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Italian Ways, on and off the rails from Milan to Palermo

Tim Parks has written a book about Italian railways that is engrossing, entertaining, and wonderfully revealing about the country and its people. It makes perfect armchair travelling – a delight from beginning to end.

David Lodge

I had sort of settled into the idea that I would never write another book about Italy again, or not maybe until I was a little older and could reflect on what all my years here had added up to. Then, very suddenly, it happened: there I was writing at top speed and with great pleasure, Italian Ways.

The man to blame is Matt Weiland. Years ago, as an editor at Granta, he had asked me for a travel piece about Italy. I told him that I spent so much time commuting between Verona and Milan I might as well write something about trains. Madly, I wrote a hundred pages. And the reason is that there is so much to say. The whole experience of trains, the way the stations operate, the way the ticketing works, the pervading atmosphere of train travel, how people relate to each other, how social classes, locals and immigrants, mix, or don’t mix. All at once I realized, that you really could write a very amusing book about Italy this way.

But Matt only wanted thirty or forty pages. He couldn’t give me the whole of Granta. The rest of the material went into hibernation in my computer and thankfully survived four or five crashes and reformats between 2002 and 2012. Which was when Matt, now with Norton Press, sends me a mail to ask if I still have the material. He has never forgotten it. Do I still want to expand it into a book?

I tracked the stuff down and read it. It was astonishing how out of date it was. Everything has changed on the trains in the last ten years. The ticketing most of all, then the fast trains, and of course, Milano Centrale, which has been totally refurbished. Yet in a way, of course, nothing has changed. And I realised that this was what I could write about, how all the changes of the last ten years, with all the crazy economics and politics behind them, were yet another manifestation of the Italian way of doing things.

I wrote fast and with great pleasure. I can’t remember having so much fun writing. To complete the book, I awarded myself a long train holiday down south, from Rome to Palermo, from Modica to Syracuse, to Crotone, to Taranto, to Lecce. I discovered the Ferrovie Sud Est, I discovered that the south is infinitely more attractive than we in the north tend to think of it. Most of all I reflected on train travel, and how it is almost emblematic of the challenge the world now faces to find ways of living that are collectively comfortable and sustainable. Alas, along the south coast of Italy, everyone was in their cars while a handful of us puttered along in ancient two-carriage diesels.

This is the best book I’ve ever read about Italy. Never have I encountered a more insightful and hilarious insider/outsider portrait of the country at the center of Western civilization. Tim Parks should be given a villa in Rome and the title of English ambassador.

Sean Wilsey, author of Oh the Glory of It All

There is no way that Italian Ways should work—but somehow it does work. How? Partly because the book is, as Tim Parks says, a search for the Italian character, which he evokes in dozens of gorgeously written scenes; but beyond that Parks is exploring the dynamic between tradition and innovation…Underneath everything, Parks is trying to come to a point of loving the world in all its confusion and frustration, and by book’s end he does, he does. Bravo.”

David Shields, author of How Literature Saved My Life

Enchanting travels with the good-natured Parks.”

Kirkus Reviews

Tim Parks has reinvented the narrative of the train journey with an epic voyage into the essence of Italy itself. With a novelist’s keen eye he mines absurdity and deep meaning from small, overlooked moments and gestures.”

Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic