The crit­i­cal en­deav­ours of a loner

Tim Parks, one of the best writ­ers at work in English, cher­ishes his iso­la­tion, re­ports Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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