The critical endeavours of a loner
Tim Parks, one of the best writers at work in English, cherishes his isolation, reports Geordie Williamson
ACURIOUS fact about Tim Parks: while other London teenagers of the late 1960s and early ’ 70s were spending their days experimenting with sex and drugs, the future novelist was speaking in tongues. Depending on how autobiographical you consider his first fiction to be, he also staged protests outside cinemas showing satanic films, prayed to save his older brother’s rebellious, dope- smoking soul and attended group exorcisms, among other evangelical entertainments. Anyone who has read Parks’s 1985 debut, Tongues of Flame, may ponder how true to life these events are.
But those who have also come across his many subsequent fictions, his Italian translations, his accounts of life ( and football) in northern Italy, his humanist primer about the Medici family in 15th- century Florence, Medici Money, as well as his coolly passionate critical writings, will be astonished that one of the best writers at work in English should have emerged from such unlikely beginnings.
So when I get the chance to interview Parks by phone in advance of his arrival for Adelaide Writers Week, I cannot help but begin at the beginning. Was it really like that, I ask. ‘‘ More or less exactly’’ is his unhesitating reply.
Parks, it turns out, was no ordinary son of the manse. His father was a conservative Anglican clergyman who was swept up in the charismatic movement that emerged in Britain during those decades, partly as a counterpoint to secular hippiedom, according to Parks. ‘‘ It was very much to do with the ’ 60s, a period where everyone felt the need for a complete renewal,’’ he explains. ‘‘ So for those who had no stomach for promiscuity or political rebellion, it provided an alternative form of transformation.’’
For Parks, it was an intense upbringing. Although he was drawn to the beauty of the liturgy, there were fiercer aspects of the movement with which to contend. On one hand, there was ‘‘ immersion in something genuinely attractive. But, later on, other aspects were not. They were coercive and aggressive and unpleasant, and I was only too glad to get out of it.’’
By his mid- teens, long exposure had all but inoculated Parks against religion. What did stay with him, however, was a powerful sense of the role of family in the formation of personality. That his teenage apostasy resulted in a break with those closest to him remains a source of fascination: ‘‘ For me, that’s where plot comes from. One’s interested in telling stories and the interesting stories for me are intensely to do with the most intimate relations, those that make you who you are, and the betrayal of them.’’
From a north London grammar school Parks went on to Cambridge, where he studied English literature and pursued his other great passion, football. It was only in his final year that he was forced to grapple with his vocation. ‘‘ I became increasingly aware that what I wanted to do was write, even though I hadn’t written anything at all and had no idea how I might go about it,’’ he says.
So it was inertia as much as a first- class degree that led him to a scholarship to Harvard to pursue a PhD. Although he dropped out after 18 months, this turned out to be a significant time. It was in the US that Parks began writing fiction and consolidated the experience of leaving home. And it was there he met the gifted Italian linguist who became his wife. ‘‘ We got together the day after she told me that there was no way she was going to go back and live in Italy ever again, which was a huge relief for me because I had no desire to go there either,’’ he says. Instead, the pair went to London and two years of unpublished books, dodgy bedsits and jobs selling typesetting and translation services over the phone, a period revisited with critical success in his second novel, Loving Roger ( 1986).
Parks’s writing during these years bordered on the obsessive: ‘‘ Five or six hours a day, even when there was no money coming out of it.’’ A halfdozen novels were completed, only to be rejected. When he finally landed an agent, the relief was so great that he and his new wife decided to leave England and move to Italy, ‘‘ on spec’’.
Even after their move, it was several years before his first novel was published, after being plucked out of a competition for unpublished manuscripts. Tongues of Flame was a succes d’estime , winning the Betty Trask and Somerset Maugham prizes and earning some glowing reviews. Its publication alone sufficed as vindication for Parks, who admits to have been on the verge of giving up writing.
Instead, he increased his workload and began producing fiction of growing skill and confidence ( later to be joined by celebrated translations of Italian authors such as Italo Calvino, Alberto Moravia and Roberto Calasso), along with critical and nonfiction writings on literature, football and Italy past and present. All this, while rearing a family of three and teaching academic English near Verona, his base now for 25 years.
Despite ongoing admiration for his work, Parks resists those self- advertisements obligatory for contemporary authors seeking to consolidate their reputations ( to his detriment, surely, for he
Intense: Tim Parks