Tim Parks is a prodigious writer – with widely acclaimed novels, several books of observation on Italy and the Italians, not to mention his insightful literary criticism. His latest work Judge Savage has predictably enough divided critics, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Joseph Brodsky labelled him “Frankly, the best British author working today., though he is often overlooked, possibly due to his distancing of himself both physically and metaphorically from the U.K media set (He lives in Italy, and has on several occasions been scathingly critical of writers lauded by the establishment).
For a busy writer and lecturer, Parks is remarkably generous with his time. This interview with ThreeMonkeysOnline was conducted by email.
Who would you list as your literary influences?
These questions are so difficult. At the beginning, I suppose, I was certainly pastiching various different styles, Henry Green, Beckett's prose, the early Bainbridge, Elizabeth Bowen, quite a mix. By the time I was getting published I was borrowing heavily from writers like Natalia Ginzburg and Elsa Morante. More recently I've been strongly influenced more by essayists like Emil Cioran than by novelists. But as the years go by you learn to take things from others without borrowing or copying or simply sounding like them.
As a long-time resident in Italy, has the Italian language exerted any influence on the way you write in English?
Since the business of learning, speaking and living in a foreign language has been a large part of my life, it's inevitably altered the way I write and the way I think about English. I suppose spending most of one's life in a different country and above all a different language, you tend to develop a more personal use of your native language, less influenced by the contemporary media and the fashionable. There are advantages and disadvantages. In the end, whatever your special experience is, home or abroad, the thing is to get the most out of it.
You’ve said “In the end one is always trying to write the book one would like to read oneself. “ – what are some of the main criteria you look for when choosing a book to read?
Oh dear. A book has to excite me from the very first sentence. I'm very impatient. If I feel I've heard it before, the voice, the gesture, I simply stop at once. Same if I feel it's selling pieties or is pompous. Or if I suspect the guy just wants to sell books. So much for the negatives. On the positive side, the truth is, I don't actually know what I'm looking for. How can you? It wouldn't surprise me if I knew what it was. I do know, though, when I see it. I remember when I read the first page of Bernhard's Concrete, I was just knocked out. Same with Robert Walser, same with Joseph Roth, or in a smaller way, Nicholson Baker's early works. But these are fairly rare experiences. In the end, the book has to amount to a take on life which I believe really is honest. And the story has to convince and entertain.
A Carabiniere friend recently warned me, while discussing The dark heart of Italy by Tobias Jones, “He’s mistaken on a lot of things. You shouldn’t believe what he says!”. despite the fact that he hadn’t read the book. Have you faced similar criticisms from people in Italy? How possible is it for an outsider to write about a culture?
Another carabiniere story! Even when people do read a book, they are often all too ready to misunderstand, especially if they care a lot about what you're talking about. Basically, there is a tendency to imagine that there are only a certain number of positions to hold on any subject and a writer is very quickly labelled as holding one of them. Plus, some people are ever eager to be offended. So, yes, there are readers of the Italian books who imagine I'm too critical, others who complain I'm too generous. Occasionally you get an offensive letter. But equally people can start praising you for positions you didn't actually take. It gets more and more important as a writer to decide for yourself what you think about a book you've written and put your heart at rest on the matter. Otherwise you get worried by these very divergent reactions. In general, all I've learned is how carelessly people read, and, as in the case with your carabiniere, what strong opinions they can have even if they haven't read a book at all.
As for the possibilities of writing about another culture, there are limits. In the end, it's only living and working in Italy for many years that one really begins to get a sense of the Italian take on the world, or that collection of takes that make up the Italian debate. Writing in English about Italy one is always somehow giving an English view of the country. It can be frustrating. That's why I focused so much, in an Italian Education in particular, on various aspects of the language, trying to make certain very Italian words and idioms come alive.
Do you feel at home in Italy now?
I feel at home in my house, my office, the canoe club, the stadium, at the university where I teach. Yes, in general, coming back to Italy means coming home, knowing how to deal with things. On the other hand, when I go back to England, I still get the feeling of instant recognition of people and their accents and mannerisms that I don't always get in Italy.
You’ve written in your latest novel Judge Savage, against a backdrop of contemporary England. How difficult was that to do, living in Italy?
Well, it was an England carefully purged of any precise reference to place, or any of those references to daily paraphernalia that take up so much space in many contemporary novels. I go back to England regularly, and since any country includes many worlds I wasn't worried about the problem of setting the book there. Look what Joyce did after all, and he hadn't been back to Dublin for years. Far more difficult was knowing enough about the English legal system. That took me a long time indeed and many hours in the court room. And even then all I was able to give was a flavour.