Magazine article The Spectator

Thumbs Pointing Up or Down

Magazine article The Spectator

Thumbs Pointing Up or Down

Article excerpt

HELL AND BACK by Tim Parks Secker & Warburg, 16.99, pp. 340 ISBN 043627597X

Tim Parks offers in these essays only a few reticent clues about himself. Since the age of 25, he has been living in Italy, teaching in the university of Verona, and moving on `to translating novels and I suppose we could say creative and transgressive prose'. But he is, according to Joseph Brodsky on the dust-wrapper, `frankly, the best British author working today'. If you say so, Joseph.

The writing is indeed confident, sometimes cryptic, always highly literary. Appearing to have read everything, he drums up innumerable writers known and unknown, sometimes half a dozen to a page, their names bouncing all over the place as though on rubber, the references positively Steinerish in their compass. He knows, for instance, what Pinsky and Hollander and Dorothy Sayers and Mark Strand have made of Dante's terza rima in English, just as he is at home with the various translations by Arrowsmith and Galassi and Charles Wright and Edith Farnsworth of Eugenio Montale, a poet famously opaque. Typically, his reading of Dante incorporates Indiana Jones and Alessandra, who advertises in his local paper her skill as an astrocartomante, a codeword for prostitution.

Whether or not these essays were written as reviews of a particular book, as a whole they illustrate Parks's idiosyncratic stance as a latter-day aesthete and existentialist. What drives him seems to be a sense that the Enlightenment got it wrong by destroying the beliefs and myths hitherto governing mankind. Instead of living in the predicted universe of sweetness and light, we find ourselves in dark nothingness, no God and not much left of humanity either. What is a writer to do about it? How to discover something beautiful in all the gloom? The whole thing is ultimately futile, but still we owe it to ourselves to cut a dash. Time and again, he quotes as his exemplars Samuel Beckett and E. M. Cioran, with the result that these two fraudulent old misanthropes are always gibbering in the background.

Luckily Parks himself is too energetic to make one wish one had never been born. He praises Giacomo Leopardi for contradictorily mixing a little hope into the general disillusion. Jorge Luis Borges passes the Parks aesthetic test perfectly, telling `the tale of his own self constantly seeking to shake off that self . Same thing with the Portuguese Jose Saramago, and the German emigre G. …

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