Snoops or Mandolinists are how we divide expats in Italy who write in English. It’s a rough but convenient distinction. The snoopers have their noses into what they deem the Italian character. They would be hard pressed to cram their own national essence into a book or two but plod confidently up and down from Siracusa to Como hand in hand with a native scarecrow. They grope it for family secrets. Polite, it doesn’t talk back. The Mandolin players don’t bother with still breathing Italians, preferring to hold hands with their famous forebears. They like the Mediterranean diet of Renaissance painting and sunshine. Safely dead rogues, scallywags and, of course, many a genius with an eye-catching flaw have a place in their hearts.
Italians may have felt honoured at having been been felt up for forty years by foreign hands. But some have at times murmured, “Who does he think he is, this Tim Parks?” The answer is not a short story. The judgemental Englishman made his fatal move to Italy in 1981. A graduate of Cambridge with time spent at Harvard, he should have known better. Italy would gobble him down and put a permanent hold on his ambition to be nothing except a novelist. In Tongues of Flame of 1985, he settled scores with his own family and turned thereafter to sorting out Italians full-time.
Whether tainted by an imperial hangover or from standard schoolmaster’s idealism, Parks felt he knew how countries should work and how their citizenry should live. In his 2020, Italian Life he explains his long labours to straighten Italy out. It began with Italian Neighbours, 2001, and Italian Ways, 2014. These, he says, were “the candid personal account, the bemused observer discovering Italy first hand.” In 2020 he wanted “to go deeper: get to the core of it, the pattern that underlies both the good and the bad, the wonderful human warmth of the place, its systematic cruelty.” Note the nice-guy sop to Italic overheating.
Parks could also have cited An Italian Education, 1996, or his fictions, Cara Massimina, 1990, Mimi’s Ghost, 2001, Painting Death, 2014, and more that each display the novelist overwhelmed by the stern enquirer into Italy’s mistaken ways. Wondrous to recall that Parks taught English in Verona in the 1980s and in 1997 wrote a whole novel, Europa, about the experience. Forty years later, with Italian Life he obsesses still about the likes of those Verona teachers and students. America had its wave of Campus Novels in the 1950s, but Italy’s campus-deficient institutions have furnished Parks with his own literary genre. The drawback has been that it overshadows a whole range of his impressive accomplishments. Italian Life’s yearning to be a novel is highjacked by a need to settle scores with and stand Italy in the corner. It’s the portrait of a country that falls short of a Great Britain dreamt by a Union Jack-waving schoolboy.
The book embraces the weary business of the country’s south-north division as if it’s hot news. British commentators have been raking over those cold ashes since Giuseppe Garibaldi held his rave in Covent Garden. It suited imperial foreign policy to cast the Bourbons of Naples as the day’s axis of evil. Parks will stalk an independent-minded student from deep-south Basilicata as she sheds her backwardness (mom and dad) and ancient ways (men on top).
As we follow the young woman, Valeria, in her learning curve toward becoming a 21st Century European, some doubts arise. It’s a well told story but Parks has failed to bring Italy’s geographic divide up to date. His acceptance of Giovanni Verga, born 1840, as a kind of guide stone skews his time sense. Are we still living in the world of Luchino Visconti’s Rocco e i suoi fratelli? Despite our ritual gripes, progress in transport has put the South in the North’s backyard. Southern Italians do a dizzying amount of to-and-fro movement over the peninsula. They now shop Online, which accelerates the national mix. Regional differences remain, because regions remain, some richer than others. A citizen living in a metropolis will wear his hat differently from his cousin in a small town or the countryside. Provincials won’t go away till the last trumpet chases them. But the idea of a bottomless moat across the middle of Italy belongs only to weather forecasts and folklore. We are bemused that Parks again and again finds the key to the character of Third Millennium Italians in the tales of Giambattista Basile. He wrote in Neapolitan in the early 1600s. It’s wonderfully like explaining Donald Trump by what Cotton Mather quill-penned in the Latin he learned at Harvard. Or to explain Boris Johnson by poet Morgan Llwyd, born in 1619 in Maentwrog, Wales, who wrote a scintillating Welsh.
Parks has a dig at high-placed Italian machos who think they are complimenting Valeria by calling her the bella fanciulla lucana. However, his more deeply felt character in the quasi-novel, Italian Life, is James, an Englishman with an Italian wife who has made his academic career in Verona and Milan. The fact that James at points replicates Parks’ forty years in Italy brings a new undercurrent of passion, even of personal resentment, into the story. Parks will take his scalpel to treacherous university politics, dissecting at considerable depth. It’s intriguing, at times riveting, but at length perplexing. Parks hasn’t been honest with us. His book should have been entitled Italian Academic Life. He never lets us or Italians out of school. It’s as if the ordinary folk who have little or nothing to do with the education industry are off-stage extras. We salute him, nevertheless, for stating clearly and simply the one great truth about the purveyors of higher education. Some profs love their subject; others haven’t time for it.
“As Machiavelli tells us in The Prince, to be and remain in a position of power one’s supreme and overriding priority must be to be and remain in a position of power. Any other consideration is a dangerous waste of energy. Unfortunately, to be warned of this state of affairs is hardly a help, since those who have a passion for their studies will find it impossible to concentrate entirely on politics as those primarily interested in politics will find it impossible to concentrate, even occasionally, on their studies.”
In Parks’s novel Europa, the monologue-voice belongs to a troubled Englishman teaching in Italy. His intellectual sophistication has turned his introspection into self-loathing grumpiness. When he utters a cliché he will add “as they say” to put himself apart from such tacky language. He seems to feel that “they” are Italians in the lump. Whose is the voice? The justicier, the righter of wrongs, the outsider.
Being outside and above has helped make Parks a brilliant translator from Italian. His rendering of Machiavelli’s The Prince is all freshness. He has translated a number of Italian greats from Giacomo Leopardi to Roberto Calasso and his contribution to translation studies was crowned by his Translating Style of 1997.
His outsiderness has obscured Parks’ fiction. He’s not thought of as a novelist although he has written twenty novels. Born in 1954, he belongs to the generation of British celebrity novelists, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis. They—termed “the boys club” by neglected rivals— stayed home and dominated London book-chat in the 1980s. Parks went full expat and lost himself in the case against Italy. It was self exclusion. No wonder James, Italian Life’s Brit professor in Milan, has a midlife crisis:
“Was it time to leave then? To abandon Italy. To go home?”
It’s the eternal expat question.
“In the early hours, with no hope of sleep, James felt shaken to the core. Why am I here? he said out loud, in the dark. A person whom the Rector refers to as ‘perfida Albione’, your accomplice, the British turd.”
“And he thought that the destiny of expats was to be constantly comparing the society they had left with the society they now lived in, growing less and less sure what the old world had been precisely as they grew more and more disillusioned with the society they had arrived in. Because life itself, perhaps, was a process of disillusionment.”
James—and we assume Parks—finally decides he prefers his Milan life and sits tight. Maybe he feels Italians will get completely out of hand without him.
A pity there is no international awards for expatriates, something like the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres or the UK Birthday Honours. Sir Tim of the Snoops would deserve a rosette on his left breast or a tap on the shoulder by Charles III.