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A Literary Tour of Italy by Tim Parks

A Literary Tour of Italy
by Tim Parks


In the decades following Italian unification, its authors started writing in the new common language: Italian. Italy-based novelist Tim Parks introduces us to some of the best novels by some of Italy's greatest writers.

Interview by Toby Ash

A Literary Tour of Italy by Tim Parks

A Literary Tour of Italy
by Tim Parks

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You have lived in Italy for 30 years now. Perhaps you can tell us about how you came to live and work there.

My adolescence was in London, where we moved to when I was 10 or 11. My father was a clergyman so we got moved around a little. From there I went to Cambridge and then to Harvard. At Harvard I met my Italian wife who did not desire to live in Italy. She wanted to keep as far away from Italy as possible and in fact she had been in the USA six or seven years before I met her. Then we went back to London because neither of us had a Green Card to stay in the USA, but she disliked the English weather so much that after about a year and a half we decided to go to Italy. Also, I was trying to write – without any success at the time – and it seemed like it would be easier to work part time in Italy teaching English and keep well away from those people who felt I was underachieving in the UK. It was partly a question of hiding and partly a question of getting to know my wife’s country.

So it was largely down to your wife that you moved to Italy?

Yes, but I felt quite seriously that if I was going to write in a way that might be mine I would have to be away from family and, above all, from the London literati.

When we arrived in 1981 we stayed in the town of Verona partly because my wife’s brother lent us an apartment there and mostly because it wasn’t Tuscany, where I really didn’t want to be. When I arrived there were very few English people. It was almost impossible to get English radio. It was difficult to get English newspapers. Telephone calls were really expensive. There was no fax or email. There was no Internet. For the first year, and well up into the 1990s, one was deeply immersed in Italian culture. I think it’s quite interesting that that kind of seemingly normal expatriation is now almost unavailable to people. Now communication is such that it’s quite difficult to stand in one’s own culture for a while. Today my Internet opens with the pages of Corriere della Sera or The Guardian and I’m constantly in touch with people. It’s the most normal thing in the world.

It’s probably a lot easier to survive in Italy now without speaking Italian than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

Yes. It’s easier for everybody never to be away from home. Even people travelling on train journeys no longer talk to anybody. They just send text messages to people who they’re close to. Funnily enough, all these means of communication mean that we actually communicate less with the people we don’t know.

In addition to your own writing, you have translated works by a number of Italian novelists into English and you also teach translation to postgraduates at university in Milan. I would like to touch on the role of the translator a little bit, as it is not widely talked about. What makes a great translator?

Before I answer that question, let’s talk about why people don’t talk about translation. I think people are less and less aware of the translated product. I think there’s partly a desire on the author’s part that his work arrives unmediated all over the world and that his special individuality is not seen as culturally conditioned or conditioned by his language but that he is a supreme individual everywhere, as it were. And I think readers, too, don’t want to feel that their favourite writers have been mediated. They don’t want to feel that they’re not reading JK Rowling and that they are actually reading a chain smoker in a high-rise block in Genoa or something.

It breaks down that intimacy between the author and the reader.

Yes, and it also breaks down the illusion that you really can be intimately in touch with somebody who is actually working in a completely different culture and language than yours. There is a kind of illusion of easiness that is created by translation and people don’t want that to disappear. They don’t want somebody else to say that what you are actually reading here is written by this translator Tim Parks and is not exactly what Mr Calvino wrote, and if someone else had translated this book it might feel very, very different to you. So they don’t want that, and that’s one of the reasons why there is very little talk about translation outside specialist fields.

So what makes a good translator? There are a number of qualities. Funnily enough the problem for the translator is to have qualities that seem contradictory. On the one hand they have to be immensely capable readers who are willing to soak up in every way the spirit and letter of the text they’re reading. And then on the other hand they have to be inspired and creative and able to take over that text and really give it a unity in their own language and not get dragged here and there by the lexical wind, as it were. So they have to have antithetical qualities, translators. They have to be very respectful and at the same time quite dominating. It’s a rather bizarre occupation and I think translators do tend to have a particular personality. I think there is a particular type of person who chooses to become, and particularly to remain, a translator in the way I have decided not to. For me it always required such an effort of suppression of my own desires to do things that at the end it was just too much like giving blood. I just didn’t want to do it any more.

Are there some books that are impossible to translate without killing them?

That’s an old chestnut. In the end it’s almost not worth discussing this because at the end of the day somebody will always try to translate it. There has just been a big translation here of [James Joyce’s] Finnegans Wake. Now if ever a book was about its own language, and therefore untranslatable, it’s Finnegans Wake. But someone has translated it! So the question “was it translatable or not?” becomes irrelevant.

As soon as a text begins to identify in language one of its subject matters – in the way, for example, DH Lawrence was concerned to show that the way people think in England about morals is integrated with the English language and English language text – then translation obviously becomes a much more complicated and much more interesting matter. One of the things that’s interesting today – when a lot of writers understand that if they’re going to be considered important as writers, certainly if they want to make money, then they have to publish in a number of countries – is that people are changing their style to make it plainer and easier to translate. I don’t think there is any doubt that that is happening in many European countries today.

Before we move on to your books, I noticed that most of them were published some time ago, the most recent being published in the 1960s. Does that say something about the quality of contemporary Italian novels?

I must say there are really not many contemporary or very recent Italian novels that I love in the way I love these books here. There have been some very fine novels over the last 20 years but I remember when I read for the Campiello prize – one of the big Italian literary prizes – seven or eight years ago, I did feel terribly disappointed at the 70 or 80 books that I was reading on that occasion. I think this is a very difficult moment in Italian fiction. I think that one of the things that’s happening is that writers are less and less writing out of the Italian tradition and more and more writing towards a new international tradition. Many of the models that Italian writers are now using are American models and I think that this means this is a kind of transitional phase we’re looking at in Italian fiction right now.

Let’s take a look at your five books now. Starting with Little Novels of Sicily by Giovanni Verga, published in 1883, which draws on Verga’s childhood in Sicily – then one of the poorest places in Europe.

Verga is simply one of the great narrators of all time and his novellas are probably among the best pieces of fiction written in Italy, ever. Given my intense admiration of this guy and my feeling that these stories cannot help but impress, then it seemed such an obvious choice to me.

Let me say a few words about Verga. Verga was from Sicily but he had no desire to write about it. He was living in Milan and he was writing upmarket society novels. One day somebody comes to him and says: “Look, as part of this desire to bring the fairly newly unified Italy together, we’re trying to get writers to write stories about different regions.” Verga says the last thing he wants to do is write about Sicily. But they say to him that there was some money in it for him and he was always susceptible to money because he tried to have this high society lifestyle.

So he writes this story Nedda, which is a story of a young peasant girl in love with a peasant guy and they’re too poor to get married and her mother is dying. They make love simply because one day the whole call of nature in the springtime is simply too much for them. Of course she gets pregnant, he dies in a farming accident and she is completely destroyed by the criticism of society for her being pregnant without a husband. The interesting thing in Verga is how he shows the victim, the girl, acquiescing to this sense of the terrible error she’s made.

Verga wrote a whole brilliant range of stories which really show how this traditional peasant and Catholic community, which was beginning to be romanticised as something wonderful that modern society was losing, how instead it’s a terrifying trap of a collective psychology, always ready to destroy individuals. It’s a kind of flip side to his high society novels. He shows all the dangers of these communities. The stories are just so well told. His attack on the Catholic church throughout these stories is amazingly courageous and effective. They’re wonderful stories and Lawrence, the translator, really understood what Verga was doing.

Lawrence himself came from a poor mining community

Yes, a rural mining community. He grew up in a tight-knit community, so he understood exactly the mentality that Verga was evoking and criticising.

Verga showed the peculiarities of the Sicilian dialect. Did Lawrence do a good job at translating them?

I can remember writing an essay once, comparing Lawrence’s translation of the story “Black Bread” with the new translation, which is in a Penguin Classics edition by a Cambridge professor called McWilliam, who has recently died. It doesn’t take very much to show just how much better Lawrence understood the story than McWilliam did. Because what McWilliam does is he sees Verga’s idiom and then just fills his English with idiomatic expressions. But he’s simply not careful enough to realise that many of his English idiomatic expressions don’t fit in with the peasant mentality that he’s describing. Whereas Lawrence is incredibly careful to make sure that he doesn’t move Verga into a more modern English idiom that is completely different from the idiom he’s using. So yes, I think Lawrence did a good job.

Let’s move on to your second book now, Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo. Published in 1923, it was described by James Joyce as one of the 20th century’s handful of masterpieces.

Let’s make a quick comment about Svevo. Svevo was not his real name. His real name was Schmitz and he grew up as a German speaker in the area of Trieste where there was a big linguistic mix, so Italian was his second language. He had written a number of books which he self-published, which was quite common at that time, and received no attention at all really, so he was a failure in that regard. He worked as a businessman and he was quite successful in a company producing industrial paints for painting ships and things like that, which was a fairly big business in the Trieste area, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

It’s one of the first novels ever written about psychotherapy and he sets out to give Zeno’s whole lifetime as told to his psychotherapist. It’s a completely hilarious novel because what it’s setting out to show is that Zeno really has no idea who he is and the idea of explaining yourself to anybody is completely crazy. There is an extremely famous chapter that is about the attempt to stop smoking, which is one of the reasons why he is with his psychotherapist. It’s a wonderful comedy about a man who makes all kinds of promises to himself and to others about stopping smoking but then finding it completely impossible not to want a last cigarette. He always wants his ultimate cigarette. He does things like deliberately putting himself in jail for a week but then he bribes the jailer to bring him cigarettes. He has a bet with another man that they can both stop smoking and then immediately he starts cheating on it.

The whole book is an attempt to show the difficulty of having any identity. The next section of the book looks at the way he got married – there are four sisters in a family and he falls in love with one and then moves on to another and, finally, moves on to the one he thought was the most ugly and in whom he had previously shown no interest until she showed an interest in him. There is always this comedy of not knowing who you are or behaving in the most absurd way. But one of the things that makes it a lot fun with Zeno is that instead of things ending tragically – as they always do in Verga – he always falls on his feet. Like the woman he married who is absolutely right for him, even though he didn’t really choose her. There’s also one of the most wonderful accounts of having an affair that you can read anywhere. It’s just an absolutely brilliant account of how Zeno seduces or is seduced by this young woman and how he squares this with his conscience at home. It’s completely brilliant in its analysis of character and also incredibly entertaining. It’s hard to think of a book from that period in England that is simply so entertaining.

The whole premise is so funny. It is a confession Zeno has written for his therapist. He didn’t want it published but his therapist publishes it out of revenge when Zeno decides he doesn’t want therapy any more. Is it a rejection of Freud and psychotherapy?

He pokes an enormous amount of fun at the idea of psychotherapy but the whole book is inspired by this mining of behaviour and character and, in a sense, the book has a therapeutic vocation in its exposure of the difficulty of having an identity but also the fact that we don’t really need to have an integrated identity, which might be reassuring for some people. Many writers at the time were attacking a sort of naive vision of Freudian therapy but I think deep down there’s an immense fascination with the Freudian process.

On to your third book now, Arturo’s Island, and the story of Arturo growing up on the island of Procida in the Bay of Naples.

This is Elsa Morante’s great book. She was [the author] Alberto Moravia’s wife. I don’t know how suited they were as a couple. He was a very cool guy who would never commit himself entirely and she was a passionate young woman who had left home incredibly early, aged 16 or 17, and she was determined to be adored by him. So perhaps it was precisely the fact that he would never quite adore her that kept her trying to get herself adored by him and then punishing him for not adoring her. So I think they were together for about 20 years, and to me she is one of the top four or five narrators in 20th century Italian literature.

This book is completely unique. You won’t find anything like this in the whole of literature. The voice is very strange and the story is told from a distance. We don’t know how old the narrator is but he is talking about when he was a little boy growing up in isolation on a little island off Naples called Procida. He’s living in this very old house where he’s looked after very occasionally by a servant. His mother is dead – she died in childbirth. His father, who he adores and thinks of as a very great hero, is always away on business, whatever that business may be, in Naples. And he’s a little boy constantly inventing the world and desiring to be taken into the world of his father and the world of adults, and the only thing he has got to go on when inventing the world is the library in the house he’s in, which is a library full of literature about classical heroes.

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So he models the imagined world on that and, of course, as he gradually becomes aware of what his father is really doing, which I won’t reveal, and then gradually becomes aware of sexuality, he just constantly has to revise the opinions that he’s got from all these books. Morante’s great theme is simply the extent to which we all have to constantly fabricate the world and create a mental space that we can live in, and how difficult it is to bring that mental space ever into a stable relationship with the circumstances that we actually live in. It reads almost as a fairy tale at the beginning and it becomes really quite a terrifying psychological reality as the book proceeds. It’s a brilliant book. One of my favourites in any language, any time.

You do get a sense of his imprisonment on the island, but also a reluctance to leave.

One always hesitates to use words like emblems and symbols because the fact is the boy does live on an island and it’s a real island, but you can see how leaving the island would also mean leaving childhood and leaving his ability to actually control what he thinks of the world. Prisons are always very important in Morante’s work and in the middle of Procida there was a prison and that prison and one of the convicts become very important in the book. But the whole question of imprisonment, whether one is actually imprisoned in a mental idea about the world or whether reality is a prison and freedom is actually inventing a different idea of the world, is very rich in Morante.

Given that poverty forced so many Italians to leave their homes to find work, is nostalgia for home a recurring theme in Italian literature?

Perhaps stronger than that is the tension between the local and regional dialect and the new and imposed language of unification. Italy was unified by 1860 officially, and then really in 1870 when Rome was added, and at that time less than 5% of Italians spoke what is now considered Italian. They spoke all their various dialects of Italian, and so Italian literature, which had to be largely written in Italian, was in a way being written in a second language by most people. For example [Alessandro] Manzoni, who wrote the great founding novel of the new Italy in The Betrothed, says in his letters what a bore it is when he and his friends are talking together in a Milanese dialect and somebody comes in from a different region and they have to speak Italian, and how difficult it is to really express yourself freely in Italian. I think this is something Svevo felt a great deal. In Zeno’s Conscience he says, “When we people speak Italian in Trieste we are always lying because we can’t really tell the truth in this language.” So that just adds to the whole identity problem. So the question of home is often felt more in that tension between dialect and Italian than maybe in the question of emigrating. Pavese’s book for example has very much that tension between the country place, which is a place of intimacy and dialect, and the city place, which is a place of public world and public language.

Having set up that perfect link, let’s now move on to Cesare Pavese’s The Moon and The Bonfires.

Pavese was a very difficult young man with all kinds of problems – above all, problems with women. He never really had a happy relationship with a woman. His notebooks are full of discussion about premature ejaculation and the difficulty of ever having a mature relationship with anybody. He became quite an important translator very early on in his life. He translated [James Joyce’s] A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and he translated Moby Dick when he was only 21 or 22, and that – for people who understand translation particularly – is an extraordinary thing to have done because you need a huge maturity as a translator to cover all the styles wrapped up in Moby Dick. Translation had become a way of hiding for him. I think a lot of translators find that. You can really just bury your own problems in somebody else’s book.

Then he started writing himself, and they are all books about people who, in a certain sense, miss the action, as Pavese himself felt he missed the action. So in The Moon and the Bonfires, which is generally considered his masterpiece, we have a man who grew up as an orphan. He was abandoned on a church doorstep and grows up in this village in Piedmont. He’s kind of a misfit who emigrates to the USA before the war [World War II] and then returns to the village after it’s over. There is this sense of having missed everything happening and he would have liked to have been there in a way because what happened was heroic and his old friend was a major member of the partisans and the resistance. But then gradually he begins to discover, through various dramatic events, what actually happened in the war among the partisans was absolutely disgraceful, and that there were executions and rapes and so on and so forth. His confusion is about whether he really wants to be involved in life or whether actually he was rather fortunate to have missed out on it. Very shortly after writing The Moon and The Bonfires Pavese killed himself. That was either his final removal of himself from life or his first really dramatic action. I don’t know – you could look at it both ways. It’s a wonderful book. Deeply pessimistic but a wonderful book.

You describe Pavese elsewhere as one of the world’s great creative depressives.

Yes. If you read his journals, which are also published in English, they’re quite hard going but you realise that you are up against a guy for whom it was incredibly difficult to get from dawn to dusk.

It was quite a number of years before Pavese was first published in the US – almost 50 years after his death. Is he a quite forgotten and underrated author?

I don’t think about that stuff. Let’s not rate people. Let’s simply avoid getting drawn into any kind of celebratory-driven feelings about literature. He isn’t talked about as much as he might be. But there are an awful lot of authors out there in the world. For those who know Italian literature he’s a huge name and a very wonderful writer. He may not be that much read today, but people who do read him are obliged to realise what a big mind it is and what a fascinating experience.

Actually, Pavese was one of the first guys to really understand the big dangers and almost the horror of literary celebrity. Something really changed in the way that literature was presented after the war. It became part celebrity and that way of thinking about literature was entirely substituting any intelligent discussion or proper appreciation of writing. So he was kind of shocked when he won one of the literary prizes in Italy and had very conflicted feelings about what it meant to become successful.

We’ll move on to your final choice now. Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

Of all the books that I have selected, maybe with the exception of Verga, this is the easiest to read as a novel and it’s the one that has the classic novel plot that will engage even the most ardent lovers of popular fiction. It’s a book about the Jewish community in the small town of Ferrara in northeastern Italy in the years immediately prior to World War II. This was Bassani’s own community, about which he wrote a great deal. It tells the story of a family, the Finzi-Contini, a rich family, and they have isolated themselves to a large extent in this very large villa outside the town. There’s a wife and husband and two children and they only come into the town to go to the synagogue or to do public exams at the school. All their other education is private.

So they live in a world where they won’t contaminate themselves with anybody else and then when the race laws are introduced in Italy in 1938 they begin to open up to the rest of the Jewish community saying: “Now that you can no longer play tennis at the Ferrara tennis club, why don’t you come and play tennis in our garden?” So most of the book takes place in 1938 when the narrator of the book goes and plays tennis every day in the garden of the Finzi-Contini and falls in love with the daughter of the family, Micol. They have one of those unbelievably frustrating relationships where you constantly feel that they are about to have sex but they never do. And in that sense the book is not completely different from Pavese – of how much you want to really engage in life and risk being involved and how much you want to be closed and isolated in a separate world.

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One of the things that most interests me about this book is that it’s not really just about the Jews or about the Holocaust, it’s about a desire on the part of this family, which is typical of all Western bourgeois society, to possess the whole world in your house and garden and to control it all without having to really be exposed to the outside world. So in this garden they have every type of plant from all over the world. In their house they have every kind of book and every kind of painting. They eat every kind of food – they’re not strictly kosher Jewish in that sense at all. They try to control everything. They even have a separate telephone in every room. There’s a great bit in the book when Micol says, if you really want to control life and be independent what you need is your own separate phone line in your own room, which so much looks forward to the mobile phone and to the person on their own communicating with the rest of the world from the safety of their room. And the irony, of course, is that as the reader reads, they know right from the opening pages that these people are destined for the death camps – and that garden and that room, which seemed so safe, is actually just a space of denial because the world outside is changing.

Although you are not actually told about their fate, you are aware of what is going to happen to them from the very beginning. You have this sense of them sliding towards this terrible end.

It’s very powerful. What’s interesting about the book is that clearly Bassani is criticising this family for their behaviour and for their desire to remain outside the world and believing that they could not be involved in the world, because other people are taking positions against the Fascists, against what’s happening, whereas they’ve just withdrawn. He’s doing that, but at the same time you can feel his immense attraction to their way of life, to how beautiful it is that they don’t actually get involved. It’s a lovely ambiguous book in that sense.

Interview by Toby Ash

November 21, 2011

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Tim Parks

Tim Parks

Tim Parks in a British-born author, translator and lecturer who has lived in Italy since 1981. He has written 14 novels including Europa – which was shortlisted for the Booker prize – DestinyCleaver and most recently Dreams of Rivers and Seas. His non-fiction works include Italian Neighbours and An Italian Education, highly personal accounts of life in northern Italy. His most recent book is Teach Us to Sit Still, a narrative reflection on health, illness and meditation

Tim Parks

Tim Parks

Tim Parks in a British-born author, translator and lecturer who has lived in Italy since 1981. He has written 14 novels including Europa – which was shortlisted for the Booker prize – DestinyCleaver and most recently Dreams of Rivers and Seas. His non-fiction works include Italian Neighbours and An Italian Education, highly personal accounts of life in northern Italy. His most recent book is Teach Us to Sit Still, a narrative reflection on health, illness and meditation