- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 13, 2002

HELL AND BACK: REFLECTIONS ON WRITERS AND WRITING FROM DANTE TO RUSHDIE
By Tim Parks

Arcade Publishing, $24.95, 348 pages
REVIEWED BY LORNA WILLIAMS

British born Tim Parks is a versatile chap. He's written 10 well received novels, chiefly noir-ish comedies, as well as two nonfiction accounts of his somewhat frazzled life in Italy, where he's made his home for the last 20 years. This is not the Italy described by Francis Mayes in "Under the Tuscan Sun," but an altogether grittier place; nor does Mr. Parks condescend to the locals as Peter Mayle does in his books about Provence.
When he's not writing, Mr. Parks lectures on literary translation at the University of Milan and, along the way, he's translated many Italian works into English. A book came out of that experience too: "Translating Style" discusses the finer points of communicating an author's vision in a foreign language. When does he have time to sit down and smell the cappuccino, one wonders. The answer is 10 o'clock at his desk, a piece of information gleaned from "Adultery and Other Diversions," Mr. Parks' first essay collection, admired for its adroit interweaving of personal anecdote with sharp-eyed observation of societal changes.
"Hell and Back," Mr. Parks' second collection of essays, has a more academic tone. No surprise, since most were first published as reviews for the New York Review of Books. Three additional pieces were written as introductions to new editions of novels by Henry Green, Christina Stead and Dino Buzzati, writers he greatly admires. None of the three are exactly household names but then, aside from Dante and Salman Rushdie, Jorge Luis Borges and James Joyce, most of the writers discussed in "Hall and Back" are unfamiliar to the general reader.
No matter. Mr. Parks is in his element in introducing nonspecialists to writers of whom they may not have heard. One of his strengths is selecting quotations, which Martin Amis has rightly identified as "the reviewer's only hard evidence." This is particularly true of poetry; so in writing about the Italian poets Giacomo Leopardi and Eugenio Montale, Mr. Parks quotes them at some length, to give readers a feel for their work. He knows how to communicate the essentials of a life and in these days of doorstopper biographies (728 pages on the life of Bing Crosby, and that's just part one), it's a pleasure to read his pith-and-vinegar summaries of these authors' lives.
One can't wait to go out and buy or reread the books he praises. Australia's Christina Stead, for example, is best known in America for her autobiographical novel set in Washington, "The Man Who Loved Children," but here Mr. Parks reviews "Letty Fox: Her Luck," a novel of which most people have never heard. "Letty," he writes, "is given all the contradictions that formed the core of Stead's experience: The erotic charge, the romantic longings, the left-wing politics, the desire to be both beautiful and brilliant, to be admired and feared, to love with feminine faithfulness and submission and with masculine presumption and promiscuity. It's an explosive cocktail."
Mr. Parks' enthusiasm for Christina Stead and other under-appreciated writers is contagious. He believes "Party Going" to be a "bizarre and beautiful comedy that is Henry Green's great masterpiece." "The Tartare Steppe," written in 1939 by Italian author Dino Buzzati is "one of those precious novels that take the enormous risk of throwing down a gauntlet to the reasoning mind … To read [it] is to be asked to take the idea of enchantment seriously."
Even when Mr. Parks doesn't care for a writer, he offers the compensation of a bracing wit: "Our author [Portuguese Jose Saramago] gives us the impression of a man reluctantly emerging from the peculiarly Western delirium that a perfection of technique at the service of goodwill might lead to the triumph of happiness."
Here comes Salman Rushdie as circus juggler: "In 'The Ground Beneath Her Feet,' Rushdie tosses up a great many balls, most of them very large and decidedly colorful. Certainly he is determined to dazzle. Whether he manages to keep them usefully in the air or not is something it is hard at first for the reader to judge, since the pages are very soon, with respect, so full of balls that the mind can only boggle."
Mr. Parks is just as tough on Vikram Seth's novel "An Equal Music," a would-be high-toned romance played out against a background of classical music. He notes coolly and accurately that as soon as we learn that the protagonist's beloved, a gifted pianist, is going deaf, "we have moved into the realm of kitsch."
Lukewarm about Ian Buruma's "Voltaire's Coconuts," an account of European anglophilia (published in America under the bland title "Anglomania"), Mr. Parks uses the review as a means to snipe at the European Union: "Unlike empires seized or rigid systems merely imposed, it possesses a novel and perhaps decisive asset: a scope for seeming endless complication … Quite simply, this project will take up all the time there is." To which one can only reply: Get used to it signore, the EU's already here.
Elsewhere, the piece "Writerly Rancour" bears a marked resemblance to "Rancour," the penultimate essay in "Adultery and Other Diversions"; while not identical twins (the more recent is longer and more academic), the two are certainly related. That said, both are interesting pieces demonstrating that writers are as nasty and vicious as the rest of us.
Another grumble: The two articles (they cannot be called essays) about schizophrenia, first published in The Lancet, seem out of place. Mr. Parks' erudition is manifest on every page he appears to have read every book that's ever been published, although he admits that the highly regarded German writer, W.G. Sebald, whose extraordinary prose style "recovers, devours and displaces the past," was new to him. (Sebald, who lived in England but wrote in his native language, died recently in a car accident.)
And here's what Mr. Parks has to say about Jorge Luis Borges: "Whether we agree with what he says or not … we find ourselves with a feast of ideas to consider and, above all, the example of how a remarkable mind comes to grips with the world in a constant back and forth between personal experience and the views of others."
These words describe Mr. Parks' own thoughtful, thought-provoking prose.

Lorna Williams is a Washington writer.


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