There’s little sense in the English-speaking world of an Italian literary tradition that can stand alongside our vastly more substantial understanding of a French or German one. How did the language of European self-knowledge, of Dante’s sacred (or sacred-ish) poetry and Petrarch’s secular model collapse into a language largely associated with crime fiction and travel-brochure kitsch? Why does Italy’s literature in translation usually say so much more about English than it does Italian?
Tim Parks is perfectly placed to answer these questions. For over three decades, he has lived and worked in Italy, writing brilliant books about its life and society. He has written about Italy’s football and its railways; he has given us enchanting explorations of the inner workings of Renaissance banking, as well as of everyday life in his quiet Verona neighbourhood. He’s even written the seemingly mandatory Italian detective novels, in a trilogy called Cara Massimina.
But Parks is perhaps most himself as a reader and literary critic, full of insight, wit and not immune to provocation. A Literary Tour Of Italy should, by all rights, be marked by these qualities. Yet this book feels cobbled together and not, in spite of its title, particularly literary.
It consists of articles largely compiled from Parks’ essays on Italian writers in The New York Review Of Books (NYRB) and other magazines. Partly because of the NYRB style of long essay, partly because Parks has for many years conducted a sly primary education in the Italian classics for American readers, these articles tend to be biographical rather than engaged primarily with the work.
This is useful as an album of the conditions that formed the backdrop of the lives of many of these famous people (the Renaissance and fascism loom large). It even works to beautiful effect in some cases such as Parks’ sparkling sketch of Giuseppe Garibaldi (imagine an Italian Subhas Chandra Bose who took control of the Congress) and his essay on Divisionist painters.
What this does, however, is localize, and in some cases provincialize writers who have rarely been seen as belonging to the world. Parks explains the conditions that created authors as varied as Cesare Pavese and Giacomo Leopardi, but leaves the interpretation of their writing largely to us. It is the conflation of cultural analysis with literary analysis that leaves us more reassured by the contents of a book we haven’t read than we strictly ought to be.
This book might have been more interesting if it were operating under constraints more imaginative than those of the newspaper review. No author is included on this tour unless a new translation or study of their work has appeared in the last few years. In consequence, we get a Dante essay pegged to a “recent translation” that first appeared in 2001; and an essay on the anti-Fascist Jewish writer Natalia Ginzburg that doesn’t seem to have appeared in print yet. We don’t know why he excludes writing about Italo Calvino or Roberto Calasso, whom also he has translated.
There is no discussion of Primo Levi, about whom Parks wrote an excellent review—and conducted an entertaining correspondence—in the NYRB last year. He tells us that he lives in the Italy of The Leopard, but says nothing further about Italy’s most famous modern novel, or its weird mirror, a ghoulish 19th century doorstopper called The Viceroys, which has gained surprising ground in the English imagination after a new reprint earlier this year.
This is not to complain that Parks has not presented us with a book that doesn’t exist—merely to provide context for why I think he hasn’t given us the book this is supposed to be. In a brief introduction, Parks says he wishes for the essays to “call to each other”. This, I’m afraid, does not occur at a frequency easy for the average reviewer to tune in to.
If this was indeed a tour, it would be like getting on a bus with blacked-out windows, no map, and an entertaining, scholarly guide who refused to tell you where you were going next. I recommend it for Parks fans who want a handy reference to his work on their shelves, but not to Italy’s armchair visitors.
Supriya Nair is an editor at Brown Paper Bag.