By George Szirtes
“Obedience to the force of gravity,” said Simone Weil, “the greatest sin”. Framed by D. H. Lawrence front and back, the title of Tim Parks’s new collection of essays is concerned with fighting spirit and literary contrarianism in the spirit of Lawrence. If there is an accepted point of view, a too-easy consensus dominating a topic, Tim Parks is there to question it and resist the force of gravity.
Critical and historical gravity has exercised a certain drag on Benito Mussolini, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Nicolo Machiavelli, Silvio Berlusconi and indeed Lawrence himself. It is even trying to topple Giuseppe Garibaldi in the way of other historical Great Men. There are no great men, only spin, gravity claims. A different gravity has drawn Elfriede Jelinek to the Nobel Prize for literature. Parks has time and praise for The Piano Teacher but finds Greed “unreadable”. When Jelinek complains that she cannot go out, saying “My language and I watch TV together of an evening since we can’t go anywhere else”, Parks adds: “Readers of Greed may wish it had stayed that way.”
It is muscular writing, marked by phrases such as “Well, I deny it”, “rings hollow”, and “By no means”, but this is not street brawling for the sake of it, nor is the short jab any key to Parks’s own voice and style. He is much subtler, more perceptive than that. Most of the essays, the most substantial ones, first appeared in The New York Review of Books and are comprehensive responses to groups of books around an author such as Dostoevsky, Hardy, Beckett, Bernhard, Fleur Jaeggy and so forth, or a historical theme. On purely literary subjects Parks is an enthusiastic wormer out of truths. His greatest enthusiasm is reserved for Beckett, Jaeggy, Emil Cioran and D H Lawrence, who is, after all, the genius loci of the whole. Between Beckett and Lawrence there is a fair distance of course: it is Beckett for language and Lawrence for moral restlessness.
The essays on the political subjects are not admirations but attempts to see clearly rather than through the dark glasses of ideology. He points out contradictions in Mussolini, the gap between message and action. He tries to place Berlusconi in the context of Italian corruption, family loyalty and general scepticism about the state. The attitude of Machiavelli, he says, should be regarded partly as a matter of aesthetics:
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…our own upbringing prompts us to feel that he should at least have seemed to be a little shocked by it all.
“Seeming,” he says, “is an important issue in The Prince.” Nay, madam, I know not seems, says Hamlet. If something seems easy it cannot be quite right, can it?
There are two fascinating essays in the book that look not so much to set right a contentious balance as to explore what makes things tick. The first, delivered originally as a speech in India, is on translation, an activity Parks has now abandoned. In The Disenchantment of Translation Parks tells how, in childhood he “entered into song” through choral singing. But then the reasoning mind took over. He recalls Wittgenstein’s contention that philosophy was a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. Translation, he says, is a form of disenchantment. “Better,” he ends, “the Babel that defends us from a possibly totalitarian nightmare” that allows us to be aware of “the different ways we can enchant ourselves.”
The other essay, A Matter of Love and Hate is about football, in particular the World Cup of 2002. Parks quotes Cioran: “The civilising passage from blows to insults… was no doubt necessary, but the price was high. Words will never be enough.” Having followed his local Italian team for a whole season, Parks pits tribal loyalty against high-minded internationalist rhetoric, the former as corrective to the latter. Here, as elsewhere, he insists that life consists of illusory structures and real interests; that life, in short, is what goes on under the façade.
Lawrence though is the man he most loves, valuing Lawrence’s constant pitting of himself against comfort and the sumptuous writing that springs out of distrust. There is considerable lyricism in the undertow of Parks’s prose but it is given short brief runs rather than allowed a long leash.
In the European Championships last year Manchester United faced AC Milan. Milan won thanks chiefly to the sheer spirit and dogged poetry of a defender, Gennaro Gattuso. Being a lover of football Parks would see the value of Gattuso. Muscular, very sharp in the tackle. All but indomitable.
Tim Parks’s collection of essays The Fighter examines the public and private roles of art
The Observer, Sunday, 23 September 2007
By Stephanie Merritt
Tim Parks’s third collection of essays ranges, like its predecessors, across literature, European politics and popular culture and is loosely linked by the theme of conflict, particularly in the sense of the artist’s struggles, both internal and in relation to the wider conflicts of his or her time. Though there is little explicit reference to present international conflicts, through the work of Beckett, Hardy, Dostoevsky, Zola and a number of Italian and European writers whose names might be less familiar to English-speaking readers, he locates the constant tension between the desire for retreat to the private sphere and the duty to active engagement with the world, particularly in times of national crisis.
The majority of these essays were first published in the New York Review, and Parks approaches his subjects for the literate lay reader, with a novelist’s rather than an academic’s eye. His style is always erudite but never forbidding, bringing an unashamedly humanist consciousness to the lives and works under consideration. Where the subjects have been thoroughly picked over by biographers and critics, such as in the case of Lawrence (the subject of the title essay) or Hardy (which takes Claire Tomalin’s recent biography as its starting point), Parks offers a succinct overview with this idea of conflict to the fore, rather than introducing new readings or research. But he is at his most engaging when he turns his attention to less canonical subjects, such as the World Cup or the growth of hypertextual internet novels.
At times, he wears his literary passions on his sleeve; in Gardens and Graveyard, he considers three classic Italian novels of the Thirties and Forties, by Giorgio Bassani, Cesare Pavese and Dino Buzzati, that illustrate the tension between withdrawal and the consequences of political involvement. It hardly matters if the reader is not familiar with these novels; Parks’s enthusiasm, especially for Bassani, is infectious and leaves you feeling that you understand the characters (and, more important, with a desire to rush out and find the source material).
Not that he is always so warm towards his subjects; ‘Let Sleeping Beauties Lie’, a piece on Austrian Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek is one long cry of disbelief that she should ever have been considered for the award. He reminds us that ‘one member of the Nobel committee resigned over the award, describing Jelinek’s work as “whining, unenjoyable public pornography” and “a mass of text shovelled together without artistic structure”‘.
Parks leaves us in no doubt as to where he stands on this debate (quoting copiously from her most recent work to prove the accuracy of the renegade judge’s views), but proceeds to explain why Jelinek’s best-known novel, The Piano Teacher, is her one artistic triumph. Jelinek is a model example of the writer who has deliberately withdrawn from the friction of living in the world.
Parks, a resident of Verona for many years, approaches his Italian subjects with the outsider’s advantageous combination of familiarity and critical objectivity. Tackling the complexity of Silvio Berlusconi and his place within Italy’s anomalous political model may leave some English readers struggling to catch up with the mass of names referenced, not to mention the necessary explanations of certain Italian legal and political terminology, but elsewhere, on the Medicis. D’Annunzio or Mussolini, he is a smart and lively guide. ‘A Matter of Love and Hate’, his essay on World Cup football as a legitimised form of nationalist fervour and tribalism, analyses why the Italian national team can never generate such passion as local matches, where the sport really is a sublimation of ancient enmities between former city states.
This collection is a thought-provoking and often funny contribution to the endless debate about the uses of art and its place in political life.