According to the bibliography on his Web site, the English writer Tim Parks has published thirteen novels, a collection of short stories, two collections of critical essays (most of which first appeared in The New York Review), a book on the art of translation, a brief history of the Medicis and their bank, and three highly personal variations on the intricate business of making a life for himself in Italy: Italian Neighbors, about setting up house in Verona; An Italian Education, about raising his English-Italian children; and A Season with Verona, a study of Italy’s national obsession with soccer—an obsession Parks shares—and an account of the months he spent following his local team around the country. All this in twenty years, while holding down a university job in Milan and, as it were in his spare time, translating fifteen books from the Italian.
I can think of no contemporary English writer with an output equal to his—or rather, who produces so much and keeps his standards so high. D.H. Lawrence was still a dominant influence when Parks was at Cambridge and, like him, Parks, who has written about him admiringly, is not only a natural, he is also a very English writer who has turned his back on England and does his best to transform the sedentary profession of writing into an adventure, into a way of being in the world as well as writing about it. Both writers have in common a complete confidence in the truth of their reactions and a relentless determination to make something out of whatever happens to happen to them. The first time Lawrence arrived in Florence, he went straight up to his rented room and wrote about what this city he didn’t know was like. Parks did much the same in Italian Neighbors; whence the liveliness of the book, its humor, bewilderment, and exasperation. He is a writer who lets nothing go to waste.
His voice, however, is very different from Lawrence’s. Reading Lawrence is like being buttonholed by the Ancient Mariner; once he starts you can’t get away, no matter how much he repeats himself or how implacably he hectors you. Parks is a far cooler writer, with a prose that has all the qualities you might expect from someone devoted to the art of translation: economical, ironic, clear, and unostentatious. Yet in his nonfiction, especially when he writes about life in Italy, he is always in the thick of it, outsmarting the bureaucrats like the rest of his neighbors, or roaring his head off with the yobs at the soccer games.
Compared to all that buzz and passion, his new novel Rapids seems chaste and subdued, although its subject is white-water kayaking, a sport that apparently obsesses him as much as soccer. Parks says the book was a great pleasure to write but I suspect the pleasure—for him as well as for the reader—was less in telling a story than in …