Cleaver, by Tim Parks

I’m a fan of Tim Parks, not just the kind that buys and reads his books with pleasure, but the aspirational kind. It started years ago, when he was publishing his first novels and I was writing (and not publishing) mine. He had the same job I did, although he was doing it in Verona and I was in Rome (and Michael Dibdin was in Venice, or had been, and had just started publishing as well). I read Tongues of Flame and then Loving Roger and mixed in with my admiration was a feeling that, well, I could have done that. Reading about the difficulties he’d had in finding a first publisher reinforced my sense of disadvantaged camaraderie – I’d been there too, more than once, that close to the glittering prize of seeing oneself in print. I’d learned just how wide the gap was between publishable and published – and minded it with all my heart.

Both the admiration and the feeling of emulation (which implies, if nothing else, a sort of similarity of intent and approach) have remained with me, strengthened by Parks’ non-fiction work, which seems to me to offer one of the most articulated and grounded responses to modern-day Italy I’ve come across, and one that I recognise, and would corroborate, on an almost daily basis. More recently, as I’ve felt that my own work hasn’t had quite as much attention as it deserves – because this is no place for false modesty – it’s been a source of comfort and anxiety to note that Tim Parks is also – in my opinion and that of others – consistently underrated, despite having been shortlisted for the Booker. One of the ways I make myself feel better in bookshops that don’t have a single copy of any of my books is to edge along the shelves a little and see how much Parks they have – to my shame, I’m usually gratified to see that he’s also absent.

But it’s the work that counts, and I’d be lying if I said that Parks hadn’t also had an effect on my own writing, if only because he showed me a way of mediating other non-English influences, above all Thomas Bernhard, a writer Parks himself acknowledges as an influence and one he approached – as I did – through Italian translation. I’m fascinated by the way both writers have developed, in their very different ways, a flexible, inclusive syntax,  taut and yet capable of absorbing the most extraordinary amount of information and internal contradiction. German and Italian, Parks’s second and – I imagine – home language (as it is mine), are both syntactically far richer than English, which is both a blessing and a curse, as inflection extends the space available to the sentence but fixes relationships within it in a way that a looser and potentially more ambiguous grammar, such as English, doesn’t. Bernhard uses this richness most typically as a framework on which to hang the most wonderful, exhilarating virtuosic rants. Parks, on the other hand, although ranting is certainly part of his – or of his characters’ – repertoire, often seems to stretch syntax to the limit as part of a process of qualification, negation, reiteration, a having-it-both-ways that comes as close as anything I know to what the utterly non-linear business of thinking/being is actually like. It’s also a language that cuts across cliché, unpredictable, often to hilarious effect, constantly alive to itself and what it might be saying.

I’m talking here primarily about the three novels of Parks that I like best, Europa, Destiny and this one, Cleaver. They’re driving, obsessed novels that worry every idea until there seems to be no life left in it, only to have it start back up again the minute it’s been dropped. Europa, an account of a trip to Strasbourg to present the case of foreign language teachers in Italian universities made by one of their number is, by turns, comic, astute, obscene, enraged, detached, often in the same paragraph-long sentence. Destiny, which also has an Italian setting of a sort, contains the most concentrated example of the kind of highly textured writing I’m talking about. This is what Parks himself has to say about it:

I would write by hand, as ever, rewrite every few pages on the screen, then start an immensely long process of writing into what I already had, cutting sentences in two and moving them about, intercutting maybe three or four thought patterns, all syntactically coherent, but only just hanging onto each other with all the interruptions. It was an exhausting business, but great fun to do and very exciting because I had the impression, perhaps illusory, that there was an authenticity to it, that it caught the sense one has of being trapped in one’s head at moments of furious obsession: a sort of grim hilarity.

Quite. It’s interesting that he should have done this on paper – interesting that he should always write by hand, come to that -as I’d have thought it was a technique that’s encouraged by the use of the computer, the way it allows you to intervene so easily on existing text. There’s an old-fogeyish aspect to the central character of both Destiny and Cleaver (and the narrator of Europa is hardly a new man), and it’s tempting to see Parks’ own refusal to blog or use social networks as stemming from a similar disdain for the modern. (He might, of course, simply have a better use for his time – he’s certainly one of the most prolific, and consistently interesting, writers around.)

Like the other two novels, Cleaver is essentially an internal monologue, albeit in the third person (Europa and Destiny are both first person). The protagonist, Harold Cleaver, is a successful television journalist and documentary maker who runs away from his career and family after the publication of a book by his son, which he sees as a violent and unjustified attack on him as a father, public figure and man, and a ‘memorable’ interview with the President of the United States. He’s a vain, overweening, self-justifying sort of character and the language Parks adopts to create him – shorter, less complex sentences than we’re used to –  enacts the sort of fractured, self-referential world in which he’s been living before his flight to the South Tyrol, a world of distraction and relativism. It’s a world he’s fleeing from in his lumbering, clumsy way, hurt and confused, and in search of – what? Oblivion? Peace?

One of the answers he offers to this question – a question he continues to badger himself with throughout the book – is silence. The silence he seems to be after is not only an escape from the noise of the world, out of which he has made a substantial career for himself and to which he has substantially contributed, but also a refuge from who and what he is, either through greater understanding of the self, which would involve a process of inner questioning that is constantly undermined by Cleaver’s jumpy and defensive analyses of his own actions (his meditations on his son’s book are both spot-on and horribly wrong-headed), or through its abnegation. Abnegation of the self then, but in what sense? How far is the self a physical thing? So much of Cleaver’s self has been defined by his unrestrained consumption, of women, wine, food. His self-imposed isolation in an unheated mountain hut, the former home of a Nazi sympathiser, can’t just be about the psyche; it’s also about the flesh.

Because the battleground on which Cleaver’s fight with himself is played out is not just that of the beautiful but inhospitable mountain landscape surrounding his new home; it is also that of his own body. One of the many joys of the book, in fact, is the way in which Cleaver’s attempts to rise above the noise level, in both senses, are impeded, or at best conditioned, by the body and its small but crippling inadequacies. There’s a particularly gruelling scene of minor domestic surgery towards the end of the book that serves as a fitting climax to the various disasters his corpulent and over-indulged flesh (at the start of the novel at least) is heir to. By the end of the novel, the sexually avid, domineering, often comic media giant is almost unrecognisable, pared-down and bearded, and dangerously close to death. His treacherous, ungrateful son, who appears at the end of the novel for what is, in part, a reconciliation and, in part, a re-enactment in reverse of the Oedipal struggle between the two, assumes that his father has been busily producing the great work, his masterpiece: the kind of thing one does as the culmination of a life, if only to rebut his own son’s version of it. But Cleaver, who has thought about death a great deal during the novel – his own and, more importantly, that of his favourite child, his son’s twin sister – has other plans. I’ll leave you to find out what these are by reading the book, which, in the figure of Cleaver, achieves an almost Shakespearean grandeur – and bluster. But I will say that the final paragraphs arrive at a sort of calm – Our games are over, Cleaver muttered – that would have been unimaginable at the outset.

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5 Responses to Cleaver, by Tim Parks

  1. Guy Savage says:

    I’ve only read Killing Roger and loved it. More than a touch of Bainbridge there I thought at the time. Anyway, I ordered every fiction book he’s written and they’re all on the shelf calling me even though they may be absent from the bookshops. Haven’t tried the non-fiction yet.

  2. Daniel says:

    I really like Tim Parks too. I’ve read An Italian Education and recently read the a review for Europa on another blog, which after reading your review today has inspired me to read all of his fiction. On Friday, I found a collection of short stories by Calvino, and always curious to see the translator, found it was Parks instead of the typical William Weaver, making me even more a fan of him.

  3. Love it that you like Parks, too. Been reading him ever since I was in my twenties and he’s never let me down (save for aspects that are not literary and therefore have no place here). I find I am always moved by the honesty – for better and worse – of his male characters, and completely captivated by what he does to language; my favourite books of his remain, to date, /Judge Savage/ and /Adultery and Other Diversions/, but you’re right that Cleaver is a truly fine book.

  4. ted says:

    After a far less enthusiastic response to Europa than your’s I am definitely going to try more of Tim Parks. I can’t help thinking that, when I like a writer, and he finds value in the work of another writer, that I have something learn, even if that wasn’t my initial impression.

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