Reviews of ‘Hell and Back’

The Times

At one point in this brilliant collection of essays, Parks uses a small add he has just read in his local Italian paper (for the services of a prostitute-cum-astrologer) to demonstrate the many logistical theological challenges posed by Dante’s Inferno. It is entirely symptomatic of his imaginative and often extremely funny approach to literary criticism. His essay on Dante is the best I’ve read, placing the work in a worldwide, historical-literary context and offering examples of his continuing presence in modern literature. “Hell is gone,” Parks declares, “but like New York’s mental patients, the damned have been let loose among us.” He is breathtakingly good on Borges and Beckett and does stunning demolition jobs of Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, whose work he dismisses as a “careful exercise in crowd-pleasing”. An extremely tough critic, Parks writes with elegance and coruscating wit. It is difficult to find chinks in his argument.

A Great Writer on the Great Writers

The Irish Times

By Gerry Dukes

To begin with a shameful admission: I have know Tim Parks in his capacity as the magnificent translator of the incomparable Robertp Calasso, but I have not read any of his nine novels or three previous non-fiction books (this is indeed a shameful admission!) Such negligence is unpardonable, but pardon is abjectly sought (not granted).

Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, which Parks translated, was one of they key books of the 1990s, vivifying the mythological substratum that underlies nearly all of the imaginative production on literary culture. Parks’s translation – accurate, faithful, plangent and rich – was deeply considered and self effacing, seeking and achieving the ideal transparency of the ideal translation.

No such effacement is evident here in these 19 essays. These are the records of Parks’s direct engagement with other writers from Dante to Borges, Leopardi to Rushdie and many more in between. Parks’s literary intelligence, his readerly skills are everywhere manifest and clear. Rushdie and Seth – the eastern pretenders – are presented as showy performers, all glitz and few literary guts. Ishiguro – the grossly overrated far eastern pretender – never peeps above the horizon at all.

One of the great joys of this book is Parks’s easy conversancy with the main tributaries of European writing – or more accurately, with writing in European languages. He is a much at home writing about Henry Green as he is about GW Sebald or José Saramago. To read Parks in full flight is to be plugged into an enterprise considerably more satisfying than the aridities of the common agricultural policy (I should hope so! and more rewarding than the intricacies of monetary union. Aesthetics, in the long run, is preferable to economics, Kant is not cant, but Galbraith is.

The greatest joy is that Parks, at his most acute and serious or mischievous – the terms are almost synonymns in this case – measures writerly practice from Dannte onwards, against the performance of Samuel Beckett. No further endorsement of these great essays is needed (though the writer might welcome them). Read them and be edified.