Jaded Gentleman of Verona
New York Times Book Review, 23 October, 1988
By Lore Dickstein (quite a name!)
Expatriate communities are among the oddest social groups in today’s societies. Neither immigrants nor tourists, deracinated from the home culture, yet bringing odd, inappropriate bits of it with them, they never quite fit in their adopted country. They seem to belong nowhere. No country has had more experience with this phenomenon than England, and the “ex-pats” in the British writer Tim Parks’s new novel, Home Thoughts, are a vestigial remnant, a disembodied limb, of what was once a vast, dispersed population in the colonial empire.
The English have long had a love affair with Italy, a country with a high tolerance for (or indifference toward) the “other”. Home Thoughts, Mr. Parks’s third novel – his first, Tongues of Flame, won the Somerset Maugham Award for 1986 – is set in fair Verona, where the author himself has lived for the last eight years.
Home Thoughts is a witty set piece on the lives of a motley group of British expatriates, many of whom teach English at the University of Verona. More or less as the center is one Julia Helen Delaforce, a single woman in her 30’s who has fled a dead-end job and a long-term, pointless affair with a married man. Julia’s colleagues and friends claim they are fleeing Thatcher’s England and make bitter comments on English society, for example that England “is an Oxbridge conspiracy,” or that the BBC (where a number of friends at home still work) is not “the voice of the establishment,” but “the voice of inertia.” In fact, these folks are in Italy for personal, idiosyncratic reasons. Boredom, aged and demanding parents, thwarted love affairs or career failures have driven them to seek a safe adventure in a new place. For this group, however, a profound sense of aimlessness, a fatalism verging on catatonia, has made “their exile a kind of limbo,” a time-out from real life. For such a short book – just over 200 pages – (sounds quite long enough to me) Mr. Parks presents an impressive number of characters in full dress. There are well over a dozen, set in a plot of such convoluted intricacy that it could fuel a soap opera for years. He is a highly visual, cinematic writer: events and people flash on and off the screen in quick, short, colourful takes.
Written in a crisp, economical style, Home Thoughts details a round robin of sexual relationships overlaid by a sticky network of friendships, hatreds and jealousies. Everyone is trying to land the one permanent post at the university. Julia, who arrives in Italy in high spirits – who “had imagined the hot Italian sun would turn her sluggish, blind, burrowing caterpillar into a dazzling butterfly” – is fired from her job, floats from one living arrangement to another, and gradually descends into a morass of depression. Sandro, a smarmy, good-looking operator, manages to sleep with almost all the women; he thinks his penis “functions as a kind of catalyst for helping others sort out their lives.” He’s not far wrong. Shot through the novel are improbable coincidences and disasters: fatal auto accidents, birth defects, an abortion, nervous breakdowns and an attempted suicide (it does sound rather a lot, doesn’t it) .
Mr. Parks carries off all this frenzied activity by ingeniously structuring Home Thoughts as an almost (always an ‘almost’) seamless mix of narrative and letters. It is through the letters Julia and others send and receive that we hear a chorus of vivid, highly individualized voices. The range is nothing short of extraordinary. It includes the broken English of Sandro’s Italian aunt, Julia’s bored and whiny Mum’s nagging, her artist brother Mike’s flashy punk messages, her lesbian friend Flossy’s (!) feminist rantings (heavily italicized) and the false, perky optimism of her former flatmate, Diana. Almost everyone in this novel, by virtue of writing letters, becomes a writer, and each comments on his or her own writing style and state of mind. Here Mr. Parks is not only exhibiting a forceful, authorial self-consciousness, but putting on an amusing sideshow for himself, not unlike those Italian Renaissance paintings in which the painter has put himself in the scene and is looking out boldly at the viewer.
Tongues of Flame and another previous novel Loving Roger, both about the disastrous consequences of passion and obsession, show evidence of this kind of self-reflectiveness. While there are moments in this book when Tim Parks becomes a little too entranced with his own cleverness, Home Thoughts is a startlingly sharp and impressive piece of work.