Tim(othy) (Harold) Parks Biography
Nationality: English. Born: Manchester, England, 1954. Education: Cambridge University, B.A. 1977; Harvard University, M.A. 1979. Career: Writer, WGBH-Radio, Boston, 1978-79; telephone salesperson in London, England, 1979-81; language teacher in Verona, Italy, 1981; freelance translator in Verona, 1985; lector at University of Verona. Awards: Betty Trask award and Somerset Maugham award, both Society of Authors, both 1986; John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial prize, Book Trust, 1986.
Tongues of Flame. New York, Grove Press, 1985.
Loving Roger. New York, Grove Press, 1986.
Home Thoughts. New York, Grove Press, 1987.
Family Planning. New York, Grove Weidenfeld, 1989.
Cara Massimina. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1990; published asJuggling the Stars. New York, Grove Press, 1993.
Goodness. New York, Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.
Shear. New York, Grove Press, 1994.
Mimi's Ghost. London, Secker & Warburg, 1995.
Europa. London, Secker & Warburg, 1997.
Destiny. London, Secker & Warburg, 2000.
Italian Neighbors, Or, a Lapsed Anglo-Saxon in Verona. New York, Grove Weidenfeld, 1992.
An Italian Education: The Further Adventures of an Expatriate in Verona by Tim Parks. New York, Grove Press, 1995.
Translating Style: The English Modernists and Their Italian Translations. London and Washington, D.C., Cassell, 1998.
Adult-ery and Other Diversions (essays). New York, Arcade, 1999.
Translator, Erotic Tales, by Alberto Moravia. New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1986.
Translator, The Voyeur, by Alberto Moravia. New York, Farrar StrausGiroux, 1987.
Translator, Indian Nocturne: A Novella, by Antonio Tabucchi. NewYork, New Directions, 1989.
Translator, The Edge of the Horizon, by Antonio Tabucchi. NewYork, New Directions, 1990.
Translator, There Is a Place on Earth; A Woman in Birkenau, byGiuliana Tedeschi. New York, Pantheon Books, 1992.
Translator, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, by RobertoCalasso. New York, Knopf, 1993.
Translator, The Road to San Giovanni, by Italo Calvino. New York, Pantheon Books, 1993.
Translator, Sweet Days of Discipline, by Fleur Jaeggy. New York, New Directions, 1993.
Translator, Vanishing Point; The Woman of Porto Pim; The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico, by Antonio Tabucchi. London, Vintage, 1993.
Translator, Numbers in the Dark, and Other Stories, by Italo Calvino. New York, Pantheon Books, 1995.
Translator, Last Vanities, by Fleur Jaeggy. New York, New Directions, 1998.
Translator, Ka, by Robert Calasso. New York, Knopf, 1998.
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Tim Parks pairs his early novels either through techniques, as in the first person narrations of Tongues of Flame and Loving Roger and the epistolary Home Thoughts and Family Planning, or by genre, as in the thrillers Cara Massimina and Mimi's Ghost ; in turn, they furnish recurring themes, voice, situation, props, or character traits for his later, less obviously paired, but more intense, intellectually complex novels such as Europa and Destiny.
At first, the prize-winning, autobiographical Tongues of Flames, narrated by Richard, fifteen-year-old son of the Reverend Bowan, could be a rite-of-passage novel about a traditional vicarage family whose rebellious older son, Adrian, embraces all the accouterments of the 1968 counterculture. Into this peaceful North London well-to-do parish, Parks introduces Curate Donald Rolandson and his "Sword of the Spirit." Soon, the well-drawn characters populate a frenzied parish overwhelmed by religious fanaticism where "Everybody was talking about Satan"; Adrian becomes the devil incarnate as they "read" the "signs" of his rebellion. Meanwhile, Richard, heretofore unresponsive while neutrally navigating his adolescence, is forced by an evangelist to opinions about religion and his sexuality at the church's annual Youth Fellowship, during which Adrian becomes the victim of a witch hunt and subsequent ritual exorcism—not an incident which triggers the familiar angst-ridden, comical (and this novel has comedy) coming-of-age epiphanies. Critics have paired this tightly written novel with Catcher in the Rye; Parks pairs it with his second prize-winning novel Loving Roger, which is narrated by Anna, a seemingly ordinary, but honest and perceptive, typist who lives with her parents, who obsessively mourn their son Brian.
As in Tongues of Fire, an intruder disturbs the boring equilibrium of their mundane world. Roger Cruikshank, an office executive, secretly takes up with Anna for sex, but more importantly, as a source of material for his writing—aspiring writers and language teachers inhabit Parks's early novels. Obsessed with Roger, Anna becomes pregnant but he becomes the selfish cad we all recognize from office politics; not only unfaithful during a business trip to America, he reduces Anna to single parenthood, despite his delight with the baby, for he has his career to consider. Opening with Anna's murder of Roger, the novel becomes a "brilliant 'whydunnit"' as Parks contrasts Roger's banal diaries with Anna's perceptive understanding of them. Her self-analysis and self-assertion reveal that Parks has created a far from ordinary character, no doubt for she dispatches Roger with a kitchen knife.
Moving from first-person narration, multiple voices shape the next two novels through an exchange of letters. Home Thoughts, set in Verona, develops condensed scenarios of the frenzied, yet paradoxically paralyzed, lives of the heterogeneous British expatriate community, particularly Julia Helen Delaforce who, soon after her arrival, loses her job teaching English as a Second Language at the University of Verona; but Parks goes beyond his witty portrayal of petty academic politics (there is only one permanent job available). The novel's mixture of letters and narratives reveals both rationalized and real reasons why its characters are not in England—they have fled Thatcherism; they have fled self; they might go back; they might stay. Meanwhile their exile places them in an emotional limbo, their unaccustomed behavior perhaps protected by their anonymity. Julia has fled an impossible love affair with a married man with whom she exchanges letters and writes to others about. Parks incisively portrays his characters' vacillations no doubt because he is a keen observer who had lived near Verona for eight years and taught English at the University during the writing of this novel.
Family politics motivate the letters in Family Planning which expose the crazy, clever, Baldwin family selfishly denying their responsibility to care for schizophrenic Raymond, the elder brother of loser Garry, yuppie Graham, and academic drop-out Lorna. Mother and Father abdicate; he retreats to Algeria, she into madness having been goaded into attacking Raymond with a cake knife, but the vacuum left by their abdication sucks everybody into their whirlpool. Raymond participates in the letter writing campaign with death threats and pornographic notes, eventually denouncing family members as spies planted by the CIA. Who could blame him, for the letters which zip back and forth naturally reveal more than intended about their zany writers. Meanwhile family assets disintegrate as they argue over who will manage them. Parks's entertaining parody reads, according to Michael Dibdin, as if it were an Alan Ayckbourn play. But neither the actors nor the audience is listening.
Murder and Italy reoccur in perfect combination in the macabre comic thriller Cara Massimina (Juggling the Stars in America) and, four years later, its sequel Mimi's Ghost. A not-so-talented, underpaid English teacher turned petty thief, Morris Duckworth, yearns to climb the social ladder. He hatches a brilliant (to him) plan when sweet, wealthy Massimina, Mimi for short, unbeknownst to her strict family arrives at his door willing to run away; from their mock honeymoon trip, he mails ransom notes to her relatives. Simultaneously elated and terrified yet falling in love, while moving closer and closer to her murder, Morris rationalizes his actions through contemplation of his goodness. When Morris reappears in the sequel, he has achieved wealth through marrying Paola, Mimi's wanton older sister, yet is well on his way to becoming a serial killer; one critic compares him to Ted Bundy. But Mimi's ghost literally haunts Morris, by guiding, suggesting, manipulating his every move. Previously ruminating over what might be written about him, Morris now provides biographical material; at Mimi's ghost's urging, he develops a social conscious, befriending African immigrants and seeking redemption through religion, albeit kinky. The irresistible comedy of these witty novels set in a deftly drawn contemporary Italy deflects the horrific murder and mayhem necessary in this unconventional tale of a bumbling psychopath. George Crawley must also contemplate goodness, but, unlike Morris, George faces an agonizing moral dilemma. In Goodness, another first person narration, Parks again uses humor to treat a serious subject, in this case the morals and ethics surrounding birth deformities. His daughter Hilary, conceived to recharge a faltering marriage, is born severely handicapped; unsuccessful surgery heightens the dilemma. In the naive clarity of youth, George had rejected his Methodist upbringing and vowed "I would never be gratuitously mean or violent, as Grandfather was, but then nor would I ever put up with anybody or any situation that made life unbearable, as Mother did. I would be honest … and I would always chose the road that lead to a happy, healthy, normal life." Now a successful computer expert with a life that should by all rights be filled with satisfaction and normality, George discovers the ambiguity of life's choices. Religion and goodness clash with common sense as George agonizes over a solution. Critics praised Parks's "rich understanding of human contradiction" and his unsentimental approach to his topical subject.
Through George's adult male voice and situation, Goodness serves as a transition to Shear, Europa, and Destiny. Despite their one word titles and brevity (in pages and time span), these novels become more complex in both voice and stylistic approach as Parks reflects his protagonists' chaotic lives and resultant mental states. From novel to novel as his male protagonists increasingly lose control, Parks concurrently tightens his through denser plots, syntax, and sentence structures. These next novels have undertones of Greek myth and Beckettian pessimism coupled with variations on the style of the misanthropic Austrian Thomas Bernhard.
In the psychological thriller Shear, Parks unobtrusively combines knowledge garnered from years of translating magazines about stone quarries with impressions from his recent translation of Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. Geologist Peter Nicholson intends to loll away a five day working vacation on a Mediterranean island with his young mistress Margaret. Instead, what should have been a cursory inspection for a pre-arranged negative report of a granite quarry operation turns into a Hitchcockian nightmare. Hazel Owen, widow of an Australian worker recently killed in the quarry, arrives with her seven-year-old daughter seeking revenge for what she believes is his murder; the voluptuous Thea, his official translator, lures Peter to afternoon trysts which are partially a set up so that her father, a connoisseur of Attic vases, can regulate damage control on the emerging conspiracy. Threats are made; people disappear. These dangerous external complications collide with the internal stresses of Peter's personal life. Although their marriage is crumbling, his wife faxes announcing her pregnancy but threatening abortion without Peter's immediate enthusiastic response; Margaret decides that they should no longer see each other upon their return, and his boss inexplicably orders Peter's immediate withdrawal from the inspection. "Shear," a geological phenomenon, occurs when "pressure is applied in at least two different and not diametrically opposite directions." Peter, who experiences life through geological analogies, inevitably transmutes into the suspect granite which he has been inspecting.
For Parks, Shear represents a creative turning point. To frame Europa, short-listed for the Booker prize, Parks again turns to personal experiences; here his early 1990s bus trip to the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg to protest discriminatory employment practices for foreign-language teachers, a familiar profession in Parks's novels. In this novel, divorced, 45-year-old English teacher Jerry Marlowe boards a similar bus in Milan, not to protect his job, but because he is unable to overcome his erotic obsession with "her," his former French mistress and quasi leader of the miniature European Union riding the bus, which includes nubile student supporters, termed "totties" by leering Colin and equally lecherous, drunken Vikram Griffiths, a "bi-minority" Welshman of an Indian mother. Jerry's torrential inner monologue rails at the hypocrisy of his fellow travelers and obsesses on sex and his former mistress, whom he only names at novel's end in an effort not to dilute her power through mindless repetition, as has happened in the cliché-ridden "Europe this and Euro that" at which he sneers while ruminating about the lost classical world of the beautiful Europa. Jerry's torment can only lead to explosion; however, as Parks observes, ironically someone else's unpredictable explosion highlights self-indulgent Jerry's (and our) unawareness that others also suffer their private hells, perhaps more so. Certainly, this is true of Chris Burton, the famous writer of Destiny. Already edgy from living within, yet between, two cultures, Burton learns by phone in London of his schizophrenic son Marco's suicide in Turin. Immediately resolving to leave his aristocratic Italian wife, Burton begins a tortured (and torturous) journey from Heathrow via Turin to accompany his son's body for burial in Rome. And so for 72 hours, as Burton struggles to maintain at least outer control while trapped in public, the reader is trapped inside his grief stricken, fragile, jumbled mind, privy, as he rehearses his marriage, career, adopted daughter and son's life, to the simultaneous memories, anxieties, indigestion and body functions, decisions, anticipations, questions for an interview with disgraced prime minister Andreotti, and repressed secrets detonating in this novel's Joycean stream-of-consciousness. To gain this disturbing effect, Parks wrote, then sliced and moved sentences and clauses about to intercut Burton's thought patterns; the result is a difficult, but rewarding, novel to read. With this highly experimental novel, far more accomplished and intense than any of his others, Parks is correctly paired with Faulkner.
Judith C. Kohl