Answering the call of life
The Irish Times, 26 January 2008
By Michael Hulse
‘Any serious quarrel with our culture of origin,” writes novelist Tim Parks here, “is also and inevitably a quarrel about language, the values it enshrines and thought patterns it tends to impose.” He makes the remark in the course of an underwhelmed critique of Austrian Nobel Prizewinner Elfriede Jelinek, whose wit he finds “more coercive than illuminating or amusing”. Jelinek’s quarrel with Austrian values and thought patterns is notorious, as was Thomas Bernhard’s before her. Parks’s observation stems from his own tussles, though, as writer and émigré, and it offers a good point of entry to this brimful book of essays.
Having defended Garibaldi’s memoirs against the charge of being badly written, Parks approvingly quotes the hero himself: “In times like those in 1860 in southern Italy men are truly alive [ . . .] This is the real life of the soul!”- then mischievously pictures a scene in which Garibaldi’s academic biographer is imposing her thought patterns while the summons of life calls to the students in her care. “One imagines the young men and women who sit in Professor Riall’s classes at the University of London. Outside the window, perhaps, in the busy city, there is a call to arms, there are people urging us to take up a struggle. Perhaps a young man’s head lifts. He wants to be involved in the world. Should he answer the call? Should he submit to the enchantment of the embattled community? Is the struggle ugly? Is it beautiful? Is it worth a life?”
Tim Parks is always on the side of those who answer the call. Though his own fiction knows full well that some struggles with life end terribly, as Europa so powerfully reminded us, he is also one of the few living novelists worth reading who can persuade us without a trace of saccharine (as he recently did in Rapids and Cleaver ) that to engage, to fight, to struggle, is what counts above all. “Look!” (we may say, with his admired Lawrence, once the crisis has been survived), “we have come through”. Not for nothing does Parks value Dostoevsky for his “moments of relief, of internal conflict resolved in extreme well-being”.
The writers Tim Parks most wholeheartedly embraces in this book are Lawrence, Beckett and Dostoevsky, writers whose lives were conducted in a spirit of struggle. Whether that spirit issued in the unstoppable outpourings of a Lawrence, or the steady retreat towards silence of a Beckett, isn’t really the point. The thing is to be “in the thick of the scrimmage”, as Lawrence put it. And never to cease examining and re-examining the fabric of living and the words we put it into: “my own language,” declared Beckett, “appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it”. What was once thought solid ground beneath our feet is likely to be excavated: “To take on board the implications of Notes from Underground,” writes Parks of Dostoevsky, “is to undermine any political debate predicated on the existence of people with stable selves who can make responsible decisions.”
Two books are interleaved in this volume. One tracks the writers who have lodged in Parks’s thinking: the two thorny Thomases, Hardy and Bernhard, are here as well, as are Emil Cioran and Émile Zola, D’Annunzio and Fleur Jaeggy. Quarrels with culture, language and thought are also quarrels with ourselves, and Tim Parks conducts his with arresting vigour. It’s a vigour that has an air of the European coffee-house to it, a whiff of conversation impassioned and concerned, one moment witheringly scornful of “Austria’s mendaciously sanitised image of itself” and the next tracing with exemplary sensitivity the difference between the traditional reading experience, “hardly aware of turning the pages, or of the sounds in distant rooms”, and the experience of “reading” hypertext. Like Lawrence and Beckett before him, Parks has benefited profoundly from living out of the country of his birth – not least in his alertness to the cultural context within which any language must resonate.
The other book within this book is a continuation of Parks’s tussle with his adopted Italy. There are essays on Italian history, politics and football, on Machiavelli, the Medicis and Mussolini. And it’s here, even more than in the literary essays, that the full bracing freshness of Tim Parks’s responses strikes home. “Since the modern English reader of Machiavelli has largely been brought up on a rationalist, utilitarian philosophy which ties itself in knots to demonstrate that, given the right kind of government, self-interest, collective interest and Christian values can all be reconciled, it is something of a relief to come across a writer who wastes no time with such utopian nonsense.” Amen to that.