One of the prime difficulties the novelist faces is that he must work within the delusion that life as human beings live it is a fair representation of reality. He must work as if, to adapt Wittgenstein’s famous dictum, life is all that is the case. The composer, for whom form is content and content form, can bypass mere daily doings and go straight to the essence of things, pure ideas, unmediated expression. So too the poet, despite having to lug the baggage of common words, can achieve effects between the lines that are beyond the reach of all but the most slim-fingered and sublime purveyors of prose. “Gesang ist Dasein!” Rilke exclaims, and who would gainsay him? Even the painter, a great one such as Cézanne, dabbling among surfaces, can plunge into depths and fix what seems the secret of Being in a few abstract lines, a few planes of pure color.
The fact the novelist must live with, must work with, is that people’s actions are rarely true to what they feel or are, and, more, that there is no certain way of telling the real from the feigned, no way of dispelling what Denis Donoghue, writing of Yeats’s and Shelley’s attempts to break through the veil of appearance, calls “the delusion by which we think that reality coincides at every point with its appearances.”1 Kafka in his diary writes: I do not act as I think, I do not think as I should think, and so all goes on in deepest darkness.
The problem has been tackled by fiction writers, or at least by those fiction writers who have perceived that there is a problem, in their various cunning ways. We think of Thackeray the ironist, Dickens the fabulist, Dostoevsky the existentialist. Of them all, and still in the pre-Freud era, Henry James came closest to a solution, especially in the three great last novels, masterpieces of both polyphony and counterpoint, in which the actions of the characters are constantly and with immense, with diabolical, subtlety subjected to the lie detector of the Jamesian late style. Who else has managed to make language obfuscatory to the point of impenetrability and at the same time so luminously revealing? To follow, say, the play of proper pronouns in a page of dialogue between Maggie Verver and her father in The Golden Bowl is to witness one of the supreme masters of ambiguity operating at the top of his skill.
Modern English novelists have for the most part, in their admirable English way, approached the matter in a spirit of common sense, insisting that things as they are are as they are, and not as they are upon the blue guitar. Graham Greene, say, or Evelyn Waugh, or Graham Swift and Ian McEwan proceed on the premise that the world and the people in it can be caught whole and intact in the net of language. Even conscious stylists such as Martin Amis or Julian Barnes, though they might not care to be corralled in the same sentence, subscribe however warily to Orwell’s contention that prose should be as a pane of glass, through which the reader is afforded an unimpeded view of story, characters, ideas.
Among contemporary British novelists Tim Parks is something of a renegade. No doubt his long domicile in Italy has afforded him a broader perspective.2 He lives near Verona, and worked until recently as a translator, notably of Roberto Calasso’s fiend-ishly erudite meditations on history and culture. Although Parks could never achieve the mordant elegance of Waugh or Amis—Amis fils, that is—he has managed, especially over the last three or four of his books, to strike a new note in contemporary English letters, one that is harsh, disharmonious, but sound as a bell. The dystopian world that he presents for our appalled inspection is horribly familiar and yet skewed through the distorting lens of his singular eye. It was not always thus. His early novels, though less than sunny in their vision—in Loving Roger (1986) a girl murders her betraying boyfriend; in Goodness (1991) a father considers killing his handicapped child—were relatively straightforward, carpentered efforts. Shear (1993), for instance, was hardly more than a not very thrilling thriller. Increasingly, however, Parks’s vision has darkened, the sense of desperation has intensified, while his style has, if anything, alas, disimproved.
One does not go to Parks’s prose for felicity of phrasing or beauty of metaphor. His writing is clumsy in a way that it would be charitable to think is deliberate—“This news has blown the whistle on a stalemate that should have ended years ago”3—yet through its very clumsiness it achieves a dogged and wholly persuasive authenticity. In recent work he has made his pages more and more clotted, eschewing quotation marks and sticking fragments of dialogue into the narrative like shards of dull glass embedded in concrete to prevent his tall, gray paragraphs from being scaled by any but the most intrepid reader. To open one of his books is to be assailed immediately by an unrelenting, drumming cacophony. Here is the first sentence of Destiny, his 1999 catalog of domestic and expatriate disasters:
Some three months after returning to England, and having at last completed—with the galling exception of the Andreotti interview—that collection of material that, once assembled in a book, must serve to transform a respectable career into a monument—something so comprehensive and final, this was my plan, as to be utterly irrefutable—I received, while standing as chance would have it at the reception desk of the Rembrandt Hotel, Knightsbridge, a place emblematic, if you will, both of my success in one field and my failure in another, the phone-call that informed me of my son’s suicide.
That the narrator, an English journalist living in Rome, should admit straight off that his first reaction to this terrible news is to realize that his son’s death will mean the end of his marriage—“There is no reason, I told myself …no reason at all for you and your wife to go on living together now that your son is dead”—adds a characteristically Parksian twist to the general ghastliness.
The pace, literally the velocity, of Parks’s work has been steadily and hair-raisingly intensifying throughout his recent novels. Much of the action of Europa (1998) takes place on a bus; the first sixty pages or so of Destiny follow the desperate, infuriated efforts, in the face of flight delays and Italian traffic, of the bereaved journalist and his Italian wife to get to their dead son’s side; the plot of the new novel, Judge Savage, also entails numerous helter-skelter journeys. The result for the reader is a sensation like that of being trapped in the bar of the transit lounge of a fogged-in airport with a man who has spent all day trying in vain to get somewhere in order to prevent his life from collapsing and who cannot stop telling his tale of woe, Ancient Mariner–like, in a tone of dull despair and half-drunken shock. One’s reaction is a mixture of alarm, boredom, horrible fascination, and that sense of objectless anxiety usually generated by caffeine fever.
Judge Savage is an odd and oddly forceful tale. The judge in question, Daniel Savage—the surname is a piece of heavy-handed irony—has just been appointed to the bench of London’s crown court, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that he is black. Or at least colored. He is, he likes to remind people, “not actually black.” His wife, Hilary, who is white—indeed, something of an English rose, so we are given to understand—exclaims as she embraces him, “Oh I like my coffee well roasted,” while the children of this union boast a “famous suntan” bequeathed them by their father. His natural parents were Brazilian—“God knows what mix of races”—and he was adopted by a Colonel Savage and his wife. The Savages, as one has no choice but to call them, figure in the story as no more than names; as with so many other strands of his complicated story, Parks has simply chosen not to bother following this one back to its source.
Hard to say why, but Judge Savage’s blackness is not convincing. Although “Hilary loved his skin, the conventional British man, she said, in the mysterious foreign body,” and despite frequent references to his color and his woolly and now graying hair, Savage the black is no more believable than was Laurence Olivier as he slouched through the film of Othello plastered in café-au-lait-colored make-up. The judge is Savage in name but ultracivilized in nature: we are told of his elegant manners, his discriminating tastes, his—literally—deadly charm, his “measured Oxbridge accent,” while in the numerous quotations from his case summaries, he writes, one might almost say, better than Tim Parks. Savage’s friend the barrister Martin Shields, who has been passed up for the judgeship in favor of Savage, states the case with bitter merriment: “They chose the only one of us who really is one of us, but with boot polish on his face.” Savage is not offended; indeed, he complacently agrees with his friend’s assessment that the choice was a matter of political correctness, or “chromosomatism,” as Martin has it.
Complacency is spread like treacle over the early pages of the book:
On March 22nd, 1999, having at last resolved the conflict that had dogged their marriage for many years, and with the financial confidence arising from his recent appointment to the position of crown court judge, Daniel Savage and his wife Hilary settled on the purchase of a house then under construction on the hills to the north of their town. It was, Dan-iel would later recall, a clear day; there was a sharp light on a windswept, still wintry landscape; and indeed his overriding impression on taking this major decision was one of unprecedented and empowered clarity.
However, the two sentences that come before this passage, the two opening sentences of the novel, strike a warning note: “There is no life without a double life. And yet one grows weary.” Reality being reality, and fiction being fiction, we know that Judge Savage’s comfortable sense of himself, as well as his uxoriousness—shades of Othello again—are bound to end not only in tears but in sobs and screams, and sure enough, by the close of this suicide-haunted novel he is in a hotel room from which the corpse of his former mistress has lately been removed, measuring out a “powerful dose” of something purchased from a pharmacy and lying down to sleep.
After the pleasantries of the book’s opening, the judge’s troubles come in legions. On the night of the day on which they have signed the contracts for the new house, Hilary picks up the phone. “Whoever it was hung up again, she said, and when she looked over at him, Daniel knew at once what she was wondering.” Such calls have been frequent of late; they are from Daniel’s one-time lover, Minnie Kwan, a young Korean woman, who is in trouble with her gangster family and in need of his help. Hilary does not know about Minnie, but she does know about a serious affair which the judge carried on with a fellow lawyer, hence the by now resolved “conflict” in their marriage. Hilary is right to wonder. As it turns out, Savage is an incorrigible womanizer, as capable of picking up a prostitute on the street as he is of fondling the breasts of his best friend’s wife. His promiscuousness is reckless to the point of self-destruction. Not content with ordinary adultery, he flirts with disgrace and disaster, as when he seduced Minnie, the Korean girl, even though she was a member of the jury in a case in which he was the prosecuting lawyer. “You’ve always had a desire for self-abasement,” his friend Martin assures him. “So when you become a judge and circumstances have apparently put you beyond all abasement, you go and look for a way of destroying yourself. You can’t bear being above criticism.”
It is Martin who states the despairing philosophy that is at the heart of the book. A person of independent means, Martin has abandoned his career in the law and devoted himself instead, if devoted is not too strong a word, to the study of fungi and collecting and photographing British moths. Presently he sinks into complete nervous collapse and takes to his bed, where he sits all day with the window curtains drawn, watching soap operas on television. When Judge Savage goes to visit him, Martin tells him of an insight that had come to him six months previously, when he was defense counsel in a case in which a man was being tried for dangerous driving after he had accidentally knocked down and killed a child. As he looked at the man in the dock, Martin says, the word “carbon” had sprung into his mind:
The man’s just carbon, I thought. No, I knew. The boy he killed too. I kept thinking it for weeks. His body composition. You know that coffin they have in the British Museum with the various substances of the human body. A few little bottles lined up on the bottom. Carbon. Chemicals. And then on top there’s this farce, this veneer—no I don’t mean veneer—this sort of sticky surface, if you like, this cocooning film, wrapping round and round. Of parody. Our lives. What else can you call it. Parody. Irony. Soap. Cloaking the basic matter. It’s hard to take seriously, isn’t it?… Though the more you can’t, the more everybody insists on pretending. Do you follow? The harder everyone tries.
The “double life” referred to in the novel’s opening, enigmatic—or perhaps just clumsily expressed—sentence refers not just to Judge Savage’s secret and multifarious love life but to the way in which life itself is split between our outward, normal, sane behavior and the riot of dark urges, fears, hungers that underlies and gives the lie to all we say and do. When Martin tells the judge that it was his wife, Christine—she of the fondled breasts—who had told Hilary about the judge’s affair with his lawyer colleague, the judge demands to know why. Martin’s answer, “Caprice?,” reminds us at once of Emerson’s cheerfully chilly dismissal, in “Self-Reliance,” of the notion of life as a serious enterprise: “I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim.” Judge Savage, although halfway along his journey into the abyss, is still willing to give life the benefit of the doubt, and follow another of Emerson’s suggestions, this time from “Experience”: “Let us treat the men and women well: treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are.” Yet the judge, careful and conservative though he is—in court, at least—has no illusions about the true nature of reality:
If society is held together by the respect people somehow nourish in each other’s regard, together with the belief that it really is better to live a decent rather than a criminal life, then the function of a trial and the task of a judge becomes clear enough…. Wherever such respect and belief have been shattered by some awful crime, then the trial must publicly assert the significance of what has happened. The community, even if it can’t quite believe Man was made in God’s image, nevertheless gives notice that such matters are very serious. They won’t be tolerated…. Woe betide the person who decides all this is farce. We will punish him.
Here is where the tension of the book resides, in this perception of the sharp-honed agate edge upon which human life is balanced. Appearance must be sustained, for behind appearance anarchy and chaos lurk. Everything is ar- bitrary. “It had often occurred to Judge Savage that on a different day, or even in different weather, or a different room, a jury might decide things differently.” If he had not fixed on Minnie Kwan as she sat in the jury box, if he had not, against all his better judgment, proceeded to seduce her, perhaps his lovely life with pale Hilary the amateur pianist and their suntanned son and daughter might have gone on swimmingly until he and Hilary entered happy old age and the children were grown into responsible adults intent in their turn on fashioning lovely lives for themselves, and so on through the generations. But he does seduce mousey Minnie, and carries on a brief affair with her, conducted for the most part on a makeshift bed of piled-up carpets in the warehouse of her family’s home furnishings business, and from that casual concumbence flow all the consequences that will join together to destroy him. Caprice. Whim. Catastrophe.
Judge Savage is a long book, and the narrative is as intricate and untidy as…well, as life itself, almost. Minnie makes contact with the judge, to the point that she ends up sharing the Savages’ old house with their daughter, Sarah, a troubled sixteen-year-old who for a time becomes a member of an obscure religious sect, sends her father anonymous biblical imprecations—AND THE MAN THAT COMMITTETH ADULTERY WITH HIS NEIGHBOUR’S WIFE, THE ADULTERER AND THE ADULTRESS SHALL SURELY BE PUT TO DEATH—and has a predilection for stripping herself naked in her father’s presence: the hint of incestuous intent is another thread the author declines to wind back onto its spool. Indeed, Sarah, for all her eccentricities, shares the same insubstantiality as most of the other characters in this willfully confused but oddly compelling book. The only figures who spring from the page with real vividness are Martin’s wife, Christine, febrile, unsteady, and decidedly blowsy, and the judge’s adoptive brother, Frank, a shambling, shady, and acidly humorous homosexual dealer in fake antiques, who becomes involved in the story when the judge hires him to track down the elusive Minnie Kwan. Both Frank and Christine are desperate characters, but fascinating in their awful way; when they enter upon the scene, alas too infrequently, the story takes on a fizz and sparkle that are lacking elsewhere.
As the book progresses inexorably toward its tragic conclusion the plot does not so much thicken as curdle. As in the best traditional novels, there are alarms and excursions and amazing revelations—not least about the judge’s friend Martin, whose secret is one of the darkest in this dark tale—all of which Parks handles with the aplomb of Trollope or even Thackeray, but adding his own bleakly existential twist. The judge is waylaid by Minnie Kwan’s thuggish relatives and beaten very badly—among other injuries he loses the sight in one eye. Minnie herself, who is pregnant by her present boyfriend, suffers a worse fate at the hands of those same relatives. Her brothers suspect she has revealed to the police the true nature of the family business, which is not importing cheap furnishings but smuggling illegal immigrants. She is locked in her flat, and a couple of Korean heavies are sent to interrogate her. “They kicked me. I didn’t know them…. I told them, I hadn’t said anything. Minnie was shaking her head, crying. This afternoon I wake up and they’ve all gone. I had to smash the door.” Inevitably she comes to the judge for help, but it is too late, she is beyond help. Desperately, and just as inevitably, the judge turns to his long-suffering and by now estranged wife:
This is the end of me, he was saying. You do understand that. Hilary said nothing. But it’s not that that frightens me, he insisted…. What then? She asked. I don’t know. I can’t deal with it…. You know my job is stupid, he began to say. I don’t mind losing my job. It’s stupid.
Among all his sins, this admission of despair is in its way the gravest. Had he been wise he would have heeded his own warning: “Woe betide the person who decides all this is farce. We will punish him.”
Judge Savage is a flawed but brave book, and, in the end, a fine one. Parks attempts, with more or less success—more, in fact, than less—to communicate the multilayered nature of lived life by thickening the texture of his narrative, impeding its flow on every front. Into these long, portmanteau paragraphs he jumbles dialogue, speculations, scraps of memories, legal jargon, telephone conversations, arguments, recriminations, setpiece depictions of domestic life. A courtroom scene will dissolve into a stream of consciousness in the judge’s head, which will jolt into the recollection of a fight with his wife, which in turn will break off to launch into a legal summation. The result is a harsh, rough immediacy in which the reader is caught up and hustled along, as if he were part of a crowd pressing into the public gallery to listen to a juicy court case involving marital infidelity, violent death, and all manner of dysfunctional behavior. Employing the materials of the traditional novel—family life, money, property, sex—Parks has managed to make something new, a grinding, consonantal work of art as contingently untidy as our ordinary days. Judge Savage is as true to life as fiction can ever be.
March 11, 2004
Speaking of Beauty (Yale University Press, 2003). ↩
The poet Philip Larkin, asked why he had chosen to live in Hull in the north of England, so far from the center—i.e., London—fixed his interviewer with one of his more owlish stares and asked: “The center of what?” ↩
Destiny (Arcade, 2000), p. 3. ↩