In Extremis review: Meltdown of a spoiled Everyman
Humour and tenderness make for the finest book yet by underrated novelist Tim Parks
Tim Parks: The British novelist has published consistently excellent and at times outstanding fiction since 1985.
A British academic based in Madrid and currently Everyman-in-meltdown, Thomas Sanders is a blunt, self-absorbed sort of guy; direct to the point of “excuse me please”. Nothing is left unsaid; his consciousness is open for all to explore. His relationship with his laptop is as intense as the bond he shares with his mobile phone. People he subjects to more detached levels of amusement.
Added to this there is his bladder problem. It is an ongoing battle that occasions unsettling sightings of a physical image reflected in bathroom mirrors, which do not quite conform to his preferred recollection of his younger, less saggy body.
Within minutes of meeting him, or rather within a few sentences, Sanders is about to undergo a revolutionary anal massage in a hotel room in the Netherlands. Nothing sexual, completely medical; Sanders, a professor of linguistics, is attending a conference for physiotherapists. Perhaps he is simply upset; after all, back in England, his mother, after years of illness, is finally dying. But heightened emotional situation aside, he is debating whether or not he should view her corpse. This is seen as something apart from her actual death.
He is also due to give a well-paid keynote address in Berlin. For such a selfish, calculating and terrifyingly human individual, Sanders lives in a state of guilt about having been a sneaky little boy before moving on to become an unfaithful husband. His ancient shrink back in Madrid, an old woman with an ironic streak, soon identified his need to beg forgiveness. Even so, Sanders is no hero. Having left his wife after 30 years of marriage and children, he is now 57 and living with a loving woman half his age. Of course, she is perfect. They are in love. One might wonder at his good fortune.
Meanwhile, at the marital home in Edinburgh, his ex-wife, lives in hope of a possible reconciliation, a notion Sanders plays with from time to time. His mind moves very quickly, almost as speedily as this brilliant narrative, which races along courtesy of the scrambled hopes, joys and anxieties of a middle-class, middle-aged spoiled brat whose personal complacency is being confronted by the impending death of his mother, probably the only real hero he ever knew, and the need to arrive at the hospice in time.
Since the publication of his impressive first novel, Tongues of Flame, in 1985, Tim Parks has consistently published excellent, at times outstanding, fiction, such as the 1987 Booker-shortlisted Europa; Destiny; Judge Savage; and, most recently, Dreams of Rivers and Seas.
He is also an essayist and translator from the Italian of literary fiction and nonfiction, as well as being an exciting, fearless commentator on a range of subjects from Italian football to the Medici.
Parks remains one of Britain’s most seriously under-celebrated novelists, probably due to his having lived in Italy since 1981. He also appears to do most of his reviewing for US publications. Among the strengths of his fluent, conversational prose is a tone of finely honed exasperation; a Parks narrator is invariably opinionated, true to his or her voice, wise to humankind and its follies. And they are never completely blind to their own weaknesses.
As early as his chillingly accomplished second novel, Loving Roger, Anna, a sweet young woman who has been in an abusive relationship, calmly considers the body of her lover, whom she has murdered. She reflects on her actions in a voice that remains true to her character.
In Extremis is often hilarious. Sanders is convinced he suffers from anxiety; he is also smug, and deserves the punch in the face he duly receives from an old friend’s troubled son, who has discovered the competitive multiple infidelities in which his father and Sanders engaged. The humour, clever asides, effortless plotting, astute characterisation, sense of everyday chaos and compelling readability will come as no surprise to his seasoned readers, yet the telling achievement of what is his finest book to date lies in its unexpected tenderness and beauty.
Parks writes passages of eloquent profundity that describe the ritual waiting for a death, such as this:
“I cannot recall ever being with people, family particularly, thus quietly focused, enchanted even by the phenomenon of fading breath. And now it seemed there was something beautiful in the room; not Mother, not us, but this twilight togetherness of the living and the dying, these long suspensions between one breath and another. The long silences. Sometimes it seemed impossible another breath could come after such a long silence . . . You say goodbye, but turn back. You breathe again . . . Mother was dying simply, physically, naturally dying. Without melodrama. No angels or demons were tussling over her immortal soul.”
Sanders is an irritating know-it-all, have-it-all, yet even he realises the rare being that was his mother, a strict and righteous woman of narrow vision who lived to a rigid set of responses, yet who lived by a code of fair play. In her dying, Martha Sanders, who has efficiently planned and choreographed her funeral in advance, defers to the same quietly heroic standards that shaped her life as a lay preacher married to an evangelical minister.
Throughout the narrative, in between remarking on his trusting sister and her annoying husband with his trio of adored dogs, while is bombarded by demanding phone calls from his old friend’s wife, Sanders begins to revisit and formally dissect the biblical rhetoric of the evangelical tradition into which he was born. Both Sanders and his brother defied the faith of their parents, leaving his sister as a believer free of doubt.
Lines from childhood hymns dominate his thoughts. Echoes of Tongues of Flame emerge increasingly as the narrative progresses. Memory forces its way into his present as Sanders looks at the boy he once was and the man he became. More importantly, he is faced with the daunting and indomitable person his mother had been. Intuitive and humane, funny and sad – as real as life and death, as is Thomas Sanders, warts and all.
This likely Man Booker contender is a British novel possessed of a sophisticated European resonance.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent and author of Teethmarks on My Tongue.