Loss and Selfishness, Isolation and Pleasure and Other Themes in Italian Literature

Tim Parks' A Literary Tour of Italy is no tour guide of the haunts of famous writers; it's an informative choice for readers seeking the best that Italian writers can offer.

Best known for his accounts as an English ex-pat in Italy, and as a prolific novelist, Tim Parks also contributes lengthy essays, introductions to translations, and book reviews, most often to the New York Review of Books. Twenty-three entries comprise this new anthology. The contents reflect Parks’ incisive mind and his broad range of literary and cultural contexts that enrich his steady eye and his accessible, if learned, prose style. He strives to remain clear while expanding learned commentary and sharpening criticism. He blends lucidity with erudition, elegance with élan.

Starting off with Robert and Jean Hollander’s 2000 translation of Dante’s Inferno, Parks remarks: “If twenty-first century man went to Heaven he would soon be demonstrating to have Hell abolished.” Why Hell must exist for Dante forces this critic to pause and examine the poem aesthetically. Parks finds the “anesthetic” quality of the infernal realms a necessary ingredient, to distance us from the stench and sight of so many torments. Similarly, Parks argues for terza rima as a structural corrective to keep we readers, the poet-pilgrim, and his guide all advancing in step, past disquieting scenes which linger with all three of us as we advance.

Disturbing vignettes appear as Parks examines those who succeeded Dante. Italian literature, like much of its politics and some of its best art and film, favors betrayal, deceit, revenge, and violence. Parks takes us chronologically forward, past Boccaccio and Machiavelli, to explore writers from the past two centuries who deal with loss and selfishness, isolation and pleasure. “His mother rejoiced when her children died in infancy” is quite an attention-getting opening to his study of a new biography of Giacomo Leopardi. After these, however, some essays about the past century’s talents start to lose their “fizz” — a favorite term Parks prefers for what he witnesses as a writer’s sparkle.

I wish there had been an in-depth introduction (although Park appends endnotes of where the articles had first appeared). For international readers, context provided by Parks, immersed in Italian language and culture for over a third of a century, can be scant. He stops around 1980. He excludes living writers and his contemporaries. So, no Umberto Eco or Elena Ferrante. As Parks argues in Where I’m Reading From (critical essays, also collected in 2015, New York Review of Books), recent Italian writers aim for a global audience. They prefer familiar tropes and sleek plots easily translated into English, while diminishing the local significance of their work.

The generous space allotted Parks in New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, The Guardian, or as book introductions vitiates the energy of some of these reviews, as a generous word count allows him much to elaborate. Yet he can make points cogently, as in defending D.H. Lawrence’s translations of Giovanni Verga’s stories against the later attempts of G.H. McWilliam. His knowledge of Italian here and in the Giuseppe Montale entry, for instance, enables Parks to delve much deeper into the way his second language works. It’s a delight to open “Knock on Wood” and see Pinnochio reborn and alive.

An insider’s perspective lets Parks discuss the English translation of Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe or the compulsion of Elsa Morante’s Roman escapades with more insight than most critics could summon for an Anglophone audience. Despite some loose ends, such as why this book’s title, slightly misleading, was chosen, this is no tour guide to the haunts of famous writers. This is a informative choice for audiences needing a guide to the best that Italian writers can offer, via translators such as Parks himself, to us. Readers in English can turn to Tim Parks in A Literary Tour of Italy as a skilled cicerone for the best in that peninsula’s narratives.

RATING 6 / 10