On a sunny spring day, the first Saturday in September, I made the long trip in to the city (and with a bus replacing the train for part of the way, it was *very* long…) for my annual trek to the Melbourne Writers Festival. This was my only visit for the 2016 version, but with tickets to three events, I was hoping for an interesting day. I’ll get around (eventually) to wrapping up all the events, but today I’m going to focus on just one, featuring a very familiar name in the world of translation – if not always for the right reasons 😉
Kicking off the day at ten o’clock in the intimate surrounds of ACMI’s Studio One was a session with everyone’s favourite writer/translator/essayist/public-enemy-number-one Tim Parks, entitled ‘Reading Italy‘, hosted by academic and writer Jacqueline Dutton. Parks was here to talk about some of the essays collected in his new book, A Literary Tour of Italy, in which he takes the reader on a journey through the country’s rich literary history. Having lived in Italy for over thirty-five years, the writer has had ample opportunity to come to grips with the country’s writing, and he certainly showed his knowledge over the course of the hour allotted here.
The talk began with his reasons for moving to Italy in the first place. In a tale strangely similar to that of my own move to Australia, Parks explained how after meeting his Italian wife in the US, they eventually decided to stay in Italy for a few months just to dip their toes in the water. The stay got longer and longer until a tipping point was reached; having invested so much into adjusting to life in Italy, it became easier to stay than to go.
Asked about his wide body of work, and the variety of genres he writes in, Parks modestly replied that this is mainly due to a lack of major success in any of them. Many of the projects he was involved in came about from people suggesting ideas after having seen his other work. Gradually, a sizeable body of work in the areas of travel writing, fiction, essays and translation amassed. With his latest book in mind, the writer talked mostly about his essays, in particular regarding the way he’s had an overarching plan for them for many years. It has always been very clear in his mind that the individual pieces are part of a greater whole, and he was just waiting for the opportunity to put them together.
At this point, the talk moved away from Parks and more towards Italian literature. He described his first experiences with Natalia Ginzburg, whose ‘simple prose’ provided an entry point into the country’s literary culture in the early days he spent devouring novels at the library. He quickly became aware that the stories told in Italian books were different to those he was used to in English, and the more he read over the years, the more he realised how it all fitted together, with similar themes and stories cropping up in the writing of many major Italian writers.
His essays, then, attempt to reflect this vision of Italian literature, and one example of this is a desire for freedom and community. There was a nice interlude in the talk where Parks read from his essay on Giuseppe Garibaldi, giving his rather impressive CV and discussing the Italian dream of a place in a community and freedom from oppression (a dream which, sadly enough, usually turns out to be a myth). This concept is repeated in Elsa Morante’s novel Arthur’s Island, the first paragraphs of which Parks read out to illustrate his point. Again, there’s the problem of wanting to belong to a group, but forgetting that the nation consists of many other factions, not all of whom share your particularly idea of ‘community’…
Given the tension between Parks and Ann Goldstein over his criticism of her work on the Primo Levi anthology, it was hard to avoid comparing this talk with the one I went to earlier this year. Dutton did the right thing (seemingly simple, but so very hard for many moderators) of carefully setting up a question and letting Parks go at it, and go at it he did (in truth, it was hard to stop him at times), holding forth eloquently and passionately. When Dutton asked him if he could talk a little about Dante, he immediately began a fascinating, lengthy explanation of Dante’s social-climbing desires and the writing of The Divine Comedy. The enclosed, comfortable environment of the studio certainly added to the effect, and I couldn’t help enjoying today’s session a lot more than the talk Goldstein gave in a rather larger, colder lecture hall, unable to get a word in between moderator Robert Dessaix’s self-indulgent monologues.
However, grumpy Parks the critic was in evidence today too. In response to my question about his views on Jhumpa Lahiri’s Italian-language book In altre parole (In Other Words), while careful to praise her for her achievement, an impressive one of creating a book in a foreign language, he also saw it as a strange, dull book, unsure as to who Lahiri was actually writing it for. Another question touched on Elena Ferrante, and Parks made it clear he’s not a fan (while taking a swipe at Goldstein’s translation). Interestingly, he claimed part of Ferrante’s success in English (where she’s praised far more than in Italian) is down to Goldstein making the prose more ‘literary’ by lifting the register slightly. I’ll leave that for the Italian experts to argue over.
I was lucky enough to chat to him for a couple of minutes at the end of the talk (another way of putting it would be that I was in the front row and collared him before he had the chance to escape…) and touched on some of the articles he’s written recently. He’s still not a fan of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, but conceded that knowing more about Korean culture would perhaps enhance his enjoyment of the book (something it would have been hard for him to deny, seeing that this was pretty much exactly what he had said in his talk about Italian literature). I suggested he try Human Acts ( a book I consider better than The Vegetarian) – he was polite and receptive, but I wouldn’t hold my breath…
So, all in all, it made for a very entertaining first session of this year’s outing. Part of the reason I attended this talk was to find out who the real Tim Parks is – defender of the literary faith or a grumpy old man? Let’s face it, I was hardly likely to answer that question in the space of an hour, but the truth is there’s probably a bit of both there. Whatever the case, he’s certainly an interesting person to listen to, and I’d love to find the time to read his book at some point too 🙂