AN INTERVIEW WITH TIM
'A lot of
the false literature around today is based on championing moral values that
everybody already agrees with . . . Life can make you pretty angry. Anger is
quite an attractive emotion . . . A great deal of what passes for literature
is basically this kind of self-congratulation that we're interested in,
declaring injustice and changing all that . . . Realism is now presented as
some kind of monster that prevents the world from being the way it should be
. . . I can't read magical realists, they're utterly boring . . . At bottom,
the literary process is that: making connections. . . . The mind is
ever seduced by easy analogy. We're constantly seduced by this connection
process and in fact it doesn't tell us anything at all. . . . This is
basically a criticism of the whole way of thinking, the whole way of
literature. . . . Most of our pleasrues and pains are mental, so I think
keeping good care of your conscious mental life could be wise procedure. In
fact, the more you have a society that no longer has to deal with the
immediate pains of starvation or the most obvious illnesses, the more you
find a society that is in fact dealing with mental illness, and that's why I
think mental illness has begun to play a bigger role in writing. . . . Every
way of writing is a convention. . . . This idea that you are actually who
you are is an idea that in the West is becoming less and less acceptable. .
. . If you're going to go through hell, you'd better have a euphemistic
language. . . . The secret project of the writer is to bring the reader up
against a total enigma, so at the end of the story he has no idea of what he
really meant, ' Done. Begin.
Guillaume Destot and Andrew Gallix interview Tim Parks
COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
TP: (in medias res) . . . Think about
Tracy Chapman. She comes out of a really poor background, she sings
these fantastic protest songs. You could see that she genuinely believed,
that she was involved. Now she must have realised that the whole thing was a
fucking farce, that society constantly appropriates this gesture to feel
better about itself, that it actually means nothing at all. So what is she
going to write about? Because those kinds of reflections are far too
complicated to make a huge amount of money with. Often what's happening now
is that you're getting writers expressing the most bizarre fragmented views,
maybe even right-wing views, or just views of disgust which don't seem to be
attached to anything, and they are, as it were, rejecting a false
opposition. So even the writer isn't actually deciding his position.
[Thomas] Bernhard is a fantastic example: he's in what you would call
a schismo-genetic relationship with political correctness, that is,
the more people are politically correct, the less he's going to be
politically correct, but at the same time, he's intelligent enough to
understand that he's being forced into positions which are completely
unacceptable. So you get a constantly self-defeating process, and at the end
a sense of total exhaustion.
3AM: So what you're
saying is that the outsiders are now the insiders?
TP: Have you read Louis Dumont? The
French anthropologist? If you want to get one of the best ways into
contemporary farce, read his two great essays on individualism. He's
looking at Indian societies and the way you've got a society and then the
person who's out of it and stays out of it and goes into the forest. He
doesn't imagine that he's going to tell people back in society what to do,
he's just out of it. They respect him and he respects them, but if you're
out of it, you're out of it.
Then you get that Christian scene developing when
Christ says 'You've got to leave the world.' But he's not actually inviting
you to live in the forest: you live in society, but your alliance is with
God, and only secondly with Caesar. What happens in the world is irrelevant,
because you're going to heaven. Then God doesn't return and everybody is
getting a bit nervous.
With Thomas Aquinas, you have the first
suggestion that in fact it's not acceptable in the world that things like
slavery continue, and what we have to do is bring the kingdom of heaven into
the world. Then, you begin to get an inkling of the modern situation. My
authority comes from God, not from anybody around here, but I have to
improve the situation here, and so this is the moment when he says that the
Church has to get involved with politics and when the Church and State start
to move together. At that point you get the possibility of idealism in
politics, which was unthinkable until then. But you also get an immense
confusion about who's inside and who's outside. So you've got a society
that's there and it begins to be in constant movement towards being the
kingdom of heaven. You can see that this is very much the situation we're in
today. We've dropped the epistemology and the metaphysics, but everybody's
trying to improve things, so that we'll arrive at this position where
there's no more suffering. If somebody actually makes the suggestion that if
you abolish suffering you'll probably abolish the human race, because it's
actually part of human nature, people don't want to hear that anymore,
because it infinitely complicates our whole procedure. We get people
like Bernhard, or Beckett, there are many examples. Many
writers will shift between a genuine anger about some injustice, because
some times, of course, you read about an injustice, and at the same time you
get the feeling that it's not really an interesting reflection, because
everybody knows it's unjust. A lot of the false literature around today
is based on championing moral values that everybody already agrees with.
Somebody like Ishiguro: now what is the
message of The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating
world? That you shouldn't obey orders when those orders are pernicious.
A hundred years ago you might have said 'that's an interesting relfection,
that's a challenging position.' After the Second World War there isn't a
soul in the Western world that isn't immediately in agreement with that. And
then you've got these lunatics on the other side whose position is actually
generated by the falseness of this position, who start saying that Auschwitz
didn't exist, just because they're so fed up with hearing endless positions
that are obvious.
. . . Writers physiologically in the western
world don't want to be part of a group, although some of them secretly do,
because they want to win prizes and things, so you get people selling
out. I think Dylan is another fantastic example of this: the
Dylan of the very early years was angry and all of a sudden Dylan's
right-wing, and he just got completely pissed-off with being hijacked by the
civil rights movement. He realised that his anger wasn't only an anger about
social injustice, it was an anger about life in general, life can make
you pretty angry. Anger is quite an attractive emotion.
3AM: And you can easily
TP: Well, yes, you can sell it easily if you do
it in the right way. If I start being angry about multinationals, it will
be easy to sell it. If I start being angry about women, I might be in
difficulty. People often misinterpret one's anger about the incomprehension
of relationships as an anger about women. Europa was incredibly difficult
to sell in the USA, it took me forever to find a publisher because everybody
thought the book was misogynist, which I never thought it was.
3AM: There's more and
more things you can't say today.
TP: You can say them but nobody's going to pay
you for that, which is fair enough: why would anyone pay you to say things
that they don't want to hear?
3AM: Do you have any
other examples of today's false literature?
TP: Almost all of it. In different proportions.
A great deal of what passes for literature is basically this kind of
self-congratulation that we're interested in, declaring injustice and
changing all that. Look at the Nobel Prize for Saramango. Saramango
is a writer of absolutely no importance. Maybe his book Blindness
was a good book. The rest is socialism and magic realism.
Magical realism is a fascinating development
in this department, because if you look at the magical realists, without
exception, they are disappointed socialists. You've engaged in the belief
that the world can be improved, and of course it can, to a certain extent,
you can always improve things a bit, and then they're disappointed, right.
You don't want to switch to a right-wing position and so what you do is move
into this world where the creative and imaginative powers of the people are
celebrated in this rather bizarre way and where your plot can work out more
positively because you're no longer obeying the dictates of realism, and
realism is now presented as some kind of monster that prevents the world
from being the way it should be.
It is interesting that almost all the magical
realists celebrate the fact that the mind and the imagination are more than
reality and claim to be unorthodox in this regard, but if you look at the
politics of magical realism, they're all totally orthodox left-wing
politics. Marquez, Saramango, the whole lot of them, it's all
left-wing politics. I've got no argument with left-wing politics, but
it's fascinating that things that pretend to be unorthodox are in fact
totally orthodox. It's a provocative stance, but that's how I feel about it:
I can't read magical realists, they're utterly boring.
3AM: You say that the
protagonist of Destiny is most lucid when he's
making connections, and the novel itself forces the reader to make
connections all the time. His disease, which is to constantly make
connections, is similar to that of Joyce at the end of his life.
Since the narrator himself makes the connection between making connections
and reading, is reading a disease?
TP: Let me first repudiate any connections with
Joyce. He's not a writer I particularly enjoy, except the early Joyce
that everybody enjoys. It is clear that any mind that is in a febrile state,
particularly a great mind, and one needn't look at Joyce here, you only need
go to Nietzsche or any number of great minds in a ruinous period
clearly firing on all cylinders: what is the essence of making connections?
It is part of the mind's obsession with controlling the world it finds and
represents around itself. If I can make a series of connections between all
these things, I satisfy myself that in some way my mind has been extended
around the world and I can feel satisfied even if the world is not what I
want it to be. At very bottom, the mind's rancour is that the world is
not exactly as the mind would require it to be in order to be at ease.
If I can at least extend across the world a kind of sticky web of
connections, then I can feel satisfied that at least I know something more
than somebody else, as it were.
What then becomes disturbing, particularly for
the hero of this book is that a lot of the connections begin to present
themsleves as either dangerous in the sense that if this connection is a
true connection, then I have been guilty and deeply responsible for
something, so that is one problem. The other thing: my mind is in fact a
machine for making connections, but a lot of these connections do not bear
examination. There are moments in the book, like when he's drawing an
analogy between Christ's tomb and his child's, and then he says: 'This is
absolutely outrageous, this literary process of making connections, because,
at bottom, the literary process is that: making connections.
So I actually think Destiny is quite a good book (laughs), because I
don't think I've ever this done anywhere else: what's happening is that
instead of using the analogy and the metaphor as a way of evoking to create
a sense of profundity around the situation and to extend its relevance, as
would be a normal thing where maybe Chist's tomb is related to the tomb so
that then the figure can be seen as a Christ figure, so then the story takes
on this meaning, that happens as well, but at the same time there's another
voice saying 'this whole process of doing this is in fact part of the
sickness that we're all involved in in this situation.' And that anxiety is
basically the ultimate loss of control: instead of my mind extending a
satisfactory web over the world, the world itself begins to look like
something that's taking control of me, like these connections are making
themselves. It's not me in control of this, it's just my mind working.
So, like when he's reading the newspaper, with the death of that theatre
director, he's reading these headline like 'The Master Takes His Bow' and he
says 'the mind is ever seduced by easy analogy.' We're constantly seduced
by this connection process and in fact it doesn't tell us anything at all.
This is basically a criticism of the whole way of thinking, the whole way of
literature. One of the things I find extraordinary with my students is
when they're writing about a book or something, is that they immediately buy
into the analogy and they say 'this gives deep meaning to the text, because
the boy's tomb is related to Christ's tomb.' But is this really appropriate?
Why do you buy this? So that's what the connection thing is about.
3AM: He also makes a
distinction between two types of connections, he says that some are
illuminating, and that others are not.
TP: Some of them are just perverse. And some of
them are just stupid.
3AM: So you do think
that the distinction, is relevant?
TP: oh, absolutely. I haven't read many reviews
of this book, because I have a policy of telling the publishers not to send
me reviews. Very occasionally, people actually stick them in your hand at
conferences. There was one very good review that then said 'he's constantly
rejecting analogies that the reader knows are deeply true.' I wonder about
that. It's clear that the analogy that most frightens him is that there is a
deep relationship between the quarrel with his wife and his son's madness,
but many of the analogies he makes are completely false, and he's right to
fight them. My argument with Joyce is this: the connections he endlessly
makes in Ulysses is supposed to be taken as Gospel. He actually
insisted that it was not supposed to be comic that Bloom was compared with
Ulysses, but that Bloom was actually, in terms of the resonance he wanted
Bloom to have in the literary world, he wanted Bloom to be seen not as a
mock-heroic Ulysses, but as a real Ulysses. I find this farcical. So many of
the connections in Ulysses, my hero in Destiny would have
rightly rejected as the mere suggestions of the febrile mind, just the mind
looking for some way of establishing relevance.
3AM: So there is a
connection between Joyce and your character?
TP: Yes, mine is a rejection of that process.
As Beckett's indeed was also. Reading Beckett more recently, Beckett saw
things in a very different way, he was a great master. When he writes at the
end of Watt, 'no symbols were non-intended' he basically plays the
same game which is 'okay, reader, the whole thing is up to you, you know,
any connections that there may be, any symbols that you may see in this
book, you're never going to know whether I intended them or not.
3AM: When you're talking
about the horror of consciousness were you influenced by Beckett?
TP: Well not immediately. One is influenced by
one's own state of mind in certain unhappy moments. But obviously there are
moments when one's experience intersects with one's readings and those are
moments where an influence is useful precisely because it's not just a
literary influence but it's a particular way of talking about something that
you personally find that you're feeling, often you may have the feeling
years before reading about it, or vice-versa, you may readd about it and
only really understand what you read twenty years later when there's some
moment of consciousness that intersects with it. But in the end, all our
pleasures and pains apart from the most obvious things like having somebody
tread on your toe, or being shot in the headS funnily enough, on the
pleasure side, all our pleasures are make-up, sex obviously is a mental
pleasure, you can have sex and not enjoy it. Pain could suddenly be forced
upon you. Most of our pleasrues and pains are mental, so I think keeping
good care of your conscious mental life could be wise procedure. In fact,
the more you have a society that no longer has to deal with the immediate
pains of starvation or the most obvious illnesses, the more you find a
society that is in fact dealing with mental illness, and that's why I think
mental illness has begun to play a bigger role in writing.
3AM: Is this what you
mean when you write that one needs tragedy to put some ballast in one's
TP: Well that's a line from
Schopenhauer, the line about 'everybody needs a tragedy'. A deep
sadness, he says, gives a life some ballast and direction. ItOll come to
you, you don't have to worry about it, at some point something is going to
go wrong. I think the romantic idea that you have to have some particularly
gross situation in order to write could actually be misleading and you could
start writing about that in particular. I don't think about that kind of
stuff. I think the problem with Destiny, from the writer's point of
view, is what you do afterwards, because the book was part of a long
development. It started with a book like Goodness , going on through
books like Europa, and by the time I'd finished Destiny, I
really couldn't see any way of proceeding in that direction. I feel that as
far as I can get it right, I got it right in that book, and so I can do
something else, and that's quite difficult.
3AM:Are you working on
something at the moment?
TP:I've just finished another novel.
It's taken me about two and a half year, but I'm not really sure what I
think about it, so I'll put it away until next summer and start looking at
it again next summer. I mean it's finished and everything but there's no
hurry with books, there's no hurry.
3AM: Could you tell us
about the way you wrote Destiny?
TP: I think the first thing to do is to
characterize the difference between the style in Destiny and the
stream of consciouness, which is exactly not what it is in any
traditional sense. If you're looking at the really traditional stream of
consciousness, with Woolfe and Joyce, it's basically a poetic attempt to mix
the voice and the mind with the mind's perception of the phenomena around
it, like I'm talking to you and the voice in my mind at the moment is
kind of making all sorts of efforts to formulate a few thoughts, but I'm
also aware that the woman asking for a magazine out there has got big
tits. I haven't actually formulated that, or hadn't until this moment
formulated it as words, so there's this general phenomenal buzz outside
which I'm not really thinking about. When you get into Joyce, what he's
trying to do is give you constant interpenetration of the two to suggest
that your mental activity's being really influenced by these phenomena
around you all the time, something that I'm not utterly convinced by seeing
that, quite frankly, I often move through the world without even noticing
it's there, and I think that the problem with that is that he becomes
unable to generate drama in Ulysses, so that you've got this man
who supposedly is worried, extremely anxious that his wife is going to have
sex with somebody else in the afternoon, but he doesn't seem that anxious if
you look at the book. He spends half the day mooching over this, that and
the other, whereas I would be on the phone or banging on the wall, or trying
to screw somebody else. So for me, that really doesn't work as drama.
What's happening in this book and in
Europa is that you take a short period of time, but you take it in a
totally dramatic sense. This is the moment when the whole culmination of a
life is about to resolve in somebody being obliged to take a decision, or
even fail to take a decision. Decision is obviously this whole Western thing
about control, I reflect on the possibilities and then I make a decision,
but in fact you don't do that. You just get to a point when suddenly you
find yourself doing something, which is what most of Lawrence is
about. So what's happening then is that you get a febrile mind constantly
going through a series of things which might allow it to find a way out of
the impasse it is in. And really, the outside environment feeds into it only
as a constant reminder of things that it's engaged in anyway, and for
another mind the outside environment would be completely different. The
whole writing procedure is on the one hand a gesture of control like the
opening sentence when you've got an incredible monumental sentence, and then
at the end the sentence destroyed by the suicide of the child. So you
constantly have got this syntactical elaboration, which is almost pompous,
wilfully determined to impose the mind on material. And then the mind begins
to just break down because these other thoughts just reject this syntactical
knack. I actually don't have any trouble writing that stuff at all, it's
just fun. What I do is that I write out seven or eight pages scribbled out
in longhand and then I'm putting it up on the screen and playing with it.
3AM: Is this a
projection of the way your own mind works?
TP: No, it's a literary convention that one
is trying to invent. There is no representation of the mind. Dickens's
is just as reasonable a representation of the mind as Joyce's. The opening
to Bleak House is as good as anything in Ulysses in that
regard. You must never believe that you're inventing a new realism. Joyce
was intelligent enough to know that it wasn't realism, that it was a
literary convention, and every way of writing is a convention, and that's
what it is. You're trying to work out a series of strategies that will be
recognizable by the reader as a possible representation of the mind or the
world. That's interesting because some readers really hate this stuff,
some people write really offensive things to me. It's interesting because
some people feel deeply offended by some of the ideas. I think what
matters is whether the reader recognizes that in fact it is a legitimate
representation of the world. At that moment, you've hooked the reader
totally. They won't be able to get off even if they want to. And there are
other people who just completely reject the idea that life is like this and
you're never going to get these people. That's fine too, you know.
3AM: What sort of
offensive letters did you get?
TP: Mainly to do with the whole aspect of
schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is an area that is really like a test
case for the western approach to personality and to science. The official
line on schizophrenia is that it is an organic disease and nobody's
responsible and that's it. The problem is that despite hundreds of years of
observation and in the last fifty years, endless analysis, they have not
arrived at one single theme that characterizes the schizophrenic
organically. So that, amazingly, the American diagnostic manual for
schizophrenia gives the behavioural symptoms, but says that if there's an
organic symptom, it's not schizophrenia, because it's one of the other
diseases. What does this mean? It means that we have a disease which they
want to believe is organic and which they treat with sophisticated
tranquilizers, to just damp out the connection-making parts of the brain,
they limit the number of connections the brain is making and this quietens
the brain. Each drug will work for a certain amount of time and then
they have to change it because what the brain does is that it constantly
rewires around any block. It is clearly atractive to think that nobody's
responsible for schizophrenia because it's such a horrible disease. It is
the death of the soul I think, for that person, over a long period of
time. That means there's no question of any family implication. That means
that nobody ever has to change their pattern of behaviour, but it also means
that the drug companies can make a lot of money selling drugs. On the other
hand, there's always been people who've always said, 'well look, if you
start looking at schizophrenics and the series of relationships around them,
you do begin to find very strong patterns. All the genetic studies have
demonstrated absolutely nothing. My brother in law's a schizophrenic, I've
been involved in this for a long time, but I'm reading about it now more as
a kind of indication of the Western world's anxiety about this.
What does narrative do? Narrative transmits
the secret knowledge that in fact the individual is not healthy until he
gets an organic illness. The individual exists in a kind of delicate ecology
of relationships with those immediately close to him, and then with society
at large, and then with the language that he's thinking in, which is an
expression of the society at large, and depending on his integration in that
will depend his mental health. What tends to happen in the
schizophrenics' families is that you get complicated situations where maybe
an endless battle between parents, the child is being invited into special
relationships with this parent or that against the other, and getting
conflicting messages and realizing that the parent is only really interested
in the other parent and not really in them. You get a lot of quasi-incest
situations and so on and so forth. You reach a point where the personality
has learnt to respond in certain ways to conflicting messages and you can't
re-form it differently: that is you now. You're not like that because you
were biologically born like that.
This idea that you are actually who you are is
an idea that in the West is becoming less and less acceptable, the idea is
that you can constantly re-create yourself, which is attractive. Hence
the whole thing about marriage annulment. It fits in the whole thing about
schizophrenia, because the schizophrenia is that this bo's personality has
been formed by this series of conflicting messages he's getting from hos
mother and father, that there's no way of him behaving except paradoxically
within this relationship. At the same time, the marriage annulment thing is
a kind of complete hubris of western society. You can imagine that you not
only want to terminate an important relationship in your life but that you
can pretend that it never happened, that you're actually starting from zero
again. Every scientific experiment starts from zero, on a flat surface. But
a human being never starts from zero, not even a two-year old. I'm not
suggesting that you can't change your situation, I'm just suggesting that
you can't start from zero. And annulment is obscene intellectually. What
does it mean? That you didn't actually have a relationship with somebody.
3AM:You say that the
English like to think that they can start from scratch?
TP: Yes, but the English do seem to be litle
more honest about not needing a marriage annulment. I think the whole
Anglo-saxon frame of mind is the desire to start again. It's a desire
that one shares, but it has to be balanced with an awareness of how much has
gone by. The book [Destiny] is about all these ideas revolving
around that, with a little drama thrown in.
3AM:On the subject of
conflicting messages, do you think that a bilingual education can lead to
TP: Well, actually no. Quite reasonably, when
he suggests this to the psychiatrist, the psychiatrist makes the completely
banal observation that most of the world is bilingual anyway. There's no
higher rate of schizophrenia in bilingual nations, so there's no reaason to
suppose that the actual language element is important. What we're
talking about here is a language element that is integrated in a marriage
quarrel. The woman is clearly a linguist of some capacity but has
deliberately not learnt her husband's language as if to make sure that in
their relationship, she calls the tune with her language. At that point, the
language is clearly a bone of contention. If you look at case histories of
schizophrenia in families, but not just schizophrenia, also other mental
illnesses as well, generally what will happen is that shortly before the
illness you get a period of pre-mental illness where the person who's likely
to become a patient begins to shift alliances rapidly and extravagantly
between the parents. Someone who's been extremely attached to their mother
will make a gesture to become extremely attached to the other side or
vice-versa. And then, with rapid exchanges from one side to the other, as if
searching for some kind of new possible equilibrium within the play of
forces that's going on. I've observed it myself in my wife's family, there's
a constant, total shifting of alliances, so the language thing is simply
drawn in there. Like this decision not to speak to the mother in Italian.
It's also like the son is saying to the father, 'look, if you want to bring
mother into line, why have you always agreed to speak Italian to her? Look
how easy it is to put her on the line, speak to her in English, that'll do
it.' So there is a kind of element of the son saying to the father 'what the
fuck is wrong with you not being able to deal with this woman? All you have
to do is change language.' But obviously, each language is a mind frame
and suggests again a certain lack of individualism. You didn't choose the
language that framed your mind. You're not independent of these matters.
3AM:There's another idea
that surfaces in your book: however far you go into the knowledge of a
foreign language, you always remain an outsider culturally speaking. Is this
something that you've experienced yourself?
TP: Absolutely. In fact, the more you're into
it, the more you feel the distance between being a nativeSI really felt that
with my children, in the sense that I clearly have a bigger vocabulary than
my children in Italian, I mean, I've worked in Italian for twenty years,
I've translated all kinds of difficult texts, I've read a lot of difficult
books, so in a sense, reading Leopardi or Dante is easier for me than for
them. But on the other hand, the words don't have the same smell to me. For
them, the world's Italian, that is their mental construct, and for them,
certain words will have a frisson and a deep relationship with phenomena,
which they can't have for me. For me, it's just another thing that was being
superimposed over reality at a time when all those profound things had
already been established. It makes you aware of your relationship with your
own language. On a more technical basis, I will never have a perfect accent.
I'll always be kind of nearly there. There was a period when I made a really
huge attempt to get there, which was foolish. It's right to get a good
accent, but the idea that you could ever totally superimposeSI didn't come
to Italy till I was twenty four, twenty fiveS
3AM:Do you think it's
different if you're raised in two languages from your birth?
TP: Obviously. When my son comes to England,
he's going to be closer to English than I am to Itlian, in the sense that
he's been speaking English since he was 2 or 3, but he still doesn't speak
it perfectly. It's excellent English, but it's not an English boy speaking.
Those things are interesting, aren't they? That sense of being nearly
there, but not being thereSBeckett was terribly interested in that, in the
way that his French wasn't quite rightS
3AM:But he used that,
TP: Yes. That's what he was interested in.
That distance became emblematic of the way all language doesn't actually
describe the world, and that was his rarely mentioned argument with Joyce,
which he mentions in a few letters. He kind of suddenly realised that
Joyce's project was mad. Joyce's project was that in fact that language
could invent the world. Beckett's realisation was that language is always
euphemistic. It's always distant from reality, and that literature would do
better to draw attention to that, and not pretend that language can evoke
reality. Beckett tips Joyce's elaboration over into parody, it becomes a
parody of evocation, it doesn't really evoke, it shows suffering that also
snatches you away from it, because the good thing about language is
precisely that it's euphemistic. It doesn't get there, but thank God!
Otherwise, how could you write a poem like the inferno? It's interesting
that the inferno was pretty much Beckett's favourite work, because if you're
going to go through hell, you'd better have a euphemistic language.
3AM:Your hero is trying
to produce a book on the Italian national character: do you think it's an
attempt that is likely to be successful?
TP:The whole thing about this gesture of
control, stating how things are, is obviously hubristic. On the other hand,
it seems to me that he reaches a certain number of formulations which are
quite attractive about the nature of national character. Here I speak with a
certain amount inappropriate pride, but the opening to that chapter, where
he's talking about Manzoni, and he's talking about the way national
character isn't in any one person, but in fact is a play of realtionships
between people and possible roles available to them. In France, certain
gestures, certain positions in society are made available; in Italy, others.
Italy is known to be chaotic to a certain extent, and that generates the
extremely fastidious and serious person as well, so you get a lot of public
officials who are just totally obsessed, who have to get it exactly right,
in a relationship of antagonism with the general spirit. I actually
think he does reach a number of interesting formulations. Any investigation
of character, national or even, single, is going to bring you to a sense of
mystery, and that precious ignorance that you actually don't know what's the
kernel of it, so the more he looks at Italian life, the more he begins to
feel that there's something that's eluding him, so he decides to call it a
3AM:it's best not to
TP:That's not a problem, you'll never know.
One thing about writing is that it pretends to approach the world in a
way which is explicable, so the reader will ask 'what does it mean?', but in
fact, the secret project of the writer is to bring the reader up against a
total enigma, so at the end of the story he has no idea of what he really
meant, even if he can hang on to certain explanations. And I guess it's true
of any great work of art, at the end of the day it presents itself as
something which is explaing the world, but the more you look at it, the less
the world is being explained.
3AM:Perhaps he would
have stopped loving his wife if he had actually understood the Italian mindS
TP: But there's no danger of that, you're
never going to understand anybody's mind, never mind a national
3AM:That's why all wives
are said to be foreign.
TP: Yes, it's a nice line. It's just a little
bit of rhetoric, but then presumably, we're all foreign to them, so it works
3AM:What about the
oscillation between the sublime and the nit-picking in Destiny?
TP:That's evident in Italian life, again you
only need to look at the Inferno, you've got the sublimity of looking at
heaven and hell, and then you've got that endless bureaucracy concerned with
what circle everybody's in. There's a kind of anxiety in the Inferno about
the relationship between that miserable bureaucracy and a loving God. I
think it's a pretty corrosive piece of writing, pretty dangerous.
3AM:Do you consider
yourself primarily as a European writer, or as an English writer in Italy?
TP: I suppose what fascinates me here is that
people need to make these categorisations. Why would I, as I sit down to
write a book, even bother to think about this question? My biography's
there for anybody who wants to look at it. I grew up in the UK and I've
lived twenty years in Italy, my reading's been mainly European literature
over the last ten years. It's been ten years now since I've been bothered to
read contemporary English literature, I don't read it at all, but that's not
because I think it's bad, I'm just reading other things. I'm clearly out of
line in the UK. How could it really be otherwise? I didn't go abroad when I
was fully adult, I went abroad just when my mature person was forming, and
it formed with other readings and other reflections. I do find the whole
kind of debate and scenario in England somewhat depressing, but it may well
be that there are writers in England who I know nothing of, who are doing
wonderful things that I would enjoy if only I knew. There are so many books
being produced, you knowSit's clear that if you want to look at it like
this, I'm not in the apparent mainstream of English writing at the
moment, but it may one day turn out, if one wants to be bold and ambitious
for a moment, that I'm perfectly in line with someone like D.H. Lawrence, or
Hardy, and that not being in line with the Rushdies and Amises is something
that I feel quite proud about.
In the nineteenth century story, even if things
go wrong, there's still a basic Christian underpinning that says that the
good will be dealt with attractively in the world beyond. It's clear that
once that has gone -- and we lost long ago the whole kind of heroic feeling
of Greek literature, the splendour of the gesture against destiny -- it's
really very difficult to create the end of a book in such a way that
somebody cannot just feel destroyed by it, this is the problem for writers
like Beckett or Bernhardt, or for any really serious writer. One way
round it is to pretend that you're writing about outrages that can be
corrected, so you'll write about Serbia or the fact that everybody's being
killed and the subtext: we could have stopped this. It's a correct subtext,
but when you reach a situation where there's no consolation. Then what you
have to do is make the writing kind of pessimistic. In a certain sense, if
the writing has life in it, it can have a pessimistic communiqué, energy and
life even when it's really negative in its apparent positions. The other
thing is that you approach catharsis through exhaustion. At the end
of Europa, or the end of Destiny, you get a feeling that the
mind has worked so hard now that it eventually needs a break. What you get
at the end of the book is almost a physiological break. I don't know if
you've ever been is a kind of semi-clinical depression, but what the mind
tends to do is become totally exhausted, tearing itself to bits, and then
just says 'time out, let's take a couple of days off this problem', so you
get a sense of relief which is probably some little chemical injected in the
brain from somewhere, saying, 'hey, ease up', so the book actually ends like
that, in a way. I couldn't believe that the end of Destiny was a
happy ending. How do we know how those two people are going to deal with
each other tomorrow morning?
was born in Manchester in 1954. He grew up in London
and studied at Cambridge and Harvard. Since 1981 he has lived in Italy. Tim
Parks has published ten novels including Tongues of Flame (Heinemann,
1985) which won the Somerset Maugham and Betty Trask prizes, Loving
Roger (Heinemann, 1986), winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize,
Europa (Secker & Warburg, 1997), shortlisted for the Booker Prize,
and Destiny (Secker & Warburg, 1999). Joseph Brodsky has described
him as "the best British author working today." Tim Parks has also
translated Calvino, Moravia and Tabucchi. He is the author of three works of
bestselling non-fiction. Hell and Back, a collection of his literary
criticism, will be published in Britain in August 2001. For more information
visit Tim Parks's website.