Magical misery tour
The Observer, 6 April 1997
By Adam Mars-Jones
Plot précis – a group of disaffected teachers seek legal redress – is peculiarly unkind to Tim Parks’s remarkable new novel, Europa. The characters, variously English, French, German and Welsh, are Europeans not only in the passive sense of coming from a particular set of countries, but also as a matter of profession – they teach at the University of Milan. In the course of the book, they seek to escalate their European identity to a new level by taking a bus journey to Strasbourg and arguing their case (that they are discriminated against by their employers, who deny them the privileges that would be enjoyed by Italian nationals) in front of the Petitions Committee of the European parliament.
The narrator of Europa is Jerry Marlowe, who only agreed to come because he knew she would be on the bus, the woman for whom he left his wife, after the most intense affair of his life (though things were never the same afterwards). The motives of his colleagues are not necessarily very elevated – various strains of careerism, and in the case of the men the lure of young female company, since a number of attractive students are lending support – but Jerry’s are a particularly miserable cocktail. He wants to show her that he’s over her (the character is named only on the novel’s last page), he feels a residual obsessive curiosity about her current loves and he wants to rediscover intensity even if salting his own wounds is the only way he is able to do it. These elements – the pilgrimage to a place of bureaucracy, the failed romance – Parks presents with an unusual intensity. Jerry’s life is a flailing disaster for the same reasons that the trip is a piece of cynical politicking and the European union a monument to wishful thinking and hidden interests. These connections seem arbitrary and strained at first, but come to take on real force.
What does it mean to be a citizen of Europe when the Bundesbank can destabilise the lira, as has just happened when the coach leaves Strasbourg? The characters react not as European citizens, but as people whose exchange rate when buying Swiss francs to spend in the cafeteria of a service station has been sabotaged, or (in one case) as someone whose savings in a Spanish bank have abruptly swollen their power over domestic property on the outskirts of Milan.
Jerry has noticed that his colleagues, for all their residence in Italy, return home for specific purposes – as she goes back to Rheims to have her teeth fixed. In a different version of bad faith, his own memories of conversations with her conducted mainly in French – have been filed away in English. The soundtrack of passion has unobtrusively been dubbed. But then bad faith is the only faith we have. Better to start from that assumption than live a life of illusions.
There is a specific hypocrisy about the appeal to the Petitions Committee: the petitioners are demanding to be treated by the university as European citizens with rights equal to those of Italian nationals, but as a matter of tactics they will restrict their arguments to Italy. Otherwise, it might be noticed that Italian terms of employment are unusually favourable – better than the petitioners would find at home. No one has any more community feeling than the maligned Bundesbank, just a greater hope of escaping detection.
This is Euroscepticism with a philosophical foundation, based not on fear of the Other, but justified mistrust of the Self. The triumph of Europa is the grandeur and finality of its rhetoric. Jerry’s loss of faith in anything but bad faith is made to seem remarkably like the shutters clanging down on the whole enlightenment.
Epigraphs to sections of the novel cite heavyweight pessimists: Zola, Cioran and Beckett. Very much in evidence, though not referred to directly, is the Austrian arch-pessimist Thomas Bernhard as much a maximalist as Beckett was ever a minimalist. At times Bernhard’s supremely powerful ghost seems about to wrestle Tim Parks to the floor, but then as Harold Bloom has pointed out in his speculations on the anxiety of influence, it is only the powerful writers who are worth taking on, and Parks is still standing at the end of the book.
Anyone who uses the long sentence to express misanthropy is likely to be in Bernhard’s shadow, but in the case of Europa the homage could hardly be more clear. Here are the same arias of denunciation, the same rancorous idealism raging against the modern world and all its debasements, the same disgusted relish of cliché (last, but by no means, as they say, least’) the same obsessive mulling over past events.
Every now and then in the course of their vast paragraphs, Bernhard’s narratives would direct their anger inwards, but it was possible to feel that they were turning the knife on themselves largely for a change of pace. Parks goes further in this line: one passage in particular in Part Two which starts off as a savaging of anonymous hotel décor with particular reference to a reproduction Picasso on a wall in Strasbourg, move on from Bernhard pastiche to something new, with Jerry’s realisation that his hatred of the image is in part a projection of something he hates in himself.
At one point, Tim Parks comes up an exemplary description of his borrowed method when he refers to ‘those increasingly frequent conversations where one feels that one must reconstruct the entire history of Western thought just to know the undesirable parts down again, say absolutely everything in order to say anything at all. Parks derives from Bernhard a rigour and a thickness of texture highly unusual in British writing, a mixture not conventionally readable, but thoroughly compelling.
Towards the end of the book, there is a slight concession to melodrama – when a writer gets as much as this out of minor incidents, conventional plot developments seem redundant, and Bernhard for one hardly bothered with them. But Tim Parks must be congratulated on a major feat of literary digestion, and a snake that has eaten a goat is entitled to a few hiccups.
Perhaps I can just add my ha’pennny’s worth on the relationship with Bernhard. First, there were elements typical of Bernhard already in my writing, particularly Goodness, before I came across the Austrian author. So, no doubt he came as a revelation, and clearly his voice is so strong that one thinks twice before borrowing from it. Three things persuaded me it was possible. First, I had read this German author in Italian, whereas I write in English. This translation at two removes guarantees a certain transformation. Second, Bernhard never wrote about sex, and this story is a story of erotic obsession. Third, aside from Holzfellen, Bernhard, as Mars Jones remarks, uses little plot. My work has always been extremely densely plotted, and this because I actually feel life is dense with surprise and incident and revelation. In this regard it is a misreading to suggest that there is ‘a concession to melodrama’ at the end of the book. The narrator’s memories are full of melodramatic incident, his state of mind constantly threatens a possible explosion in action. The irony that that action eventually comes from elsewhere, unpredicted by anybody, only suggests that perhaps other individuals close to the narrator are going through the same mental hell, perhaps worse, without his being aware of it, as no one is aware of his predicament.