy on the necessity of co-operative male-female relationships, the need for families to stay together and for fathers to be good daddies to their children, but is buggered if he is going to be nice about it. “The whole crisis in contemporary child-rearing,” he observes after a set-to with his young son in “Conformity,” which leads him to muse on the pointlessness of pretence about who is in charge, “has to do with our insistence on articulating explanations.” Another grain of experience we do our best to smooth away.

Nothing here is smarmed over and nothing evaded, certainly nothing of himself. In “Charity” he turns down an offer to do a piece for Benetton, on obvious moral grounds. The company ups its offer to US $6,000. He accepts. He joins them on a trip to Corleonesi, near Palermo, whose Mafia notoriety has ruined the economy, and where Benetton is on the lookout for marketable victims. He then writes a piece in praise of the town, because one or two people he met impressed him.

These pieces are strangely affecting because Parks tells truths we have become unused to hearing, except perhaps from Philip Roth. Honesty always comes as a shock, and at times one starts at his directness. In his last novel, Europa, irony, in the form of a comic exasperation, helped the medicine go down. Here he writes in the first person and does not go out of his way to amuse, in the humorous sense. He speaks of “our constant apprehension of the offence that might be created by a careless, or honest word,” so you can imagine his accounts of his dealings with his students. The brightest one, a woman, is appalled at the way D. H. Lawrence had treated her sex. “She hadn't expected that of a great writer.” He tries to engage her in a discussion of the great writer's insistence on the continuity between corruption and vitality. “But my student stops me. She puts a soft hand on my arm. She has decided not to complete her thesis.” Exit brightest student, leaving the rest.

Things like this tend to happen to Parks, sod's law incidents that set him off about Plato, Coleridge or Indian mythology. And always you follow him, because the writing is so good. The prose is stark, the sentences sliced down, some to the point of abruptness, his style as terse in fact as it can be flowing in fiction. Because of its unfamiliarity his realism will be seen as perverse, and his stoicism, because he makes no virtue of it, will be mistaken for resignation. Tired of wading through treacle? Cloyed to the gills with false sentiment? Parks will perk you up. It is not often you get a writer whose bullshit count is low to non-existent.

Antony Rouse (review date 2 January 1999)

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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.

So what is he up to now? He tells us in a prefatory note [to Adultery and Other Diversions]:

My hope when I began work on these odd hybrids was … to dramatise an intimate relation between reflections that are timeless and the ongoing stories of our lives.

It was an attempt, he says, ‘to evade the distinction between narrative and essay’.

The book consists of 13 pieces, with titles such as ‘Fidelity’ or ‘Maturity,’ and Parks begins and ends with adultery. The first tale reflects on the excitement of destruction and its aftermath:

In a chaos of receding floodwater, Alistair surveys his rearranged landscape. He has the kids alternate weekends, eats regularly with his family. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether they're separated or not.

In the last piece, ‘Analogies,’ the progress of an affair is compared with that of Verona football club, which Parks and his adulterous friend support. ‘If Verona could beat Milan, there was always hope. “Perhaps it'll go to penalties,” he said.’

The pieces on adultery and another piece called ‘Destiny’ are effectively short stories and work very well. The remaining pieces are essays attached to events in Parks’ life—a walk in the hills with his children, a long car journey, the final illness of his father, tidying a room, and so on. He reflects on ghosts, on Europe, on charity, on reflection—‘reflection is not encouraged, I reflect’.

In ‘Rancour,’ Parks meets V. S. Naipaul at a literary lunch and finds him charming but then says:

What was most evident was how much he was revelling in the buzz of recognition, a god listening to the chatter of human worship.

That is the particular. Then comes the general reflection that all the writers Parks knows have an unslakable thirst for recognition. That piece is called ‘Rancour.’

‘Europe’ is an account of a journey in 1993 by language teachers and students from Verona to present a petition to the European parliament at Strasbourg. Readers of Parks will know that this expedition provided the framework for Europa. On the bus Parks reads Plato's Republic and reflects that ‘Plato did not believe in the realm of pure forms.’ It was Plato's way of expressing outrage, of his yearning for things to be settled. This also provides the start of chapter three of Europa. Nothing wrong with that, but the reflection on Plato engages the attention more strongly when attached to the novel and its main character Jerry Marlow (whose state is the reverse of ideal) than when attached to this essay. The thoughts of Marlow are more interesting than the thoughts of Parks, although they may be identical.

The more powerful the mind,

the less interested in action: in fishing or skipping or revenge. Instead the mind is thinking of itself thinking of fishing, skipping, revenge.

This may well be true but may cause difficulty when the powerful mind in question requires readers and readers prefer narrative to reflection. As Parks himself says:

Attractive as it may sound, I don't live in a situation where ‘there is only the mind.’ There are also electricity bills, phone bills, Kellogg's cornflakes.

Quite so. Those who know Parks's work will enjoy Adultery and Other Diversions, but new readers should start with Europa, a terrific account of sexual passion by its appalled narrator, Jerry Marlow.

Anita Brookner (review date 28 August 1999)

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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 in a clinic in Turin, where the son, Marco, was confined. He was schizophrenic, and had attacked himself with a screwdriver. This detail must be kept, Burton decides, from his wife. The shock resolves itself into a moment of pure lucidity: with the son removed there is no longer any reason for the marriage to continue. Nor is there any further need to look for a house in England. The wife, Mara, can continue to live in Rome. What will happen to Burton himself is extremely unclear.

For Burton is a man with not only physical but mental problems. A respected journalist who has lived in Italy for 30 years (as has Tim Parks), he has decided to change his life completely, to ‘go deeper.’ This he will do by renouncing journalism and devoting himself to what he hopes will be a ground-breaking work on the Italian national character. But what was to have been the final chapter of this as yet unwritten book is an interview with Giulio Andreotti, disgraced former prime minister with Mafia connections. This has already been set up. It will take place in Rome. Marco's body is in Turin. There must then be a funeral. All this could be managed if the air-traffic controllers were not engaged in a work-to-rule, and if Burton's wife were not of a nature to vanish from airports, where seething crowds besiege the ticket desks. Burton manages to get on a flight to Genoa. Experience tells him that Mara, who is expert at ‘moving heaven and earth', will be in Turin before him.

Such are the rugged early chapters of Destiny, which, despite its title, is full of accidents and side issues. Burton himself is clearly on the verge of something terrible, as his verbless sentences and pointless distractions would seem to indicate. None of this is at all clear to the reader, who may continue in a state of some irritation until given further clues. These are released after considerable delays. All is obfuscation, but there is method in the apparent confusion. The airports, the taxis, the drumming rain (and the heart pills left in the luggage at Genoa) are in fact all misdirections. The heart of the novel, and its explanation, lie in a particular family romance, which the smiling Italian psychiatrist tends to dismiss. Dr Vanoli's diagnosis of Marco's illness is reassuringly simple: a virus of some kind. That was why he smashed up the family home and rubbed dirt into his mother's hair.

The psychiatrist too is an unreliable narrator, one among many. And Burton's urgent task is to fax his questions to Andreotti, to identify his son (Turin), to bury him in the family plot (Rome), and to camp out in his adopted daughter's apartment (Novara), until he can resolve these various difficulties, and to do them at once. He is sufficiently resigned to his wife's ability to move heaven and earth as no longer to worry about her, or rather to worry in an oblique manner while concealing aspects of the truth.

The family romance is by no means as poetic as it sounds. It presupposes unnatural affection, abusive ardour, moral mismanagement. Of all of these the two Burtons are guilty, and more. But one can be deeply unpleasant and still court disasters not of one's own making. This presumably is the sense in which the title of the novel was chosen. The details emerge slowly from the clumsy sentences and deep deceptions of the text. Dr Vanoli, telephoned from the clinic, tells Burton not to blame himself. But this is precisely what he must do, and there is no escaping this obligation. The strange family of adopted daughter, mad son, a mother who moves heaven and earth and a father who is always absent may not on the face of it sound so unusual, but the additional information which the author spins out so grudgingly paints a horrific picture which constantly goes in and out of focus. The past is revealed in a new and strange light: light becomes unbearable, both in the blazing cemetery and in the discreet glow of Andreotti's reception room. Burton's fragility, his occluded sense of direction, are menaced at every turn.

This could be the beginning of wisdom, but Tim Parks has made the reader so uncomfortable in so many ways that a satisfactory ending would be intolerable. It is a very slight disappointment, therefore, that matters can after all be arranged, but not enough to spoil one's satisfaction in the illusion that this is possible. Another Booker contender.

Nicholas Fearn (review date 13 September 1999)

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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 to assume Parks was fulfilling his statutory obligation as a writer to offer at least one study in madness during his career. But this is how Parks always writes. He will only gain admirers with this latest effort.

The narrator, Christopher Burton, is, by normal standards, no more than slightly unhinged, although the subject of the novel—aside from love and death—is schizophrenia. Working on a book on the predictability of human behaviour, Burton is unable to predict his own behaviour, let alone that of his flirtatious wife and their son, whose suicide opens the story, when Burton hears the news by telephone at the reception desk of a Knightsbridge hotel. His son was a diagnosed schizophrenic, whereas Burton's own schizophrenia, and by implication that of all of us, is manifest in the contradictory ebb and flow of his ordinary stream of consciousness. Our ease with inconsistency is explored, as he collates his impressions of his marriage, his affairs, his work and the decisions he must now take, chief among them being whether to leave his wife. Burton is a man for whom the making of a connection is the catalyst in both his work and his internal life. The comparisons he draws form the web of the novel, as he skips between interviewing an uncooperative former Italian premier, consulting his son's psychiatrist, plotting his future work, trysting with his mistress and lamenting his wife's caprices. The contradictions involved in all these activities drive him to the brink of understanding the condition suffered by his son.

At times, following Parks's thought-association game is more like reading phenomenology than literature, but Husserl and Merleau-Ponty were never this readable. Like Parks, they showed that the ordinary stream of consciousness can hit the windscreen as piercing articulacy rather than the more familiar slurry of uncut emotions and unfiltered trivia made all the more unpalatable by being contrived. Where they differ is that they did not intersperse their texts with the cameos of love and lust that Parks creates from an apparently inexhaustible supply of truth. The bawdiness of these episodes complements the rude health of his approach to writing, an approach that consists in a lot of straight talking. Whereas less sophisticated writers will impute a kind of innocence to the stream of consciousness, Parks realises that the truth is not necessarily the first thing that comes into one's head, which is then suppressed or perverted to produce a lie. Lying does not have to be like that—or perhaps even cannot be like that—because, as his narrator points out, the “I” is always separate from the way it expresses itself, and because those expressions have a mind of their own. The stream of consciousness is not a stream but a delta. One can view the writer's employment of the style as a form of experimentation or an attempt to tell it like it is. Whichever was intended, it succeeds as both.

Jenny Turner (review date 30 September 1999)

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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 advertisement for rum or Martini … that for all the beauty of their surroundings and indeed themselves these fortunate people are nevertheless obliged to think, obliged to be conscious.’ Once said, it's so obvious, isn't it: people like to look at pictures of models because they imagine the models’ heads to be empty, which allows them to empty their own heads as they gaze. Some go for pictures of Gwyneth Paltrow. Some prefer that ad on the television with all the joyously bounding dogs.

Tim Parks is a strange and difficult writer. I remember him from when he was on the Booker Prize shortlist in 1997 for Europa, his novel before this. He was fortyish, scruffy in a nice way, estuary English, except that he lived in Verona and worked at the University of Milan. He came across as serious and interesting, in a down-to-earth good-bloke way. So then I tried to read Europa and I hated it. Too many long, bad-tempered sentences. Too much ‘tottie’ and ‘shag wagon’ and so on. A lot of the prose was terrific, concrete and modern and particular. But there was a sourness which made me put it down for keeps.

So I started Destiny expecting to hate that also, but I didn't. I really liked it at first. There's a bit, a page or two in, in which the narrator decides not to order a kipper while thinking about his ‘potted version of Montesquieu.’ There's a bit about Tony Blair wanting to ban the use of calculators in Britain's primary schools. And yet, Destiny is, like its predecessor, a curiously blighted book, though in a subliminal, difficult-to-place way. Bits of it, like the idea about the models, are captivatingly clear-headed. But other bits are much, much darker. And under the cover of that darkness, there is something going on.

Both Destiny and Europa share key signifiers with the modern masculinist tradition of Bellow and Updike and so on: naked women, hotel rooms, a lot of phoning and phones. They also contain a great deal of transportation—a man betraying his wife needs must travel a lot, between home and assignation—which makes you wonder whether the reason for starting the affair in the first place wasn't so much about sex as it was about hanging around in stations, looking at the nice trains. Europa was set on a luxury coach driving from Milan to Strasbourg. This one goes from Heathrow to Genoa by plane, Genoa to Turin on the autostrada. It then goes down to Rome by way of the overnight express.

Like Europa,Destiny is structured as an interior monologue, with the narrator's head always in the extremest close-up, reflected in the window of the train or aeroplane or car. This narrator—whose name is not a secret, but is hardly ever used—is a man in his fifties, an Englishman who has been living in Italy for most of his adult life. He is prosperous and well thought-of, a top journalist and expert in Italian affairs, and he is about to give up on journalism in order to write a book. To this end, he and his elegant Roman wife are staying in a London hotel. Which is where they are when the call comes, announcing that his son has killed himself:

Then replacing the receiver and before anything like grief or remorse could cloud the rapid working of my mind, I realised, with the most disturbing clarity, that this was the end for my wife and myself. The end of our life together, I mean. There is no reason, I told myself … entirely bypassing those emotions one might expect on first impact with bereavement, no reason at all for you and your wife to go on living together now that your son is dead.

The action follows this man, this mind, over three purgatorial days and nights, during which he doesn't drink or defecate or pass water. He has eventually to go to hospital to get his kidneys tapped.

The narrator's main interests, in descending order of intensity are: his wife, his beautiful, ‘unbalanced’ wife, whose nail polish always matches her lipstick and whom he thinks he hates. His son, Marco, a 25-year-old who had been living in a home for chronic schizophrenics. And his book, which is to be about national character, the English and the Italian, from Machiavelli and Hobbes on. The novel shuttles between these poles of obsession, attempting to connect them in ways that might make sense. Was Marco mad because of his mother? Or did he lose his reason in the gap between English and Italian ways? Is the wife unhinged, or is she just an Italian mother? ‘Was it when I … went inside my head that my son's head went to pieces?’ Or, in its most simple form: ‘What did we do to him? What did we do?’

Each of the supporting characters directly elaborates the central pattern, like the minor curls on an iron gate. There's Gregory Marks, the BBC correspondent, with whom the narrator's wife likes to flirt and who has just published a book called Italian Traits. There's Giulio Andreotti, politician, crook and three times Prime Minister of postwar Italy, whom the narrator interviews as the final flourish for his book. And there's Dottor Vanoli, the psychiatrist in charge of Marco's treatment, who says that ‘every Italian man is either made or broken by his mother.’ ‘A certain and very particular kind of schizophrenia among males in their early twenties', he adds, is ‘one of Italy's current specialities.’

The structure of this book is elegant and dynamic. Chapters move from location to location in a flush-edged Modernist way. The narrator's obsessions are like a series of rants, each written out on different coloured filing cards, then shuffled and fanned out. And it all moves smartly towards a point of relief and closure, in a sort of exploded version of the classic murder-thriller form. ‘When somebody dies young, it is somebody's fault. You know that, I told myself … Always. Especially when somebody kills himself young.’ Is this true? Is this a useful way of thinking? Whether so or not, this is the way the narrator thinks, in his shock and his exhaustion. It's his fault, no, it's his wife's fault. It's his fault, no, it's his wife's fault. It would never have happened if we'd moved back to England like I'd wanted to. Until, in the surprising last chapter, an unexpected source of comfort is found.

As a person, the poor dead son is remembered mainly at the tail-ends of sentences, deftly tucked in and under, so you hardly notice him before he has gone. It's rather his trouble which fascinates the narrator, as a clinical reality and as ye olde illnesse as metaphor. At one point, he remembers reading that after four years or so of suffering a serious psychiatric disorder, a person will tend to settle into a chronic state: ‘Any approach to sanity, at this point, merely makes the patient aware of how much he has lost … A return to sanity, this book … suggested is a return to the reality of irretrievable loss, a truth so frightening as to be quite unbearable.’ Marco had been diagnosed as sick for five years when he died.

But the figure who does spring vividly out of the pages is the dead boy's mother, the aristocratic, melodramatic Italian woman who is the narrator's wife. ‘You fell in love with your wife for her vivacity, her vehemence,’ the narrator considers. ‘My wife’ is left completely nameless until the book is almost finished. She isn't allowed to speak for herself either, not a word. And yet she's a commanding presence, far more so than her shapeless, disembodied husband. She causes dramas, she makes things happen. She ‘move(s) heaven and earth’; she's ‘an expression of pure will.’ The effect is mannered but also heroic, like the gestures of a statue. And she herself is the first to know it, as she strides around in what Parks, very sweetly playing the bloke who knows nothing about fashion, calls ‘her red coat and green hat.’

A dreadful tale starts emerging in fits and glimpses as to why this family's story may have gone so wrong. It's stuff like stuff we've all heard about before, a dysfunctional family system, complicated and subtle, an accumulation of little things sliding out of true. But I'm not going to list these things, because the minute you do so, it starts looking like you're collecting clues to solve a paper mystery, which under the circumstances, seems glib and voyeuristic. The trouble with all these dysfunctional-family stories—and there are a lot of them around at the moment, in books and films and on TV—is that we all think we are experts on the topic. It is to Parks's credit that he doesn't even try to account for Marco's illness with some big production number of a primal scene. But he does have a weakness for the aesthetically pleasing psychoanalytic parallel: ‘How incessant the words are,’ poor Marco is remembered as saying at one point. Which is for so many reasons a handy thing for a mad person in a novel to say.

And the strand of the book about national destiny is indeed an act of ‘hubris', as the narrator suspects. ‘There is always a paradox at the heart of character’: what exactly does that mean? ‘Some contradiction that ties the knot, holds two conflicting halves together … A sort of stable schizophrenia you could call it, an enigma at the core.’ Write that one out as an equation, and watch it cancel out to zero on both sides. ‘This is a man,’ the narrator writes of Andreotti after he has met him, ‘whose lies to himself are utterly convincing, whose schizophrenia is perfectly stable … What is the point of talking to such a man?’ Sometimes, Parks seems to be implying that there is indeed a distinctively Italian form of emotional disorder—overbearing mothers, ancestor worship, the Mafia, the Pope. But he never quite comes out into the open about it. He always leaves himself the get-out that such thoughts may only be fumes from an overheated mind. His decision is understandable but disappointing. Everyone who reads this book will have suspicions about the distinctive screwed-upness of the present-day Italian, in the way one wonders about guilty Irish Catholics or repressed Presbyterian Scots. We'd love it for someone to make sense of such issues, or else to make light of them, showing us how not to worry about things we can do nothing about. But they seem to leave Parks ambivalent and burdened. We are left with a phew-it-was-only-a-dream-or-was-it shimmer which makes us feel like his narrator feels—uneasy and confused.

Tim Parks is an amazingly prolific writer. Destiny is his tenth novel, and his 14th book. He is 44 years old and grew up in Manchester, the son of an evangelical preacher. He has lived in Italy with his wife and children since 1981. His novels of the Eighties are set in the England of the Eighties, and bear the authentic marks of lower-middle-class Protestant depression: congenital disorders, religious nuts, untreated schizophrenia, domestic DIY jobs begun and botched and left to rot. They are honest books, and they are solidly put together, but they are not a lot of fun.

Then Parks started writing about Italy as he sees it, in reader-friendly Englishman-on-the-Veneto journals—Italian Neighbors (1992), An Italian Education (1996)—in thrillers (Shear,Cara Massimina,Mimi's Ghost) and a collection of essays, Adultery and Other Diversions (1998). These books have the same downbeat, gloomy, rather rancorous—to use a favourite Parks word—personality behind them. But they also have sunshine, shiny flooring and European civilisation. There's visual pleasure in there, a bit of glamour, freedom, air.

Destiny is a tremendously attractive book. It is charming and compelling, handsome and often droll. It has a wonderfully theatrical sense of space and Sixties-movie sophistication to its locations, airport, pasticceria and finally Rome, a whole city dedicated to dead people, to obelisks and tombs. It's full of ideas and turns of phrase and aphorisms. And the prose is sharp-eyed and vivacious. It springs and bubbles with what Parks in Destiny identifies—borrowing from Goethe—to be ‘the greatest happiness’: ‘the life of the mind.’

But it is also head-bound in a way which spoils it. Everything is too much about the same thing, as sometimes happens to a person in times of crisis. You know the way that a person might have a problem with a useless father, and so she gets herself a useless boyfriend? If she tries to deal with one or the other, she just bounces like a superball between the two. And Destiny is a bit like that, by design. Too much of it is strictly relevant to the crisis at the centre of it. It echoes through the incidentals, like fractals. And too many of the words are like academic variations on a theme. There's little of the curiosity, the affection, the recognition that other people exist independently of your projections of them, that you get in the superficially similar James Kelman. It's a bit static and solipsistic.

One reason for this might be that Parks writes so much. The going-on-and-on problem—writing stuff that looks like nice prose, but doesn't really mean much—does tend to happen when you work to deadline. Another reason is that Parks seems to like writing about troubled families. And troubled families, pace Tolstoy, aren't easy fiction material—every one I have ever been acquainted with has had stasis and solipsism at its very heart. If I was Parks, I'd try to write about something completely different. But this may not be a choice he has it in his power to make.

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

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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 and final, this was my plan, as to be utterly irrefutable—I received, while standing as chance would have it at the reception desk of the Rembrandt Hotel, Knightsbridge, a place emblematic, if you will, both of my success in one field and my failure in another, the phone-call that informed me of my son's suicide. “I am sorry,” the Italian voice said. “I am very sorry.” Then replacing the receiver and before anything like grief or remorse could cloud the rapid working of my mind, I realized, with the most disturbing clarity, that this was the end for my wife and myself. The end of our life together, I mean.

Such control, such precision, such calm, such apparent logic! In the event, Destiny turns out to be a study in depth of the egotistical sublime, or the egotistical tormented, in the figure of its narrator and protagonist, Chris Burton. His consciousness is a spate of fissiparous reflections, declarations, contradictions, veering elusively between the logical and the irrational, and the reader feels it prudent not to miss a digression, a reference (even if it recurs repeatedly), since everything, it becomes clear, is intended. Double measures here, there may be, certainly no half measures.

Chris Burton is a distinguished British foreign correspondent, for long resident in Italy and a specialist in Italian affairs, seemingly in his late fifties, not too sound physically (he has had a multiple-bypass operation, and is currently suffering from blocked bowels and inability to urinate), but at the height of his mental powers, if hyperactivity is any guide. He has given up journalism in favor of writing a “monumental” work (the adjective recurs again and again, in self-aggrandizement or self-defense, finally in self-mockery) on national character and the predictability of all human behavior. After years of research, all that is needed to round it off is an interview with the disgraced ex-president, Giulio Andreotti:

Who is at once more himself and more exquisitely, as the Italians put it, Italian, than Andreotti? Had Andreotti ever, I asked myself, in all the years I reported on these matters, which were many, too many, been anything less than his irretrievably ambiguous self? Entirely predictable.

Andreotti will be the final demonstration and proof of Burton's thesis. Hence it is highly inconvenient that Burton's son, Marco, should choose this moment to kill himself. Yet the boy's suicide offers an opportunity for Burton to leave his wife, Mara, who (in his eyes, and everything and everyone is seen through his eyes) is obsessively attached to Marco (while hostile to their elder child, Paola, an adopted Ukrainian girl), as well as rancorous, raucous, aristocratic, vain, flamboyant, theatrical, hysterical, flirtatious, once beautiful, still beautiful, her hair an explosion of dark curls, her lipstick bright pink, and in short “typically” Italian. (“If only one could put one's wife in a monumental book.”) Quite a woman, one would say, yet for all the wealth of description Mara never comes fully alive; no one is allowed much life of their own in the giant shadow of Chris Burton: that is in the nature of the “case.” Other people are adjuncts, objects of speculation, suspicion, complaint, scorn, uneasy love, or a mixture of these.

One of Burton's reiterated grudges against Mara, a relatively comical one, concerns the time when in the course of their lovemaking, a rare event, the house-phone rang and she broke off to admit a young Jehovah's Witness and actually flirted with him. But an Italian Jehovah's Witness, he asks himself later, I testimoni di Geova? That's not characteristically Italian; he had imagined that only the English and the Americans could be so stupid in that particular way. (A seed of doubt is just possibly sown in his mind.) Then there is Gregory Marks, BBC correspondent of long standing, and Burton's friend and great (not exactly great) rival, who has just published a book called Italian Traits, which Burton, strangely ignorant of the project, is alarmed to spot in an airport bookshop. Has Gregory beaten him to it? Gregory of all people? But he is soon reassured. “The most marvellous thing about the Italians,” Gregory had written, “is their unerring unpredictability”: Burton bursts out laughing. “He had actually brought those two words together: unerring unpredictability.” Gregory was never a serious threat. Not even when he made up to Mara, corresponded romantically with her in French, and claimed they were in love with each other. Mere word games. (Or could it be there was more to it than that?) Mara flirted with him, but she flirted with everybody, even with a Jehovah's Witness, even with her own son. Gregory Marks is no more than a minor irritant.

Burton has been evading income tax, but no doubt will contrive to get himself forgiven, or “healed” as the Italians say. Halfway through the novel he chides himself for a graver evasion. “When you are most needed you walk away.” Rather than face the enigmas of his wife and his son—so he tells himself, though is he listening?—he has gone “sideways, crabwise,” into more and more analogies and reflections, into adultery (pleasant, but not really serious), and into “an obscure and ridiculous project,” the writing of a monumental study of national character and the predictability of human behavior. (“Though I do believe such a book could prove a milestone.”)

What did he and his wife do to Marco? Reviewing two books by Jay Neugeboren in these pages,1 Tim Parks outlined conflicting theories of the etiology of schizophrenia: either organic or relationship-based (connected with family, for example), and hence the differing treatments indicated, drugs or counseling, psycho-pharmacology or psychotherapy. At one point in the novel, Chris Burton consoles himself thus: “The literature also makes clear that it is an entirely chemical alteration. A virus mutation operating on the enzymes. You've been ill, kid.” No one can be held responsible for chemical alterations, the cure for which must lie in other chemicals, as prescribed by the psychiatrist who announced, “Throw away your Sigmund Freud, Mrs. Neugeboren … because I am going to cure your son!” Judging by Parks's account, Mrs. Neugeboren shares some traits with Mara Burton, and the behavior of Robert Neugeboren, the patient, has some similarity with Marco's: darling Robert suddenly refuses to eat food cooked by his mother, and darling Marco suddenly refuses to speak to his mother in Italian, and addresses her in English, a language she has never learned, or at any rate declines to use.

If Marco is schizophrenic, Burton is phrenetic. “How difficult it is to be clear about anything, I remark, in a mind that never stays still.” As we see it during the novel's short time span and in the flashbacks, his mind is in continuous overdrive, forever changing tack, never losing emotional intensity, darting from one idea, grievance, or suspicion to another, and back again. He lives on the further edge of sanity, and at times it might seem that only his sporadic concern with his bowels and bladder, where no moral mystery is present, helps to keep him from toppling over the edge. All of this is conveyed with peculiar intimacy and compelling power, and inevitably the burden on the reader is considerable. In the Neugeboren review, Parks quotes a doctor advising Jay, “Stop being so concerned about your brother. You should get on with your own life.” Readers may believe that books, including novels, are properly a part of their own lives, and yet feel tempted to follow the doctor's advice.

Burton's movements of mind undoubtedly have their point, cogency, and interest. Over a cappuccino and brioche in the Pasticceria Dante, he reflects on the message of the Purgatorio: that history is hell and one should withdraw from it and set out on the pilgrimage to perfection. “Journalism is the endless description of hell.” All the same, Dante's Inferno is by common consent superior to his Purgatorio and Paradiso, which suggests that “perhaps only hell is worth describing.” Such moments, along with Burton's often germane and moving citations of Manzoni, Montale, Foscolo, and Leopardi (All'apparir del vero: una tomba … the thought of Marco lying in his grave brings to mind Leopardi's line: “At the dawning of the truth: a tomb”), testify to what could be a first-class mind somewhat overthrown, and one thinks of Ophelia on Hamlet's “noble and most sovereign reason. / Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh.” Though whether in Burton's case the bells were ever notably sweet is a matter of doubt.

His animadversions on predictability can sound insufferable. Anyone engaged on a monumental book about the predictability of human behavior “should rejoice in the fact that in Italy at the present time one can be ninety-nine-per-cent sure that two black girls walking the corridors of a night-train are prostitutes,” and “what happens between a man and a prostitute is among the most predictable of all human exchanges.” An alert reader will gather later, and appreciatively as he is surely meant to, that in fact the girls may have saved Burton's life by “unpredictably” bringing the plight of his innards to the notice of the train conductor.

The protagonist of Parks's Tongues of Flame (1985), a lucid account of deluded persons, is a boy whose normal anxieties over sex and family matters are exacerbated by his involvement in a ghastly charismatic movement. No doubt his adolescent agonizings are not to be compared with Burton's multiform sufferings, but in their way they are real enough, and unfolded with an engaging touch of comedy. Ricky was so afraid of sinning in his mind when he went to bed at night that he always made himself imagine that he had married his girlfriend before allowing himself to imagine he was even kissing her. “I used to imagine the whole marriage service almost word for word before I would think of her breasts in the bra you could see through the wet-look blouse.” Ricky is easy to like; you respect Burton's intelligence and energy, but it is hard to warm to him. Incidentally, Tongues of Flame, with its cultic nastinesses, grotesque speaking in tongues, and a sadistic casting out of Satan, was greeted as “hilarious,” and now the publishers assure us that Destiny is “often hilariously funny.” The word “hilarious” appears to have changed its meaning of late.

True, there are occasional jokes, as when the lame undertaker attending to Marco's body prompts the thought that “an undertaker limps because he has one foot in the grave”: the kind of black humor acceptably unpredictable given the melancholy circumstances. Then there is a sustained passage of bizarre comedy, when Burton learns that Doctor Vanoli, “Italy's foremost psychiatrist” and adviser to the family, is planning to leave his wife for a young and beautiful girl. Burton calls on the doctor, indignantly intent on dissuading him from such folly. To begin with, the girl isn't all that attractive, rather ordinary compared with Burton's former mistress, Karen (“very beautiful in a black kind of way”), whereas Vanoli's wife has a noble face, “albeit scored by age and tears.” Burton scolds the doctor: Vanoli should never have told his wife about the girl; he could have enjoyed his mistress and she him without destroying his wife. “I have learned enough from Italians to know that.” To think of Vanoli making the very mistake that he, Burton, didn't! “Your wife is your destiny, I tell him.” Vanoli goes on looking smug. A little later, Burton wakes up; it was a dream.

The dream peters out phantasmagorically as Burton finds himself addressing an audience of doctors—in Italian, he supposes, until realizing he is speaking in English—on the subject of national character and language. “The momentum of national character is in the language. … Languages talk to themselves. … To explain Italian in English, for example, is always to have an English explanation.” You can often track Parks in his own snow, and the subject is explored more thoroughly in an essay of his, “Perils of Translation,” printed in The New York Review of January 20 this year. He says there,

The rare bilingual person, the person most thoroughly grounded in two distinct conventions, is the person most likely to be struck by the utter difference of the same text in his two languages, because more keenly aware of the distinct value structures implied by the languages and the subversive force of whatever differences from convention are there established.

A translation conveys bare facts and the primitive aspects of plot, but cannot reproduce the underlying ethos, assumptions, or (in the widest sense of the term) culture of the other language. (Italian, for instance, is “drenched in Catholic morality.”) The nature of the English language, its innate associations and distinctive coloring, means that where you need an Italian explanation, you get only an English one. We may ask ourselves, though, whether these innate, taken-for-granted postulates are so immovably powerful, nonpareil, and consistent. And we may wonder if the problem as Parks adduces it isn't more theoretical than real. Reading translations, we tend to adjust instinctively to guessed-at social and psychological differences, we “make allowances”; English isn't drenched in Catholic morality, but we have our Catholics and our Catholic writers. Parks's argument provokes thought, and is to some extent undeniably true; we cannot well quarrel with his “growing conviction that a very great deal of literature, poetry and prose, can only be truly exciting and efficacious in its original language.” But it doesn't amount to a serious blow to literary translation, imperfect though that art may be. We are not hopelessly entrapped in our native tongue or mores; we draw knowledge and understanding of foreign parts and peoples if not from direct experience then by way of that mysterious and marvelous faculty called imagination.

Can we rightly speak of Burton's “imagination”? Some other word is called for, perhaps “fancy” in the sense Coleridge gave it in his famous attempt, in Biographia Literaria, to differentiate between the two faculties: the imagination is vital, reconciling, and unifying, whereas the fancy, more willed or chosen, “is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space.” Parks is adept at tightening the screw, and the fifteen minutes Burton spends in the camera ardente, the chapel of rest, with its candles and crucifix, where his son's body lies, seem more like fifteen hours. He cogitates fragmentedly on his guilt (he had always been content to be left in the dark about family affairs) and his guiltlessness (Marco was ill, that's all, a virus); he speculates briefly on the uncertain relationship between Marco and Paola; telling himself how uncannily calm and lucid he feels, he rehearses the old obsessions, with his wife's “seduction” of Marco (she breast-fed him for three years), her shadowy association with Gregory Marks, and the way you know things in Italian that you'll never know in English and how you become things in English that you will never become in Italian.

A similar situation arises in Parks's previous novel, Europa (1997), which also features a more simply dysfunctional marriage and a manic flood of consciousness. In a striking passage of cool satire, Jerry Marlow, a teacher of English whose colleague has just killed himself, sits in the Meditation Room of the European Parliament in Strasbourg: a pseudo-chapel designed to avoid specific reference to Christianity or any other religion, spirituality detached from doctrine and rites, windowless, furnished with a blue carpet, cushioned benches, and a neon-lit plexiglass mural resembling “some kind of bacterium enormously enlarged beneath a microscope.” Everything is so determinedly neutral and noncommittal that the most vivid presence is that of the absent crucifix. As it happens, Jerry Marlow is himself a victim of national stereotyping; his French ex-girlfriend has informed him that his terrible problem lies in his mulish Anglo-Saxon Protestant absolutism. As Burton has put it, “The lucid Anglo-Saxon is ever seduced by Latin enigma.”

Marking the opposite extremes of our aspirations, airports and hospitals are the same the world over. “No difference between England and Italy here, I thought.” As he is driven from the Rome airport to his interview with Andreotti, an appointment that has survived the loss of a son and perhaps of a wife, not to mention inoperative bowels and occluded bladder, Burton is struck by the city's ubiquitous tombs, cenotaphs, and ruins. “There is a kind of madness in monumentality, I told myself. … Who thought them great now? The emperors and popes. Who cared? All'inferno, cazzo!” The connection is soon explicit: “It was madness to think of writing a monumental book, I told myself. … The very idea of monumentality is infantile, is illusion cherished beyond the age of reason.” And then, “Only what is dead is predictable.”

The sequence of repudiations or renunciations seems to bode well. The novel's conclusion, like its beginning, has a relative clarity about it, a growing measure of self-possession. “What constantly startles me, I tell myself, is how I can be so reasonable and so mad at the same time.” That Burton should show such awareness of his condition—a rational-seeming derangement of mind, a hectic habit of ratiocination divorced from any secure grip on reality—suggests he is on the path to recovery, albeit backsliding is always on the cards. Take away his sickness, his singularity, and what will remain of Burton? Calm of mind, all passion spent? We cannot tell, perhaps it's no further business of ours. Yet, having journeyed with him through this turmoil of spirit, we wish him well—and Mara, too.

Mara had left a message for him with Andreotti's secretary, a few words of love (English words!), and he breaks into her family house, “the house of ghosts,” where she has taken refuge, not knowing whether he will find her dead or alive. There are no lights anywhere, only candles burning: another camera ardente. She has killed herself, he thinks, because he didn't come to her at once; he had spent the afternoon interviewing politicians, consulting urologists, calling ex-girlfriends. (Actually only one of each.) But she is alive. As for the candles, they were necessary because the electricity had been disconnected. “Perhaps they always cut off tax evaders,” she remarks. (A fine touch: so much for Mara's alleged theatricality.) He tells her that he loves her. “I don't wish her dead at all. I never wished her dead. Did I?” (Did he?) They plan their future. Tomorrow they will move out of the house of ghosts, and, she says, he must get on with his work. “Tomorrow we can begin to mourn our son,” Burton reflects. Not so banal an ending as it sounds, since Marco has now become their son. And what's amiss with banality, so long as it's not entirely predictable?


  1. Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness, and Survival (Owl Books, 1998) and Transforming Madness (Morrow, 1999); see Tim Parks's “In The Locked Ward,” The New York Review, February 24, 2000.


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