Saturday, June 26
Book of the week: Teach us to Sit Still, by Tim Parks
Review by Will Self
Do I have to say this? Yes, I suppose I ought: Tim Parks’s digressive memoir of his debilitating but ultimately life-affirming struggle with pelvic pain made me leak a few tears, guffaw a lot, and besides quietly instructing me in some fresh perspectives — on such matters as Samuel Beckett and Buddhism (and that’s only the Bs) — ultimately taught me an eminently practical lesson about coping with age and mortality. Must I utter the blurbish cliché? Why the hell not: Teach us to Sit Still made me laugh; it made me cry; and it made me seriously think about taking up Vipassana meditation.
I’ve been aware of Parks’s writing for a number of years, but apart from his Booker-shortlisted novel Europa — which I liked well enough — this is the only other book of his that I’ve attempted. An elegant essayist, who describes well the torturous labyrinth of contemporary Italy — where he has lived for 30 years — his pieces crop up from time to time in the literary reviews and are notable for their air of quietly insistent rationalism. Parks is one of those writers whose prose seems always to be muttering the subtext: You and I, we understand each other perfectly, don’t we, and in so doing we can comprehend also this crazy world.
It’s the sort of confident comity that Orwell inspires in his readers, and it speaks to me of a very English empiricism: this is this — and don’t you forget it. It was no surprise to learn in this book that Parks is the son of a Church of England vicar (albeit one who tended towards the charismatic) and that while he may have rejected faith in miracles when he was a teenager, Parks retained the concomitant — and equally Anglican — faith in science (so long as it knows its limits). Like his parents, Parks had a deeply ingrained resistance to all crystal-dangling, Om-chanting and table-turning — indeed anything that smacks of mumbo jumbo.
Up until his early fifties, Parks’s very familiar brand of lapsed Anglicanism served him perfectly well. From his own luminous descriptions of kayaking and hill walking, we gain the impression of a man who was comfortable in his body, and while not exactly brimming over with job satisfaction — what ambitious writer is? — he nonetheless found his work lecturing on literary translation in Milan perfectly rewarding. From the asides he lets fall, we can gather that he is also a thoroughly married and familial man. And apart from an infection of the prostate gland that he had had in his twenties (and from which, against the odds, he had completely recovered), Parks enjoyed good health.
Then came the deluge: to be precise, intense and searing pains throughout the pelvic area that yet remained curiously nonlocatable. Accompanying this was the irritable bladder, the six-times-a-night micturition, the need to be constantly within range of a facility, the creeping impotence — all the panoply of mental and physical discomforts that zeroes in on the ageing human. Good Cartesian that he was, and so viewing his body as a mechanism that should be fiddled back into functionality, Parks immediately hied himself to the doctors. His experience from then on was wearily familiar: the tests, and then more tests — blood, urine, semen — the breezily overconfident consultants, then the firm recommendation of radical surgery.
In Parks’s case this took the form of a procedure known as a Turps (Transurethral resection of prostate surgery), which is precisely what it sounds like: laser-burning one highway through the pesky gland, while suturing up another. The medics were so keen to begin blasting that when they had him in the stirrups for another test — a cystoscopy — one suggested that they just do the other procedure while they were at it. But Parks cried, no! And he was right to do so, because the cystoscopy revealed there was nothing wrong with his prostate, while punching the words “prostate pain” into Google conjured up 6,820,000 hits, many of which turned out to be the cris de coeur of post-Turps patients who were in more pain than ever.
Of course, while by no means Dam-ascene, Parks had already started his conversion some time before; while on a trip to India for a translation conference he had consulted an Ayurvedic doctor. Dismissive of the astro-babble surrounding the diagnosis offered, he nonetheless took note when the doctor’s wife observed — apropos of Western mechanistic medicine — “You only say psychosomatic … if you think the mind and body are ever separate.”
What’s most interesting about Parks’s journey back to health is that he convincingly portrays, from within, what it’s like to abandon an assumption — the mind-body dichotomy — that is itself, of necessity, ineffable. True, there are digressions into the neurotic compulsions of Coleridge, the subtle velleities of Virginia Woolf’s characters, and the radiant verisimilitudes of Velázquez, but the main thrust of this book is towards a new kind of gestalt. Parks’s turnaround came courtesy of breathing exercises he read about in a book with the deliriously unappealing title: A Headache in the Pelvis. The authors stressed that the “paradoxical relaxation” aimed for could be achieved only under their own medical supervision, but Parks was desperate — and disciplined — enough to go it alone.
The relief from his chronic pain was dramatic: “Suddenly my belly drew a huge breath, absolutely unexpected, and a great warm wave flooded down my body from top to toe. I nearly drowned. Shocked and tensed, I sat up and opened my eyes. ‘What in God’s name was that?’.” It would be misrepresenting Parks if I portrayed him as going belly-up to his breathy belly — in fact, his journey back to health was circuitous, while throughout he retained his gentle but insistent scepticism — no credulous crystal-dangler he. Nevertheless, there was no gainsaying the intense effects of these breathing exercises or the even more intense ones when Parks begins Shiatsu massage — then the Big One: full-blown Vipassana meditation.
Here is an insistent scepticism — and an even more insistent humour. I think it’s this ability to crack a deadpan joke, whether discussing his bowel movements or the doughnut addiction of a doctor friend, that makes Parks’s descriptions of the romantic internal landscape of the meditational pupil — jagged peaks of ego lit by lightning, deluges of watery remorse — so compelling. There’s this, and his screamingly funny pen portrait of an overweight and slightly lecherous American guru who nonetheless — or perhaps because of this — is wholly authentic. I’ve been interested in Buddhism for years, but I would say that Parks’s account of the transformations that occur to him when he goes first on a three and then on a ten-day silent meditation retreat is among the most convincing I’ve ever read. The realignment that Parks achieves is not some high-flown transcendence, but more akin to G. K. Chesterton’s credo that “even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits [is] extraordinary enough to be exciting”.
Then, towards the end of this elegant and rewarding book it began to bother me that I was enjoying Teach us to Sit Still quite as much as I was, simply because I was its ideal reader: another questing middle-aged writer with his own undelivered prize speeches (Parks digresses hilariously on the false humility of self-deprecating Booker prize-winners) and his own chronic pain. At the time of reading Parks’s book I was plagued by a torn ligament in my shoulder and, like the author, I am a stressed man who cannot find an hour in the day to sit down and breathe easily.
The parallels don’t stop there: Parks grew up in Finchley, North London; I was only a couple of miles away in East Finchley. True, I didn’t up sticks and move to Italy, and nor do I have the unusual mental diplopia — and again, Parks evokes this brilliantly — that comes with being bilingual. And nor do I have Parks’s lightness of touch. It’s difficult to think of a memoir that manages to be at once as intrusive of its subject as a Turps laser, while still managing to leave the emotional tissue surrounding it entirely untouched; so that while we hear of Parks’s wife and children, we never feel we have intruded on their lives.
But then, although I finished this book a few weeks ago and put it to one side, it has managed to stay with me, like an inverse corollary of the pain that it so marvellously evokes. In a world dominated by cheap self-revelation and quack self-help, I suspect that Teach us to Sit Still may be the real thing: a work of genuine consolation that shows the way out of the dark wood of middle age in which everyone, at some time or another, will inevitably find themselves lost.
THE FINANCIAL TIMES
Teach Us To Sit Still
Review by Isabel Berwick
July 19 2010
This might be a tricky book to track down in a shop, as Tim Parks admits in the introduction of Teach Us to Sit Still, an unflinching account of his years of chronic illness – and a recovery entailing an Indian doctor, a cranky-sounding book and meditation.
You won’t find it on the New Age wisdom shelf, it’s not autobiography, and it’s certainly not the sort of thing Parks – a Booker-shortlisted novelist and non-fiction observer of Italian life – usually writes. It feels, throughout, like a book he felt compelled to write. “I was amazed, when someone showed me a way back to health, to realise that I knew nothing of my body at all, nothing of its resources, nothing of its oneness with my mind, nothing of myself.”
He is not exaggerating. This is a crazy, wince-inducing, uplifting book that makes light work of the mental and physical burdens of middle age, and offers everyone a fresh perspective. The nature of Parks’s illness is stuff we know he wouldn’t tell us unless he had to. It is undignified, middle-aged man trouble, writ large – terrible pains in the abdomen, bowel problems, getting up several times in the night to pee. He is poked, prodded and explored by the best doctors that Italy (and Harley Street) can provide. He hasn’t got cancer. He is given odd pills that do nothing for the pain. He suddenly becomes an old man. His faith in evidence-based medicine fading fast, Parks feels he has nothing to lose by consulting an Ayurvedic doctor while on a trip to India.
He’s told he has a “blocked vata”, that there’s a struggle inside him. Birth charts are consulted. “Are you telling me it’s entirely psychosomatic?” says an indignant Parks. He’s told: “You only say psychosomatic … if you think mind and body are ever separate.” That’s the first revelation. There are many more. Parks has lived in Italy for 30 years, but suddenly begins to understand the underlying tension involved in speaking a foreign language – on guard for mistakes and never sounding quite right.
The sceptical son of a clergyman, he is as rational as they come but ends up on a 10- day meditation retreat and learns to leave words – English and Italian – behind. In its later stages, the book becomes part-memoir, as Parks recalls his difficult relationship with his father. But by the end of the narrative, when he feels physically and mentally recovered, something has profoundly shifted as he allows himself to exist in a totally different world, where every spare moment is not filled with computer-work and reading. “Here is silence and acceptance, the pleasure of a space that need not be imbued with meaning. Intensely aware, of the flesh, the breath, the blood, the consciousness allows the ‘I’ to slip away.”
In writing this book, Park has done a service to the many people who would never look at a cheesy self-help book or try anything with a whiff of spirituality about it. We age, and our bodies bear the burden of decades of tension and neglect. Parks has found a way to reverse that and it is an amazing thing.