Becoming Mr Italy

Tim Parks never wanted to become ‘Mr Italy’ but as an Englishman living in Verona he’s found himself explaining the country to the rest of the world


How well does anyone know their own country? How well can anyone get to know anywhere? Maybe is like a relationship, a mixture of mindless love mixed with increasingly measures of tolerance and irritation with large helpings of compromise.

The exciting and original English writer Tim Parks, as sharp as a New Yorker, as quick as a Dubliner, does not go in for easy explanations. He moved to Italy in 1981, not as part of some dream quest or the result of having experienced the Grand Tour as a student. “No, nothing like that; I met an Italian girl” while both were studying at Harvard, “we got married and we settled in Verona.” They had three children and Parks, having arrived in Italy without a word of Italian, is now, among other things, an internationally respected translator of works such as Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony as well as of major Italian writers Alberto Moravia, Italo Calvino and Antonio Tabucchi and, as he enjoys pointing out, Machiavelli’s authoritative 16th century treatise of political theory, The Prince.

Of the many famous quotes from The Prince, one appears particularly suited to him: “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.” The versatile Parks is the author of 25 original works including novels, ranging from the light to the deadly serious, and non-fiction on subjects as diverse as the Italian educational system as experienced by his own children; the story of how the 15th century Medici clan juggled art, the church and their notion of family honour; Italian football as national expression of so much more; and his battle with chronic pain, recounted in Teach Us to Sit Still.

Parks, who is also a gifted literary essayist, cultural commentator, university professor and champion of the great Sicilian realist Giovanni Verga, is impossible to classify. His new novel, Painting Death, set in Verona and dedicated to the Veronese “who put up with this Englishman for 30 years” marks the return of his dastardly creation, Morris Duckworth.

Meanwhile Italian Ways – On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo, has been enjoying commercial and well as critical success. It is a lively account of surviving the Italian rail system both as a commuter and as a tourist. It is also about a country in flux and is required reading for anyone planning a visit.

“I have never wanted to become ‘Mr Italy’ or the guy who tries to explain Italy to everyone else. It’s not like I went to live in a villa in Tuscany. But you live in a country that you didn’t grow up in, that’s not your own, and well, you look at things that bit closer. You figure it out, or try to and then, after more than 30 years, your Italian friends will still ask when I’m going home.” says Parks, laughing.

“I could never return to live in England, any time I go there, I’m completely bewildered. It’s hopeless.”

He is a lively, emphatic speaker, blunt and direct, still the product of the evangelical background he escaped, very opinionated yet each observation is accompanied by fact. Logic is his medium; there is nothing glib about him.

The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books are well aware of how good he is; a Parks essay is always worth reading. He has the immediacy of a journalist writing to deadline and the deliberate, well argued approach of the professional academic that he is.

Living in Italy for so long has turned him into an anthropologist. “You watch how this particular set of people, in this particular country, with its specific responses, deal with living, and the Italians favour illusion over reality.”

Parks has already explained this in an essay on Mussolini. “Here was a man who both saved Jews from Hitler’s Holocaust yet passed anti-Semitic laws in Italy; who talked about modernising his country and, simultaneously, of returning to the mentality of Roman imperialism; who fomented a European war then desperately sought to postpone it; who spoke of wishing to be hated and feared while giving money anonymously to charitable organisations.”

Parks is alert to the Italian love of theatricality as much part of the national psyche as attachment to family – which helps explain the long train journeys endured by daily commuters. Since his separation three years ago, he lives in Milan where he teaches a postgraduate course in translation. But before that, in his previous Italian life in Verona, he did the 100 mile commute by train to Milan, a 200 mile daily round trip, to the same job.

Does he love Italy? I mumble, aware that Parks is not a person suited to being asked stupid questions. He is too clever. His mind races so quickly that he has learned to sit quietly for one hour a day, “during which I don’t think.” Ask him anything and he will give a reasoned and detailed response, but he is also good natured.

“I’m happy now. Milan is very different from Verona, it’s not as pretty. You miss the beautiful landscape,” he says. “There’s concerts though, films . . . What do I love about Italy? Those long summer evenings.”

Of course he has thoughts about life in Italy. He is a realist. “We [the Italians] have 51 per cent youth unemployment. The country is depressed, the economy is a mess . . . we’re on the Titanic and it’s heading for disaster.” A little later he uses a similar metaphor for the publishing industry then says, with feeling, “please, don’t get me started on that . . .”

But with regard to being an outsider with a very strong sense of being involved, “And I am; I live here. This is my life,” he says he has explained it in Italian Ways. “There are plateaus, then sudden deepenings; all at once a corner is turned and you understand the country and your experience of it in a new way. You could think of it as a jigsaw puzzle in four dimensions; the ordinary three, plus time: you never fill in all the pieces, if only because the days keep rolling by, yet the picture does seem more complete and above all denser and more convincing with every year. You’re never quite a native, but you’re no longer a stranger.”

At times a wistful quality enters his comments. Parks is an interesting character, bossy but kindly; razor sharp yet alert to the inherent romance in life, even in a glance or a gesture. Keeping up-to-date with his literary output is a full-time job. Each book is different and his writing has benefited from being away from England. “Italy has given me a great deal to write about, particularly in non-fiction.”

But the same distance that has kept him out of the London literary set has kept his writing fresh. He is probably the most underrated of leading British writers. This amuses him though and characteristically he says: “There are too many good writers, we need to concentrate on good books that no one had heard of . . . word of mouth keeps good books alive, not the stuff publishers hype.”

His readers tend to become loyal followers. Loan anyone a Parks book and chances are you will be asked for more, even if you never get the first one back. He was Booker short-listed for Europa in 1997, but lost out to Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, possibly the weakest ever winner. He was long-listed for his finest novel to date Destiny in 2000 and also for Judge Savage in 2003.

I first met Parks in 1986, the year after his first novel Tongues of Flame, won the Somerset Maugham award. He was already living in Italy by then. “I wrote that book there, and you know, it was my first novel to be published – I had already written seven that weren’t.” My shock amuses him. Parks knows how publishing works.

“It [Tongues of Flame] had already been rejected by about 20 publishers when it was submitted for a prize for unpublished books and Fay Weldon liked it.” His next novel, Loving Roger was also impressive; it was followed by Home Thoughts which was set largely in Verona.

By his sixth novel, Goodness, Parks had returned to the darkness of Loving Roger, with its revenge killing, but approached a far more difficult theme; the tragedy of a special-needs child.

By the publication of Shear in 1993, Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky had described Parks as “the best British author today.” Dreams of Rivers and Seas is a powerful exploration of emotion. Another Nobel Laureate, JM Coetzee, has praised Parks’s Swiftian vigour, yet Parks’s profile remains relatively low in Britain.

He doesn’t mind. “The Germans like my work, sometimes when I’m writing; I catch myself wondering, what would my German readers think of that?”

As a reader, a writer, a teacher and a critic living in Italy, he is aware that 70 per cent of the literary sales in Italy are in translation. “It’s true the Italian readers are well informed of what is being written elsewhere. It’s only in England that readers don’t read translations. It makes you think.” He again mentions Verga, the Sicilian writer whose work he has championed: “He was translated by DH Lawrence. My life here is good, as a writer too, Italy has given me a lot, Verga. . . I couldn’t leave now, yes, I’m happy with my life here.”

Italian Ways, by Tim Parks, is published by Vintage. Painting Death, by Tim Parks, is published by Harvill Secker

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