Sunday, 30 April 2000
By Michael Dirda Washington Post
In one of the essays in his provocatively titled collection Adultery and Other Diversions, Tim Parks mentions in passing his enthusiasm for the books of the great Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard. Never sufficiently known in this country, Bernhard composed bleak, misanthropic meditations on the human condition, Austrian war guilt, family unhappiness, and the inanities of the writing life; his best-known works include Extinction, Concrete and Correction. I don’t think it too much to see in Parks’s novel Destiny a kind of partial homage to Bernhard, not only in its style – pages without indentation, rapid temporal shifts, a complex stream of consciousness – but also in its pervasive misery and desperation, only partially alleviated by the narrator’s occasional irruptions of sheer, unadulterated rage.
The novel opens with a sentence – a marvel of syntactic and rhetorical control – that slowly unpacks an enormous amount of information before the wallop of its final shocking word:
“Some three months after returning to England, and having at last completed – with the galling exception of the Andreotti interview – that collection of material that, once assembled in a book, must serve to transform a respectable career into a monument–something so comprehensive and final, this was my plan, as to be utterly irrefutable – I received, while standing as chance would have it at the reception desk of the Rembrandt Hotel, Knightsbridge, a place emblematic, if you will, both of my success in one field and my failure in another, the phone – call that informed me of my son’s suicide.” Good readers will instinctively recognize in this highly contrived prose the heart of Parks’s book. In essence, the novel is about control and self-control, about how we respond to tragedy and how it affects our judgment, stability and interaction with others, especially the members of our family. Throughout, Christopher Burton – an esteemed journalist, long resident in Italy, who now hopes to establish his reputation as a cultural historian – tries to deal with his son’s death calmly, rationally. The young man, we eventually learn, has been institutionalized for schizophrenia; he has been violent toward his mother; in some ways, he was dead to his parents long before he actually took a screwdriver to his veins. Yet Burton’s first reaction to the horrible news is unexpected: He realizes that his 30-year marriage is over, that there can be no reason for his wife and him to go on living together now that their son is dead.
In the 250 pages that follow, Parks recreates the next 48 hours or so of his troubled hero’s interior life. The result is nothing less than a harrowing of the human soul. Relentlessly, obsessively, the anguished Burton analyzes his reactions to his son’s death, gnawing away at every detail, harking back to the same unchangeable events of the past, repeating certain phrases, constantly grappling with his suppressed grief and with the dysfunctions of his marriage, family and career. More and more, he finds himself assailed by sorrowful memories, increasingly prey to anxieties and physical ailment. His wife, Mara, is Italian, a flirt, madly obsessed with her brilliant son, hostile to her plain adopted daughter, a woman who has repeatedly tantalized and tortured her husband, by a possible infidelity with a colleague, by her flashy, manipulative character and by her constant exclusion of Burton from her emotional life. Or so he presents her. He himself, we learn, has enjoyed a single joyous love affair but ultimately couldn’t leave his family, feels closest to his daughter Paola, and is desperate to complete the great masterwork, about which he has obvious if tacit doubts. Following the news of his son’s suicide, he goes for hour after painful hour without evacuation or urination. The more he asserts his clarity of mind, the more deluded he seems.
Destiny, then, is hardly what you’d call a fun read. But do we always read for fun? Here the sympathetic will find themselves gripped by the overwhelming testimony of a fictional yet altogether real consciousness. Burton’s attempts at calmness, his increasing physical agonies, his utter confusion about what he should make of his wife, his son, his son’s therapist, his own destiny – all these possess an almost scary feeling of truth to life. One can only hope that Tim Parks himself has not undergone such suffering.
In structure, the novel simply follows Burton and Mara as they laboriously make their way back to Italy: confusion over flights at the airport, travel by car and train, Burton’s communion with his son’s cold body, an evening with Paola and her young daughters, an hour or so at the cemetery, the necessary interview with Andreotti, and a final confrontation, late at night in a house full of ghosts, between man and wife. Imagine a secular version of the stations of the cross.
The intensity, the sureness of the emotional description, make all this pain worthwhile, even, in the end, cathartic. There are mysteries too – why did Marco kill himself after a seemingly happy day? – and unexpected revelations linking death, sex and family history. The prose itself is masterly. At times Parks writes sentences of apothegmatic sharpness: “Only the incomprehensible is worth understanding … Journalism is the endless description of Hell … Perhaps my happiest moments with my wife, I reflect, have been when she tells me where to drive and I have driven her there … It is disappointment gives us our identity … We live between the inexplicable and the unpredictable.” Throughout, Burton enunciates various harsh truths, seldom expressed: that he cannot forgive his beautiful wife for growing old; that he doesn’t really understand national character (the ostensible subject of his magnum opus); that, as Schopenhauer also observed, “a good quality merges into a bad without any perceptible interruption to mark the passage from positive to negative: patience slithers into procrastination, impetuosity matures into decisiveness; tenderness tends to suffocation.” For the literary-minded, there are neatly turned references to Leopardi’s melancholy, the poet Foscolo’s I Sepolcri (The Tombs), the pitiful story of the girl forced into a nunnery from Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi and even sly allusions to Browning and Shelley.
All in all, Destiny should confirm the view of many that Tim Parks is one of the best British novelists now at work (the poet Joseph Brodsky thought him the finest, period). Yet this particular novel – he’s written nine others, including Home Truths, Family Planning and Tongues of Flame – may be too grueling, too excruciating an experience for any but the hardiest reader. Besides Bernhard, Destiny recalls the Beckett of Molloy and Malone Dies but without the funereal wit or linguistic playfulness. This is a dark night of the soul and no question about it. Parks may deliver a relatively hopeful ending, which the clever will guess, but the journey to those final pages is penitential.