26 January, 2023
Hotel Milano, by Tim Parks
In this carefully crafted novel from Tim Parks, an elderly writer learns some valuable life lessons while confined to a hotel in the early days of the pandemic.
By Allan Massie
There are novels easy and agreeable to read even if you suspect that the author is unsure of his or her destination. That’s fair enough. Some novels are a voyage of discovery for author as well as reader: how do I know what I mean till I see what I’ve written? Tim Parks, with almost 20 novels to his name, is however an accomplished plot-master. The reader is safe in his hands. Given that Hotel Milano is a covid novel, this is reassuring; it’s not a piece of scarcely disguised journalism. It’s a well constructed novel and, happily, it’s not written in the tiresome and fashionable present tense.
Frank, the narrator, is an elderly and somewhat crabbit writer who has mostly withdrawn from life. He lives alone and no longer keeps up with the news. Then he is asked to fly to Milan for the funeral of an old friend Dan, the very distinguished editor of a New York literary magazine. The magazine is clearly based on the New York Review of Books, for which Parks has written often, and Dan, less clearly but probably, on its distinguished editor, Robert S Silver. Actually Frank and Dan have been estranged for some time, partly because of a famous – or infamous – article Frank wrote which Dan disliked, partly because Dan, an enthusiastic womaniser, had an affair with Frank’s now ex-wife Connie. Dan, it transpires has chosen to be buried in Milan sharing a grave with an Italian lover. Frank is urged to attend the funeral and speak on behalf of European culture. He accepts the invitation reluctantly, alarmed to think Connie may attend, then hoping that she may indeed turn up. So next morning he is at Heathrow early where he takes a call from his son Ben, who tells him not to go: he is just the age most vulnerable to the virus. But Frank, not very clear about this virus, boards the plane.
The day of his arrival, the funeral and a walk back through an already half-deserted city gripped by fear – all this is beautifully done. Milan is not one of my favourite Italian cities – I have some unhappy memories there – but Parks brings it brilliantly and disturbingly to life. This part of the novel is thoroughly imagined.
Back in his five-star hotel Frank doesn’t immediately understand what is happening, not until he finds he is trapped there, no flights to England possible, and refused permission to leave the hotel. He broods on the past, on Dan and Conie, meanwhile sustaining himself by drinking champagne and reading Tennyson. Then he is disturbed by strange bangs above his room, which perplexes him because he thinks he is on the top floor. Investigation leads him to discover a small family of Egyptian refugees squatting in an attic. On impulse – to his surprise – he invites them down to share his ample room. This is out of character, but in this strange time and atmosphere, self-sufficiency gives way to sympathy. Can they restore him to feeling for others? What will happen if, no longer isolated, he contracts the virus? Parks gives his novel an epigraph from the Old Testament Book of Daniel: “Blessed is he that waiteth”. But its theme is, in part anyway, the necessity of kindness.
Frank’s confinement is comfortable – not like being in a single-room tenement flat for instance – for he is permitted to frequent the hotel’s cigar room where he drinks whisky and smokes. Nevertheless, the confinement has him turning a new page in the Book of Life. Many of the greatest novels have as their theme – their subterranean theme anyway – the moral education of the hero or heroine; it’s the subject of all Jane Austen’s novels, several of Henry James’s too. It is the underlying subject of Hotel Milan, and Parks develops it in a manner that is pleasing, convincing and admirable. He has always been a novelist willing to try something new. Hotel Milano is one of his most engaging and satisfying books.
Hotel Milano, by Tim Parks, Harvill Secker, 231pp, £18.99