Tim Parks

A Literary Tour of Italy

At first I thought, a ha, another itinerary of Italy through the eyes of Byron, Shelley, Goethe, James etc, the usual literary suspects, but no, this is an anthology of essays by acclaimed novelist and translator Tim Parks.

He arrived in Italy over 35 years ago with barely a word of Italian, but didn’t hang about picking up the language, spending three to four hours a day in a library translating words he didn’t know, but within four years was adequately armed to tackle a translation of Moravia’s Erotic Tales.

So, what we have here, note bene, are 23 exemplary expositions of Italian writers from, naturally, Dante and Machiavelli to Bassani and Tabucchi, and Park’s style is to elucidate first, and then judge.

Only when you finish a chapter, or indeed the 370 page book, do you realise how little you knew about the writer and the background to the novel, short story or indeed poem.

Take a novelist who has never been in my cross hairs, Giovanni Verga, who forces his characters ‘to run the whole gamut of their agony’. The summation is not Parks, but Emil Cioran, but Parks is smart enough to use it, and the stage is now propped for his insight which is always lucid, clear headed, and he can get to the root of an issue in a sentence. In Storia di una capinera, Verga’s Maria yearns for acceptance but, as Parks writes, ‘the society she longs for is supremely cruel and only united in its exclusion of the individual it has no time for.’

Alberto Moravia’s novels have a ‘hyper-conscious protagonist whose lucid reflections revolve remorselessly around feelings and events that will remain forever obscure,’ whereas Antonio Tabucchi’s characters ‘are driven by a desire to recover something irremediably lost, or savour an experience that might have been and never was,’ and Parks finds time to effectuate the influence on Tabucchi of the poet Pessoa, particularly the deployment of heteronyms.

The analysis of Montale, Collodi and Leopardi is worth the price of the book alone, though the revisiting of the roles and legacy of two architects of fascism in Italy, political and aesthetic, in the personages of Mussolini and an artist of whom I was previously unaware, Mario Sironi, left a deep impression, with Parks brilliant on Mussolini’s willingness to commit to ambition without the necessary faith (or Hitler’s destiny) to see it through. A reluctant fundamentalist? Perhaps.

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