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 making a work of art out of an activity that outsiders think of as just another crazy high-risk sport but, to its practitioners, is itself an art form of a kind.
A river to a kayaker is like a rock face to a climber, not a charming piece of nature but a series of complex problems with technical solutions that depend on physical ability. Parks is at his best when he describes how a fast-moving mountain river changes moment to moment and yard by yard, from glassy smooth to boiling chaos, and how the kayaker learns to read and negotiate it in much the same way as Parks, in his work as a translator or literary critic, would read and negotiate a text:
Time and again Vince approaches the top of the eddy. Fascinated, he watches how others…penetrate the current and glide across to the wave apparently without expending energy or taking risks. How is this? There is some hidden place, it seems, between eddy and flow, between the soft grey water milling on shallow stones and the fast dark stream pouring into the wave, some place where the river can be unlocked. A secret entrance. You’re admitted directly to the heart of things. You’re privileged. You can sit on the wave in a miracle of exhilarating speed and reassuring stillness. This mystery is denied to him. The entrance isn’t there when he approaches. The explanations—do this, do that—don’t seem to correspond to the experience….
On the fourth attempt, having once more capsized without reaching the wave, Vince rolls his boat upright in the worst of the turbulence. The paddle is suddenly in the right place. He arches the arm, moves his hips and with no effort at all there he is, tossed out on a boil of water, disorientated, floundering, but up, breathing. Things could still go right.
Vince is an outsider, one of six adults among a vanload of teenagers from an English canoe club who have been driven from Kent by their three instructors for an adventure holiday on the Aurino River in the South Tyrol. The instructors are much as you would expect—hearty and bullying in a schoolmasterly way, and full of the false cheer that seems to be required in a “community experience.” Parks has a good ear for how people speak—but, as one of them says, “You get fed up with all this group and kiddie stuff after a week.”
Two of the other adults, Clive and Michela, who have organized the trip and supplied the gear, are more interesting. Clive is a passionate environmentalist, fresh from the barricades at a violent anti-globalization rally in Milan, full of guilt and outrage. Michela, his beautiful Italian girlfriend, is besotted with everything English—Clive in particular—and alienated from both her mother and her mother tongue. She wants an English life with this bearded, master-kayaking Englishman, and falls into despair when he suddenly decides that his global conscience is so bad that he can no longer sleep with her. Michela’s misery and its consequences are subtly defined, but Clive’s motives seem altogether murkier, less to do with the ruin of the environment than with the priggishness of the true believer. When the trip ends he takes off for Berlin, hinting that he’s going to chain himself to a railing with his fellow activists and blow himself up. A group suicide is in fact reported to have taken place, but whether or not Clive is one of the martyrs is not clear. Michela blithely assumes he will return; Vince, who has fallen in love with this lovely young woman “with naive political views and a cripplingly dysfunctional background,” is less convinced. Neither of them mentions the most likely possibility: Clive’s mission to Berlin is simply a quasi-heroic excuse for leaving his lover in the lurch.
Vince is older and wiser than the other kayakers, a middle-aged man with a serious job back there in the real world—he’s a high-powered banker—who has only come along to keep his teenage daughter company. The daughter, Louise, is almost as strange to him as the fierce and unpredictable river. Banking keeps him mostly in London, while she lives in the country with her mother. The mother, an expert kayaker who should have been with her on the trip, has suddenly died of a heart attack and in the aftershock he is trying, without much enthusiasm or success, to reestablish a relationship with his child.
More important to him, he is trying to reawaken feelings in himself. Falling in love with Michela is part of the process, but his true salvation is action. The two themes come dramatically together in a shallow cave beneath a waterfall, with the whole weight of the river crashing down beyond it:
Suddenly, it seemed essential that he should have come here, that he should know this cold, roaring place, at the heart of everything, he thought, but dark and hidden. It’s important that there are places like this. He couldn’t think why. But he knew the Italian girl would be coming. Any moment. He waited, breathing the saturated air. Sure enough, she suddenly blundered forward through the water and against him. He could just make out her pale face as she yelled something inches away. What was it? He couldn’t hear. She pulled him against her. Her hands had fastened tight on his jacket. Their cold wet faces are together now. Still she was yelling something. The water thundered. He shouted: I’m crazy about you. Absolutely crazy! He was shouting at the top of his voice knowing she couldn’t hear. I do nothing but watch you. She shook her head. Their eyes had caught each other, gathering a faint brightness from the shadow. Something was quivering there. She put her hands behind his head. Their helmets banged. And for perhaps three or four seconds she pressed her cold lips to his. Then she let go.
The action prose, Hemingway-style, clipped and urgent, is carefully deflated by those banging helmets. It is also supposed to be a moment of revelation, like the incident in the Marabar caves in A Passage to India. When asked about it later, Michela, who goes on—unsuccessfully—to attempt suicide, calls the cave behind the waterfall the “last place on earth…terminal,” while Vince says it is “like a place…I kind of always knew existed but had never been to.” What she sees as a moment of darkness in a bad place is, for him, a way through to his own heart after years of loveless marriage. In the closing pages of the book, these two ways of looking come together, though not quite as you would expect: when Vince finally gets into bed with the woman he says he’s crazy about, he doesn’t dare touch her.
Yet daring is what he’s been seeking, “the delirium of the real thing …the highly levered gamble,” he calls it. As it works out, Vince has found it not with Michela but in the risky business of white-water kayaking. After a lifetime chained to a desk and juggling numbers, he finds himself thinking with his body instead of his weary head, and his world is suddenly transformed:
Vince’s body ached in various places from yesterday’s adventure, but when sitting down to meat and wine these are not unpleasant aches, more reminders of being alive…. There comes a point when a wound makes you more aware of the healing process than the damage.
Michela has gone through a similar process, with exactly the opposite result. She knows all about the perils of white water and for her it’s now a sham:
I think…so many of these people who do dangerous things on rivers and mountains are afraid. It’s funny, but I’m pretty sure. Afraid of dying, afraid of settling down. Afraid of life beginning really, and afraid it will never begin. These sports are something you do instead of life…. Do you see what I’m trying to say, Mr Banker? They’re things people do instead of living. Really, you should tell your bank to invest in all these high-risk sports because it’s what everyone really wants. Hang-gliding, deep-sea diving. To feel they’re really living, when they’re not in danger of living at all.
It is a familiar, sensible, wifely argument, but Vince is not impressed. He has made up his mind: he will resign from the bank and start an adventurous new life here in the Alto Adige, though whether it will be with Michela or without her is not yet decided. In this brave new world of his, love may come and go, but the adrenaline rush is forever.
Surviving against the odds in hostile environments is one of the attractions of high-risk sports, but the Aurino in spring, swollen with glacial meltwater, is nothing like as hostile an environment as the marriages in Parks’s collection of short stories, Talking About It, where rancor is all and no one is happy. The husbands are lustful and on the make, the wives thwarted and cold, and all of them are chronically, wearyingly unfaithful—to their lovers as well as their legal partners. The two doctors in “Keeping Distance” seem to get on and have had ten years of good company and great sex while they pursued their separate careers, he in Italy and she in Germany. But once they marry, they become intolerable to each other:
A lot of their time together passed without words, not in the silence of resolution and serenity, but against the background of a nagging tension, of something unresolved, unsettled between them, which they were becoming less rather than more capable of talking about.
So they divorce “on the grounds of complete incompatibility” and then live on happily, hundreds of miles apart, but seeing each other most weekends. “It was so much easier than taking local lovers with all their demands, their insistence on consequences.”
Since disappointment, boredom, and distaste are the best Parks’s couples can hope for in marriage, keeping each other at a distance is a way of staying sane. Parks takes up the theme again in “Lebensraum,” but even more bleakly because this time there are two generations at each others’ throats (three, if you count the squabbling children). Lebensraum is what the grandfather once had when he worked in the Middle East and, as he tells the assembled family (including his wife), his reasons for going were selfless and impeccable:
The truth about my going to Saudi, for those who have eyes to see it, is that finding myself condemned to spend my life with an argumentative, ignorant woman who just would not understand where my or her own responsibilities lay, I chose, what? To leave her in the lurch as any normal man would do?—no, simply to work overseas for a few years so as to avoid insanity or suicide or worse.
Now he is back home, his Lebensraum is reduced to nothing more than sneaking out for a morning coffee or a newspaper or a pack of cigarettes—anything to get himself out of the house—and he grieves for its loss. “It means,” his daughter explains, “that not being able to get away from one another, they take delight in making hell for each other,” although in this instance making life hell begins as just another of those games families play over long, drunken lunches:
There was, on their six faces, the glow of people having a good time eating and drinking and merrily exorcising all the little irritations that made living together so heroic.
Domestic venom is clearly a subject that inspires Parks, even if this time it ends in disaster: grandma kills grandpa in a drunken postprandial brawl; their daughter can’t reach her husband to tell him because he’s slunk off for a rendezvous with his newest girlfriend.
But that’s how it usually is in the loveless marriages Parks writes about: restless husbands call home improvements “padding the cell” and boast to their mistresses, “inertia will pull me through in the end.” The dissatisfied wives, abandoned by their lovers, watch their sleeping husbands and think, about love as well as orgasms, “Is there anything one cannot fake?”
Parks is strong on irony and he doesn’t take sides in so many words. But in the end he seems to dislike most of the characters he creates in these stories almost as much as they dislike one another. The world he describes, in a suitably affectless prose, is brutal, squalid, and a long way from the Aurino.
August 10, 2006