Tim Parks

Tim Parks’s Italian Life, a Modern Fable of Loyalty and Betrayal, is out now. 

‘Look both ways when you cross the street,’ Giovanni’s mother tells him when he goes out. He’s a careless boy, easily distracted, and the reader is primed. In the street, the boy is ‘so pleased with how careful he’s being that he starts hopping along like a sparrow’. A polite gentleman warns him that this is carelessness indeed: ‘You see?...

He​ had two days to prepare. We’d been thinking about it for a year. Four thousand infantry had to be organised. Eight hundred cavalry. Mules, carts, munitions, medical services. A cannon. He was disappointed, having hoped ten thousand would follow him. There were two of us. We left from the same place, Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, in Rome. He in 1849. We in 2019. On 2 July. The...

Given​ the current enthusiasm for the practice of literary translation, the frequent claims that this or that English version captures or even surpasses the original, one might suppose that there is little point in reading a foreign novel in the original language. Yet some literary styles remain elusive in translation. The characters in Elsa Morante’s masterpiece, Arturo’s...

Devils v. Dummies: George Sand

Tim Parks, 23 May 2019

In​ 1821, aged 17, Aurore Dupin tried to kill herself by riding her horse into a deep river. Twenty-eight years later, Landry, a character in La Petite Fadette, a novel written by Dupin under her pen name George Sand, thinks about drowning himself in the river. By this time Sand’s readers would have been familiar with the suicide option. In her first novel, Indiana (1832), a serving...

Ecstasy​ and chastity. In Alphonse de Lamartine’s two most famous novels, a young man and woman seem to feel for each other what we usually think of as romantic love, but never become lovers, don’t kiss and hardly touch. The ostensible reasons for this are social and moral. In Graziella, the class difference between the young French aristocrat and the Neapolitan...

My Hermit’s Life: Chateaubriand

Tim Parks, 27 September 2018

The Lord giveth​ and the Lord taketh away. Likewise François-René de Chateaubriand. Again and again, in this first volume of Memoirs from beyond the Grave, a character is introduced only for their death to be immediately announced. ‘President Le Pelletier de Rosambo, who later died with such courage, was, when I arrived in Paris, a model of frivolity.’ And again:...

On​ 17 September 1862, Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, aged 34, gave his diaries of the last 15 years to Sophia Andreevna Behrs, who had just turned 18. She was the second of three daughters and her mother had been Lev’s childhood friend. Three days earlier, on 14 September, Lev had proposed to Sonya by hand-delivered letter, when her parents had been expecting him to propose to their...

There are​ so many Stendhals – art historian, music critic, travel writer, novelist, political pundit, opera buff, soldier, bureaucrat, diplomat, sparkling conversationalist and incorrigible womaniser – that the reader may despair of conceiving any overall project undertaken by the man baptised Marie-Henri Beyle in 1783. Aside from ‘Stendhal’ there were scores of...

For Italians​, I’ve found after 33 years in Italy, to belong to a family, a group of friends, a city, a region, a corporation or trade union, a church, a political party, is generally more important than to be morally unimpeachable, or free and independent, or even successful and powerful. The strongest positive emotions come from being instrumental to your family or group, the...

There are references to sex in the book, but it is always disreputable, destructive sex. This is one of the things that must put a question mark over Les Misérables’s achievement: a narrative claiming to offer ‘the social and historical drama of the 19th century’, should surely have something to say about the impulse that was absolutely central not only to its author’s life, but to life in general. Sex never so much as occurs to Valjean, or indeed to those who adore him – this while Valjean’s creator was enjoying the charms of every chambermaid he could lay his hands on.

Yuk’s Last Laugh: Flaubert

Tim Parks, 15 December 2016

‘The good man’s​ home is a mask,’ Gustave Flaubert wrote when he was 16. Every ideal was a cover for vanity. How could it be otherwise, when our bodies were ‘composed of mud and shit and equipped with instincts lower than those of the pig, or the crab-louse’? Born in 1821 to a wealthy family and growing up in the cautious conservatism of provincial...

In the early 19th century, Leopardi would remark that the factional fragmentation of Italian society was such that no Italian past or present was ever entirely honoured or dishonoured ‘since there can be no honour without a shared sense of society’. Dante is the exception that proves the rule, more honoured it seems to me than any other Italian in history, perhaps because his great work so completely captures and in its way celebrates the endless divisiveness that unites Italy’s present with its past.

‘Most blessed Father,’ five international auditors wrote to Pope Francis on 27 June 2013, three months into his papacy, ‘there is an almost total lack of clarity in the accounts of both the Holy See and the Governorate.’ The letter goes on: ‘This lack of clarity makes it impossible to establish a proper estimate of the real financial position of the Vatican, whether as a whole or with regard to the single elements of which it is made up. It also means that no one can really consider themselves responsible for its financial management. All we know is that the data we examined indicates a seriously negative trend.’

In Some Sense True: Coetzee

Tim Parks, 21 January 2016

Whenever​ we are in the company of J.M. Coetzee, whether it be an interview, a novel, a memoir or an essay, we are inexorably drawn into the realm of the ethical. We must judge and be judged, or at least strive to do the one and brace ourselves for the other. Hence a book titled The Good Story will not offer an analysis of the qualities that make for a satisfying reading experience, but...

Quite a Show: Georges Simenon

Tim Parks, 9 October 2014

In​ 1974, aged 71, having announced the end of a writing career that had produced nearly two hundred novels, and having retreated from a mansion with 11 servants to a small house in Lausanne where he lived with his second wife’s ex-maid, Georges Simenon dictated his Letter to My Mother, Henriette Simenon née Brüll, who had died four years earlier. He wants, he says, to...

What a pleasure​ to return to Thomas Hardy. For about a hundred pages. Then the torment begins, and we’re not even halfway through. From now on each turn of the page will expose the reader to greater unhappiness. There’s a moment in The Return of the Native where the main character, Clym, already deeply troubled by his mother’s mysterious death, goes out of his way to find...

In 1850 Dickens invented a little game for his seventh child, three-year-old Sydney, the tiniest boy in a family of short people. Initially, in fun, Dickens had asked Sydney to go to the railway station to meet a friend; innocent and enterprising, to everyone’s amusement the boy set off through the garden gate into the street; then someone had to rush out and bring him back. The joke was repeated, and the five-year-old Alfred was sent with him; but when the boys had got used to being rescued, Dickens changed the rules, closed the gate after them, and hid in the garden with some of the older children.

What options are available to you if you yearn to belong to your place of origin, indeed to be one of its leading figures, yet simultaneously feel threatened and diminished by it? One answer might be to move far away while constantly reminding those back home of your existence, your ambitions, your still being one of them. How might you do that?

Perhaps you could write about the place...

At the turning point of this second volume of Beckett’s letters, which is also the turning point of his professional life, the moment when, after so many years of ‘retyping … for rejection’, his best work is finally to be published with enthusiasm by editors determined to let the world know what they have discovered, the author’s partner, Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil, writes to Jérôme Lindon at Editions de Minuit to advise that Beckett does not wish his novel to be entered for the Prix des Critiques. It is 19 April 1951, Beckett is 45, the novel in question is Molloy. Suzanne explains: ‘What he dreads above all, in the very unlikely event of his receiving a prize, is the publicity which would then be directed, not only at his name and his work, but at the man himself.’

In 1237 Florence set up a mint and struck the silver florin. Until then the town had been using the denaro of the declining Holy Roman Empire, but the coin was now so debased that it had to be supplemented with more valuable coins from the then larger centres of Siena and Lucca. It was becoming more important to monetise all transactions, to be able to transform all wealth into money and...

Perhaps the finest piece of storytelling in this novel has to do with the death of a dog. Three characters are involved: Michael Luxton, a taciturn dairy farmer; Jack, his elder son, aged 26; and Tom, his much younger son, approaching his 18th birthday. The old sick dog, named Luke, was originally just a farm dog, then for many years Jack’s close companion, but now more recently...

In the 1980s I translated some of the late novels and stories of Alberto Moravia, elderly but still prolific. These books, which abandoned observation of society for concerns with ageing and sex, did not get a good press and have since disappeared from the shelves, while Moravia’s earlier work will be a part of Italian education for decades to come. Translating, I was struck by the almost cavalier perfunctoriness of the late books, combined with a ruthless narrative dispatch. The weightiest themes were tossed off with an insouciance that bordered on slapstick. Twenty years later, Philip Roth’s recent short novels create something of the same impression. Above all, Roth’s chronicling of modern American history is now little more than an alibi: the draft and the Korean War in Indignation, the 9/11 aftermath and Bush’s re-election in Exit Ghost and the 1944 polio epidemic in Nemesis interest him only in so far as they can be used to induce a generalised atmosphere of collective fear.

Cesare Pavese kept a diary from 1935, when, aged 27, he was ‘exiled’ to Calabria for anti-Fascist activities, until 1950, when he committed suicide. During those years he became a successful poet and novelist, translated many celebrated American and British novels and, as chief editor at Einaudi, was responsible for publishing some of the most important writers of his time....

The life story of the Italian writer and political activist Secondino Tranquilli, alias Ignazio Silone, is both disquieting in itself and a serious challenge for anyone who believes that the value of a work of literature can be entirely separated in our minds from the character and behaviour of the person who produced it. Essentially, there are two versions of the Silone story. In the first...

Bloody Glamour: Giuseppe Mazzini

Tim Parks, 30 April 2009

On 22 February 1854, James Buchanan, then the American ambassador in London but soon to be president of the US, celebrated George Washington’s birthday with a dinner to which Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi were invited. At Mazzini’s request other leading revolutionaries were present: Kossuth (Hungary), Worcell (Poland), Ruge (Germany), Herzen (Russia) and Ledru-Rollin...

Talking Corpses: ‘Gomorrah’

Tim Parks, 4 December 2008

‘When Lot lived in Sodom and Gomorrah,’ Peter wrote in his Second Epistle, ‘he was oppressed and tormented day after day by their lawless deeds.’ Having grown up in Naples, Roberto Saviano is similarly tormented and oppressed. Gomorrah is his account of the lawless deeds of the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia. Conveniently assonant as the two names may be, the crimes of Naples are not those we associate with the Cities of the Plain, and Saviano is not the righteous man who withdraws when God steps in to incinerate the sinful townsfolk. On the contrary, he seems to be drawn to what he abhors, and does everything in his power to see the Camorra and its lawlessness close up.

Che pasticcio! Carlo Emilio Gadda

Tim Parks, 20 September 2007

Despite his eighty years (1893-1973) and many publications, an air of incompletion lingers about the work of Carlo Emilio Gadda. His most popular novel, That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, is an unfinished murder story. His best work, Acquainted with Grief, is again unfinished and again leaves us with an unsolved crime (in this case we are not even sure whether the victim will die or not). Many of Gadda’s shorter pieces turn out to be fragments of unfinished novels, or of almost finished novels that he broke up into fragments, a habit which has prompted critics and editors to spend a lot of time reconstructing possible novels, always unfinished, from the various parts.

Rebel States: Surrender by Gondola

Tim Parks, 1 December 2005

In the 13th century, Florence banned its noble families from holding public office and instituted a republic. The names of a few hundred select citizens were placed in leather bags and every two months a new government was drawn by lot. In more conservative Venice, a group of nobles simply elected one of their number doge for life. There was no question of hereditary succession. Even where...

Stewing Waters: Garibaldi

Tim Parks, 21 July 2005

This widespread sickness, with its recurring fevers and languorous state, had become confused, particularly in the minds of visiting foreigners, with the common perception of Rome as the city of the dead, a city where a huge amount of space was given over to ancient monuments, ruins and tombs. For many travellers, it was as if the cityscape had created the malaise. ‘There is a strange horror lying over the whole city,’ Ruskin wrote. ‘It is a shadow of death, possessing and penetrating all things. The sunlight is lurid and ghastly . . . the shadows are cold and sepulchral.’ Given the 19th century’s love of the gothic, and given Rome’s reputation for offering an abundant supply of prostitutes and sexual adventures, an attraction to the city tended to be spoken of, not without some excitement, in terms of eros and death. ‘A vampire lay on weak and backward Rome and sucked its blood,’ Herzen wrote. He wasn’t deterred. The pleasantly stupefied state of the Northern intellectual dealing with Mediterranean heat and wine, his sensual appetite heightened, was associated, consciously or not, with the fevers of local malaria victims and the grandiose wreck of an imperial past. ‘To delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime,’ Henry James commented, ‘and the pleasure, I confess, shows a note of perversity.’

From The Blog
20 January 2011

‘I invite anyone who has a copy of this book to bring it into Piazza Bra for a public burning.’ The man speaking purported to be a priest. He was phoning a local radio station in Verona. The book in question was my exploration of Italy through football, A Season with Verona (2002), translated as Questa pazza fede (‘This Mad Faith’). But the priest wasn’t concerned about heresy. Italian football fans constantly refer to their ‘faith’. The first chapter, an account of an all-night bus trip from Verona to Bari, offered examples of the fans’ obsessive use of blasphemy to establish their credentials as bad boys, their opposition to a mood of political correctness that was seeking to ‘clean up football’.

Italy has just come to the end of another referendum campaign. Two general elections ago a new system of voting was introduced. Instead of the extreme form of proportional representation in force since 1948, a first-past-the-post system was introduced for 75 per cent of the seats in the lower house, while 25 per cent would continue to be allotted on a proportional basis. The recent referendum proposed to eliminate that 25 per cent and base voting for the lower house entirely on the British system.

Prajapati: hugging a fraud

Tim Parks, 19 February 1998

Prajapati was alone. He didn’t even know whether he existed or not.

I too am alone. It’s fairly early in the morning. About 8.30. I am translating a book by an Italian writer called Roberto Calasso. The book is called Ka and amounts to a creative reconstruction of Indian mythology. The lines above are the first lines of the second chapter. This chapter deals with the god...


Poor with Words

2 June 2011

In a review of Graham Swift’s Wish You Were Here I suggested there was a discrepancy between Swift’s description of his main character, Jack, as ‘poor with words’ and the man’s constant and sometimes highly nuanced internal monologue (LRB, 2 June). Dai George rebukes me, claiming that ‘part of what a good novelist does’ is to ‘bring to the surface’...

Bats in Smoke: Tim Parks

Emily Gould, 2 August 2012

At some point in his mid-forties, the novelist Tim Parks developed a terrible pain, near-constant and located in embarrassing places: his lower abdomen and crotch. ‘I had quite a repertoire...

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Tim Parks’s latest novel opens in the forests of the South Tyrol, where a group of white-water enthusiasts are taking a kayaking holiday. The river is overflowing with melt water from a...

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Tucked in and under: Tim Parks

Jenny Turner, 30 September 1999

‘Can this beautiful young model be thinking?’ Tim Parks asks at one point in this book. ‘One hopes not,’ the argument continues, as Parks’s narrator looks through an...

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By an Unknown Writer

Patrick Parrinder, 25 January 1996

Italo Calvino was born in 1923 and came to prominence in post-war Italy as a writer of neo-realist and politically committed short stories, some of them published in the Communist paper

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Dangerous Faults

Frank Kermode, 4 November 1993

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...

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Patrick Parrinder, 5 August 1993

Mythology was once defined by Robert Graves as the study of whatever religious or heroic legends are so foreign to a student’s experience that he cannot believe them to be true. Mythical...

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Nicholas Spice, 6 November 1986

Readers of John Updike’s previous novel, The Witches of Eastwick, will not have forgotten Darryl Van Horne’s bottom: how, at the end of a game of tennis, Darryl dropped his shorts and...

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