(A rare interview: This is Jasper Rees in, I think, the Independent)
In Piazza delle Erbe, the market square in Verona, the sun is thawing the crisp mountain air, and shoppers ward against the chill with that barboured, tweeded look which northern Italians suppose to represent lo stile inglese. It so happens that a more authentic example of English dress sense is on the scene. Tim Parks has thrown on a pair of jeans that may soon collapse from exhaustion and a leather jacket whose better days perhaps coincided with those of the Capulet family. Later it will be warm enough to get in Parks’s second car, meander up to a restaurant on a hill overlooking the city, and share a bottle of Soave. For now, a shot of caffeine is required. Given that he has on average two cappuccinos a day, this is something in the order of his 12,000th since he migrated to Italy 17 years ago.
Like sundry English writers before him, Tim Parks has alchemised fantasy into fact, and elected to live in Italy. And indeed he has taken the dream a good deal further than his forebears, and gone largely native: he has an Italian wife, three Italian children, a job in an Italian university, and two penetrative, crowd-pleasing books to his name about the complex business of being Italian. He sprinkles his English with nugatory Italianisms. “Ma…” he says at the beginning of sentences where he might once have said, “Well…” And the vowel sound in “no” has been shortened, in alignment with Italian pronunciation. As in, is this the life it appears to be, an act of escapism made flesh? “Ma … no.”
Of course it doesn’t look like fantasy from the inside. Parks’s two books on Italy – Italian Neighbours, followed by An Italian Education, which is out soon in paperback – could only have been written by someone dispirited by much of what he not only observes but is obliged, from the need to make money and bring up children, to participate in: buying a flat, getting on with family and neighbours, learning the ropes of parenthood all’italiano. He took off the blinkers and marvelled, not altogether approvingly, at the way Italian culture routinely allows public appearance and private reality – the lionisation of the family vs and the tumbling birthrate, for example – to co-exist in blissful contradiction.
The books made enough of an impression in Italy to turn their author into a celebrity who gets recognised in the street, in a way that an Italian who wrote a book about the British clearly would not. “I was on TV a lot,” he says, “down in Rome every week. And the funny thing is it took me about three months to realise that it was a complete waste of time. The Italians are very manichean: they keep seeing their own activities in terms of virtues and vices, and they were eager for me to list those. I don’t see them as in any way separate. Italian virtues, those things that please one, are in fact entirely wrapped up with their vices.”
An intriguing split occurs within Parks’s own literary personality. The two books about Italy tell of his own more or less comfortable integration into a social tradition that focuses on the hearth. “They were intended to be me at my most charming,” he says. Then there are a series of novels in which families are seen to implode, marriages to combust, moral structures on which we all base our lives to have perilously rickety foundations. If they have an overarching design, his novels are almost all about the struggle to be good, or at least to appear to be, while at the same time giving in to appetite: that old Italian dichotomy. One novel is even called Goodness: in it a Thatcherite go-getter’s predatory instincts are reined in by the birth of a disabled son, whose death he nonetheless lovingly plots. Cara Massimina and Mimi’s Ghost, a pair of comedic romps set in Verona, chronicle the efforts of Morris Duckworth, a penniless English language teacher, to ingratiate his way into a rich local family even as he systematically murders its members. Shear tells of the age-old tug-of-war between wife and mistress in a quasi-thriller about geology.
In Europa, his latest novel, death and adultery are still on the menu. Jerry is on a coach bound for Strasbourg, where he, his fellow language teachers and a gaggle of supportive, mostly female students will petition the European Parliament to save their jobs. Among his fellow passengers are his French ex-mistress, whom he cannot bear to name, and the German academic who entered through the revolving door of her bedroom even as Jerry left by it at the end of an intellectually and sexually passionate affair. He is estranged from his Italian wife and his daughter, whose 18th birthday he is about to miss, and it’s a symptom of his collapsing psyche and moral paranoia that he even suspects his daughter of having a lesbian affair with HER (as he calls his erstwhile inamorata). He refers to the girls on the coach as tottie, as he does to all casual encounters whom he can recall only by a distinguishing characteristic (Operatottie, Psychotottie). And all the while he gives vent to scepticism about the European ideal, centred in a building in Strasbourg to which these motley linguists are appealing not because they share that ideal but for the more squalidly animal motive of self-preservation.
So far, so Parks. Where Europa departs from its predecessors is in the extraordinary stylistic decision Parks has taken to drive the first-person narrative forward in sentences of epic length. It’s the voice, often very funny, of an ungovernable obsession, of a restless, overheated intellect confronting its own ugliness and redundancy.
“I’ve been looking for a long time for ways to change stylistically,” says Parks. “I wanted to find a voice that would really be new and different. It’s a voice of obsession. And it’s a voice of exclusion. Basically I was interested in dealing with a particular state of mind, the state of total disillusionment and outrage with just the simple fact that in this case is exemplified by the faithlessness of this woman, but also his own faithlessness and the way the world changes and the way it isn’t what you wish it to be.”
He is keen to establish that, although he teaches at the university of Milan, holds some of the same opinions as Jerry and has also lived through phases of depression, this is not his story. (The affair is actually a friend’s). “In something fictional,” he says, “who knows whether you’re writing about yourself or not? The point is you are and you aren’t. But I wouldn’t be married to my wife if this was my story.”
His fictional career, initiated soon after he and his wife Rita traded Acton for a quiet Veronese village, had an autobiographical beginning. Like Jeanette Winterson, he used an upbringing among charismatic Christianity in the north of England as source material for his debut. “Nobody was more religious than I. Baptised in the spirit, speaking in tongues, I’ve been there.” He moved through “a period of radical atheism” which was still strong enough to ensure that his children skipped religious education – although his older daughter now goes to a catholic school.
The Parks family moved from Blackpool to London when he was ten. He went to Cambridge, then studied at Harvard, where he met Rita (who has translated several of his books into Italian). She made him swear that they would not go back to live in Italy. So, here they are, a thousand miles from the epicentre of the literary establishment at which the younger Parks used to nurse a certain resentment. Although Tongues of Flame won two literary prizes, and its successors have brought in more, the broader readership enjoyed by some contemporaries has somehow eluded his work. “Of course I used to be very very worried about that when I was 32. I was working my ass off doing commercial translations and figuring to myself, `If I got one of those hundred thousand quid advances I could spend more time reading.’ Now I must say I worry about that very little. I’m so happy with the way I’ve set up my life at the moment, I don’t really care what they think about me any more.”
That contentment has several sources. He is writing a fulfilling series of long pieces for the New Yorker. He has just translated Ka, another of Roberto Calasso’s vast mythological fictions (the first, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, was hugely lauded.) A series of essays on translating that distill his teaching in Milan are to be published this summer by Cassells. Cara Massimina, initially adapted by Dennis Potter only for the project to die with him, will now be made into a movie with the piping hot Jude Law in the title role. And Europa, a invigoratingly frank dispatch from the frontier of bathetic male middle age, is his best shot yet for a Booker nomination.
The one thing Parks does miss about England is the pub – “that whole business of living near a place where you could find maybe a few guys you knew and just kind of chat about football”. So, having chatted his way through philosophy and literature and morality towards the dregs of the Soave, and in a segue perfectly natural to the Italian intellect, we move onto Paul Ince, the other prominent Englishman at work in northern Italy. “Good to see old Incey still very much Incey,” says Parks, who had watched Ince’s Internazionale play in midweek from his hotel in Milan. “I like his character. He’s obviously crazy.” In fact Parks seems to have located a mirror image in his footballing compatriot. “One of the things that upsets me about myself is that I get very heated in games, and that’s why I sympathise with Ince, because I understand that he would like not to be an animal, but he is.” And the same could be said of almost any of Parks’s fictional voices, raging against the crowded midfield of experience.