Without Illusions: Jonathan Clarke Interviews Novelist, Critic, and Translator Tim Parks

By Jonathan J. ClarkeJuly 6, 2016

Without Illusions: Jonathan Clarke Interviews Novelist, Critic, and Translator Tim Parks
TIM PARKS HAS HAD an unusual and prolific career, distinguishing himself in three separate areas of endeavor: as a novelist (he’s published 17 of them, including Europa, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997); as a critic, essayist, and writer ‎of several works of nonfiction (including Italian Ways, a drolly splenetic celebration of Italy’s public railways); and as a translator of Italian literature and translation theorist (his Translating Style is canonical in the field of translation studies). A native of Manchester, raised primarily in London, Parks attended Cambridge and Harvard before moving, at 25, to Italy, where he has lived ever since. A frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, he teaches literature and translation studies at IULM in Milan. His most recent books are Where I’m Reading From (New York Review Books, 2015), a collection of essays originally written for The New York Review of Books; The Novel: A Survival Skill (Oxford University Press, 2015), a work of critical theory that draws on systemic psychology and positioning theory to posit a new approach to identifying the root sources of novel writing; and Life and Work: Readers, Writers, and the Conversations Between Them (Yale University Press, 2016), which gathers work mainly from The New York Review of Books and the London Review. 

‎Despite his teaching schedule and several writing projects, Parks — customarily erudite, witty, and direct — recently found time for a conversation with me about a variety of subjects, including translation, fiction, nonfiction, the duties of a critic, and public transportation in Italy. My questions were posed via email from Brooklyn; Parks answered from his family home in Verona or his office in Milan.


JONATHAN CLARKE: In Where I’m Reading, the essays return repeatedly to several themes‎: problems of literary translation; the dominance of English as the lingua franca of the literary world; and the emergence of the “international novel,” associated with Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, and others. You have long written for The New York Review of Books, but when you were asked to write pieces for NYRB Daily, did you know immediately that these were the issues you wanted to address?

TIM PARKS: The subtitle of the book was The Changing World of Books and that’s very much the subject of it all. The pieces were all written for the Daily and meant, from the beginning, to work together as a collection. The idea was to speak as lucidly as possible about reading and writing today, to put aside all piety, all pretense that the domain of literature is the noble place we were taught about 30 years ago, with a canon, and classics and so on. It is far more interesting than that, but less safe and definitely less sane. Above all, you can’t possess it as so many critics and critical approaches suggest you can. It’s always moving, you’re always moving, and the jury is always out.

One aspect of this project was to suggest that just as in the past novels and narratives of all kinds often sustained an agenda of community identity or nationhood, reinforcing a shared sense of belonging through stories about American, German, or Italian society, so today much of what is published and praised has as much to do with the formation of some kind of global community, as with the production of “good” books. This kind of underlying agenda is clear enough in the world of big sports events where there is there same talk about building bridges and international communities and so on. In both cases, sport and literature, the project goes together rather nicely with that of making money, since a book sold worldwide is more profitable than a book sold in one nation, even if a Chinese book sold in Norway might not make that much sense, or not the same sense it made in China.

This sounds aggressive, perhaps, but I don’t mean it to be a harsh denunciation, or even a request that things be different. We are part of a zeitgeist. It just seems important to be aware of what’s going on. When it comes to books, people are all too ready to be starry-eyed.

You were raised in London, but you have lived much of your adult life in Italy, and many of your books are on Italian subjects and the Italian language. There is a strong expat tradition in English writing, of Graham Greene, Robert Graves, Martin Amis, and others who were well-placed in London literary life by birth or education but felt compelled to leave. Do you feel a conscious relation to that tradition?

Indeed, there are many expat traditions in English writing. Unlike Greene, Graves, or Amis, I left England long before I had a career as a writer, and much younger. I met an Italian girl at Harvard grad school. We married when I was 24 and went to Italy when I was 25. I have lived here ever since, that’s 36 years, brought up three children, taught for more than 20 years in an Italian university, translated a dozen Italian authors. I mostly speak in Italian and do my reading fairly equally in Italian or in English.

Precisely because I am at home now in a community that was not originally mine, I’m very aware of the complicated negotiations between individual and group identity, and very interested in the question of whom books are actually addressed to and where we read them from. We all come from different places, different families; we relate to the groups we move in differently. And that affects the way we relate to books. For example, I definitely read an English novel differently now, in Milan, than I would if I had remained in London.

Your recent writing on the practice of translation has given the impression that all is not necessarily well. The editors who commission translations often are not fluent in the source language of the work to be translated, and readers of work in translation usually do not know the source language at all and are thus essentially helpless to know whether the translation is true to the author’s style and intentions. Is there any solution to these problems?

Well, we have translation precisely because we don’t know other languages, so we can hardly expect readers, critics, and even editors to be familiar with more than a language or two. However, it’s clear that while 20 or so years ago there would likely have been one editor fluent in French, another in German, another in Spanish, and so on, so that in a big publishing house someone would have been on hand to take a look at most of the translation choices being made, this is less true today. Fewer people are studying languages. English dominates. I was recently speaking to one of Italy’s leading literary agents who was lamenting the fact that there were few people in American publishing houses really able to read what he was trying to sell to them. Of course, the work can go to freelance readers and editors who have language capabilities, but deciding on translators and translations in this way is risky.

The situation for the literary critic is particularly embarrassing. Perhaps a newspaper wants a comment on a translation under review, but if you don’t know the language in question, what can you do? I had this problem in a recent NYRB review of a Murakami novel. The translation was fluent enough, but frequently seemed odd in its lexical choices and word orders in a way I couldn’t fit into any strategy linking style and content. But perhaps Murakami’s Japanese is like this. I have no way of knowing, though I am fairly sharp when it comes to spotting translation problems with Romance languages.

Solutions? I’m not in the business of providing solutions. Honesty about the real state of affairs is what matters to me and perhaps is half a solution in itself. Let’s not pretend that all’s well when we just don’t know. Obviously, if there was more second language competency around it would help, but that decline seems to be structural in the Anglo-Saxon world and it’s hard to see it changing soon.

In Translating Style, you suggest that an understanding of the literary strategies of an author is essential to the practice of translation, and you demonstrate that fact by working through the translation problems presented by a number of writers of difficult, complex, or idiosyncratic style, including Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, Henry Green, and others. At the same time, in one of your recent essays, you noted that some very able students of yours had been refused work in literary translation because their backgrounds were in industrial translation — working with instruction manuals and other commercial documents — and you clearly thought this unfair. So — in the phrase “literary translation,” where should the stress fall? 

I see no contradiction here. The translators I referred to who had not been given work were not students but professional commercial translators. I had been introducing them to the problems of literary translation at a seminar where we discussed the writers we were translating in great detail before translating them. Aware of the literary strategies, some of these translators were producing excellent work. They were people absolutely familiar with both languages, and there are few texts however apparently utilitarian that have no elements of style. The problem arises when a translator of whatever background sets out to work on a text (written in his or her second language, remember) with no idea at all of what the style is up to. Often in our second language we just don’t notice unusual usages, because the whole language is still slightly unusual to us. For example, an Italian student looks at a sentence from Hemingway like, “He thought about alone in Constantinople that time” … and doesn’t realize that this is a quite extraordinary positioning of “alone.” Or at a phrase from Lawrence like, “She was destroyed into perfect consciousness,” and doesn’t realize that one doesn’t normally follow destroyed with “into.” Et cetera. It’s hard to have the same sensitivity to a literary style that a mother tongue reader has. So the only thing to do is to prepare yourself as best you can and take the time to read a little criticism on the writer you’re working on. Alas, translators are so poorly paid that would seem a luxury.

But to answer your question straight, I would reject the collocation “literary translation.” There are texts and there are translations of texts. They all have different styles, different strategies. Tourist brochures and art catalogs can be nightmarishly difficult. Some prose fiction can be very easy. The translator has to grasp what’s going on in any text and deliver it as best he or she can.

You have made your living in part as a translator, but you have not been unwilling to criticize some standard translation practices, or to point out errors in specific translations, or to question some significant reputations in the field. Why is it important to do this, and do you feel that you’ve paid a price for your directness, either in terms of commissions not received or praise withheld from your own work?

This is a good point. It’s a small world and it can be dangerous to step out of line. My good fortune has always been that I never relied on translations from the literary world to live. The main bulk of my translation work was commercial. When it came to novels, after a very brief initial period when I certainly wasn’t criticizing anyone, the success of my own writing together with a steady job at the university meant that I could choose to do the translations I wanted, when they were offered of course, and turn down what I didn’t feel I could do well, or wouldn’t feel happy doing. I stopped translating regularly some 10 years ago; since then I have done only Machiavelli’s The Prince and a selection from Leopardi’s Zibaldone, wonderful books it was a privilege to work on.

Why criticize others? It’s simply part of a critic’s work. There is some excellent translation around and some very poor translation, too. As I said in one piece, glory for the translator is always borrowed glory. If a book is a success, it’s assumed the translation was good and the translator competent. But this isn’t always the case. I used to bite my lip and say nothing, precisely because I sensed there would be a price to pay in ruffling feathers. But I’m older now and was never really a diplomat. It’s always exciting to say what you really feel and I think people appreciate it. There is no malice involved. Just a desire to make it all more interesting by drawing attention to what is really going on.

American readers buy remarkably few novels in translation, as compared to readers in some other countries, where more than half the novels bought may be translated. Are there real consequences to the fact that Americans are not getting whatever “news” is found in literature written in languages other than English?

Well, what is a healthy balance between translated and indigenous fiction? Who knows? Is it healthy to have up to 70 percent of your books coming from other countries, especially if that actually means mostly American genre best sellers? What does that mean for home-grown authors, or for culture as a conversation within a community and about the community? I’m not sure the European situation is ideal at all.

Anyhow, the present imbalance in the flow of fiction between Anglophone countries and the rest of the world is largely due to the dominance of English as a language and America as a culture, such that there is a real thirst in Europe for American books and films. Not because they’re good, or not only because they’re good, but because they’re considered the driving force toward a future global world. Most people in Europe have English as a second language, and even if they continue to read in their own languages, stories about the Anglo-American world, available in translation, are a sort of second life. That’s how it is. There’s hardly any point in trying to change a movement as vast as this. Obviously there are advantages and disadvantages on both sides of the divide. The United States has a vigorous, self-confident book culture. Europe reads widely — though curiously, in Western Europe we read very little from Eastern Europe, and very, very little from Asia and Africa. So it’s a rather circumscribed cosmopolitanism.

You’ve been publishing novels since 1985. Are you now able to anticipate their reception? Does that reception vary by location, given that your novels have been translated into many different languages and are received in many different literary cultures?

My main ambition has always been the novels, which have been of various kinds, inviting quite different levels of engagement from readers. That said, a strand runs through them of what I call the most serious and most intense — Tongues of Flame, Goodness, Europa, Destiny, Cleaver — to which, next year, will be added the latest, and rather unusually I believe the best, In Extremis. Well, for these novels, yes, I can more or less predict the reaction. They will be admired by critics and by a certain number of readers and they will sell modestly. It’s fine. The other novels, some experimental, some written to relax and enjoy and play, provoke all kinds of reactions. In general, though, I stopped reading the reviews on a regular basis some years ago. Negative or positive, they’re distracting. Best to ignore them except when a friend says, “Look, so and so has said something interesting about what you’re doing.”

The reception does vary country by country. In Germany and Holland, I’m seen first and foremost as a serious novelist, and that’s where the fiction is most appreciated, whereas in the United Kingdom or the United States and Italy I’m probably better known for my nonfiction writing about Italy. I think there may be an extent to which, after the long years reading mainly European fiction, my writing itself has taken on a feel that puts it outside the Anglo-Saxon mainstream. Certainly, as the years have gone by, I no longer feel, as I did with the very early novels, that they are specifically addressed to an English or London public. There’s no longer a feel of a shared culture we’re talking about, because of course I haven’t lived in the UK for so long. There’s definitely a loss in this, but a gain too. And every writer has to capitalize on the specific situation they find themselves in and turn it to their advantage.

You’ve been quite prolific as both a novelist and a critic. Do you think of your novels and criticism as the same war — what the novel is or ought to be — but fought on two fronts? Or is Tim Parks the critic different from Tim Parks the novelist, necessarily perhaps more catholic in taste?

I’m taken aback by your use of the term “war.” In what way is one at “war”? I never feel embattled as a writer. Criticism can sometimes get a bit sharp, perhaps you feel a certain emperor has no clothes, but I would hardly call it a war. It’s a privilege to feel free to say what one wants, but I don’t expect to win or lose some struggle. I’m not trying to change the world. The novel-writing is a rather different kind of engagement but never unconnected from the criticism. For example in recent years, and particularly in the book, The Novel: A Survival Skill, which is the best criticism I’ve written I think, I’ve been asking whether there isn’t something essentially perverse, perhaps “unhealthy” in the Western obsession with long prose narratives, their fantasies of individual identity and so on. This questioning of what the novel is up to comes out of my own writing, where I find myself ever more suspicious of my deeper motives as I construct the plot and shape the form and so on. Perhaps you could say that when writing the novels the object of possible criticism is myself, a criticism that part of me robustly rejects, so that one is always, to a degree, conflicted as one writes. I hope that makes some sense. In any event, the novels have an intellectual side, I suppose, a sort of urgent questioning, such that anyone looking at the criticism and fiction together wouldn’t be surprised they’d been written by the same person.

In one of the essays in Where I’m Reading From you suggest three competing visions of art, the classical position of the writer as a skilled craftsman, the romantic vision of the writer as a visionary artist with special prerogatives, and then in modernism an attempt to merge these two views. Have you settled this issue for yourself? Does the writer’s role necessarily depend upon the overall cultural and political context in which he works?

Today the romantic position has been debased to the point where the figure of the artist, the notion of a specialness out of which the work springs, becomes little more than a promotional tool to sell products that are often quite mediocre. The public is attracted to the specialness of the artist because it justifies the time spent with the artist’s production. The cult of celebrity has certainly altered the way we think about art and the way we read.

Have I reached some kind of stable position with regards to these various approaches? Let’s say I’m just about comfortable with the way I work. My fiction draws heavily on my own life, and my writing has intensity where the narrative is dense with issues that are important to me, dilemmas that are mine; but it’s also imaginatively worked and shaped so as to construct something separate from me, something that doesn’t require my presence for its effects. This is done with bursts of speed and intensity, followed by long periods of editing and reflection. The first by hand, writing on a blank page, the second on the computer, jiggling things around on the screen. Everybody finds their way of working.

I don’t think there can be such a thing as a “writer’s role” in any fixed or agreed sense. Who would decide what that role was? Certainly not me. There are all kinds of writers in all kinds of cultures finding different positions in relation to the whole. Some of them more attractive, some less. Each culture, each language, will offer different opportunities. But yes, you can only begin to get a deep sense of what a writer is up to when you grasp his position and his work’s position inside the world he moves in.

Early on, you moved toward experimentation and innovation. I guess the question is why, given that writing more conventionally would have offered an easier path to publication for a young writer. Is there a space that you are trying to fill in your work — some aspect of the experience of consciousness that other novelists are missing? 

The dilemma, should I write what I want to write or what it would be convenient to write, is constant, and I guess will remain so as long as one needs to earn a living. In the end, it’s probably a fertile thing, too. At the end of the day there’s no point in writing something that won’t be read. Way back before I was published, I was forever torn between the experimental and the genre. I suppose the breakthrough came, or began, when I realized that the experimental itself had become something of a genre. People “knew” that experimentalism was equivalent to modernism or late modernism or the absurd, or whatever fashionable “subversion” of realism came to hand. Writers were tending to imitate and vary old experiments rather than take a fresh look at the world as they found it. It’s something young people do in particular because they have little experience to work on. From the moment I realized this, the plan became to look at experience as clearly as possible and find some form that might deliver it, or some aspect of it. Above all, never to think that I knew what literature was, as if the thing were sewn up, as if you could ever possess it. The danger with this approach, at least at first, was that the writing might seem to have neither the gloss of experimentalism or the easy delivery and well-worn rails of conventional fiction. I began to realize that one of the most important qualities of a writer can be to risk seeming ordinary for a page or two. Natalia Ginzburg would be an example of that. Or Barbara Pym. With time, though, and as I became more aware of the vast gap between experience as lived and as described in much literary fiction, this awareness began to give the novels a certain distinctive flavor. I don’t, though, think in terms of what other novelists are missing. I’m more concerned about what it all feels like to me, above all, the precariousness of selfhood and its absolute dependence on interaction between people who often have very little understanding of each other, but nevertheless become themselves in relation to each other.

Regarding In Extremis — you said above it is “rather unusually I believe the best.” Do you mean that ordinarily a writer of prose fiction would have peaked earlier in his career? Is there some reason you can think of why the trajectory of your career might be different?

What an interesting misunderstanding! No, I just meant that on finishing a book my usual feelings are ones of disappointment, that it isn’t perhaps quite what I hoped. Perhaps this is a necessary emotion for immediately getting on with something else and hoping to do better. But in this case, with In Extremis, I have the rare impression of having bowled the ball in a perfect line straight down the alley and taken out all nine pins. I’ve been wrong before, of course.

As regards the trajectory of an author’s career, I think this has less to do with age than with his life stories and the kinds of conflicts that feed his work, something I talk about in The Novel: A Survival Skill. Often the writing can be a way of dealing with a dilemma and when this strategy ceases to be effective, or to be necessary, the writing can fall off. Or alternatively new life circumstances can very often “rejuvenate” an author. In my own case, having survived some difficult years with separation and leaving England and so on, I feel full of optimism.

Your novels are often formally challenging, but also very funny. So I will ask you to take us behind the curtain: what is the structure of a typical Tim Parks comic scene, if there is such a thing? Does the humor in your work essentially arise from your skeptical view of human nature? 

The comedy is usually irony. The mismatch between a character’s pretensions and the triviality of what happens. A droll detail dropped at the end of a paragraph. A phone call from an insurance agent in the middle of a religious crisis. Or simply an unexpected take on things, a wrench of perspective or register. I often chuckle away to myself as I write. I am rather proud of the opening line of Goodness: “My father was a missionary murdered in Burundi in 1956. It was very much his own fault.” Or the opening to Sex is Forbidden: “Sex is forbidden at the Dasgupta Institute. That’s one of the big advantages of working here.” That kind of thing. But I hope there are all kinds of humor in the books. Humor makes it possible to get through an honest description of life. Without that the reading would be too dark to be attractive. Imagine Beckett without the humor.

For those who have not yet read The Novel: A Survival Skill, can you summarize its arguments? It’s an enormously ambitious piece of criticism.

That’s hard. Let’s start by going back to the desire people seem to have to “possess” literature, to pin it down, say what it is, what it should be doing. That involves coming at it as if it were a separate object, out there, something we can look at “objectively” and “judge.” This actually fits in with the idea, dear to globalization, that if a book is “good” it will be good everywhere, it will travel. Hence there are universal values that every individual is plugging into when he or she reads.

I suppose what I’m doing in A Survival Skill is turning all that on its head. The book comes out of someone’s life. It’s in relation to everything else in their life, where they come from, who they are, who they live with, their ambitions, their hopes. It’s also inevitably part of a behavior pattern, part of the way that person relates to the world. And it’s an expression of where that person is at a particular moment in their lives. So where the writer is coming from is crucial. But the background the reader brings to the book is equally crucial. Reading a novel is analogous with meeting someone. Two contexts come together. Two value systems. They can mesh or repel each other in all kinds of ways, develop and change the way relationships develop and change. But if they are in any way vital they can’t be possessed and pinned down.

What I tried to do in this book was to draw on systemic psychology and positional theory to give some intellectual dignity to these observations, and also, I hope to offer people an intriguing way of thinking about their reading. Systemic psychologists, who believe that personality and values are always structured in a family or social context, have suggested four areas of value, or polarities — good/evil, courage/fear, winning/losing, belonging/exclusion — that can dominate in a group, and which individuals growing in the group will have to come to terms with. The book looks at authors whose work expresses those polarities: belonging/exclusion in Dickens and Woolf; fear/courage in Hardy and Lawrence; good/evil in Coetzee and Dostoevsky; winning/losing in Joyce or Muriel Spark. Each writer has a particular position in that world of feeling and we react to them depending on the values paramount in our lives. No one response is in any way the “right response.”

It’s an idea I’ve been developing over years thinking over my own responses to books, and it was a great pleasure to explore such different writers and my reactions to them.

In your most recent essay collection‎, Life and Work, you invoke the winning/losing dichotomy in sketching the career of the Belgian writer Georges Simenon, the creator of Inspector Maigret. What is it about Simenon that particularly interests you? He’s in some ways an unsympathetic figure.

Life and Work is a collection of essays selected to exemplify the reading approach I laid out in The Novel: A Survival Skill, so in each case I’m looking at how the behavior pattern in an author’s life helps us understand something about our relationship with the work itself. Simenon is an extreme case of a man absolutely determined to achieve, to “win” if you like, in every possible way — there is a fairly evident connection between the extraordinary number of books he wrote, literally hundreds, and the extraordinary number of women he seduced, something over 10,000, if the writer is to be believed. So he would oscillate between driving himself to the limit workwise and then to the limit and beyond when it came to pleasure. At the same time he wanted to “win” without becoming “a bad person,” without his transgressions becoming ugly or cruel. It was a very hard act and dangerously intense, causing havoc of course in the lives of wives, mistresses, and children. His romans durs, his serious novels, which he was convinced should have won him the Nobel, are shamelessly autobiographical and describe men like himself who tear themselves apart with their conflicting ambitions, their need to dominate their partners, and so on. Instead the Inspector Maigret books give us a more benevolent winner. Maigret’s pursuit of his quarry is always described as a long hard struggle, and he always wins, but he often feels compassion for the criminals he arrests, who sometimes have an uncanny similarity to Maigret himself. I closed the essay with a quote from Simenon that could have served as a premise for the whole collection: “The artist is above all else a sick person, in any case an unstable one — why see in that some form of superiority? I would do better to ask for people’s forgiveness.” On the other hand, one has to wonder at the extraordinary creativity that came out of that instability.

When The Novel: A Survival Skill was published, you said that you expected it to be received with hostility, because it “radically undermines traditional lit-crit criteria and exposes the pieties with which the novel is usually defended.‎” Do those defenses mainly serve commercial motives — the need for corporate publishers to move product — or philosophical ones — a notion of the novel as related to some broader liberal-humanist enterprise?

The negative response I was expecting was above all from the academic world which has a considerable investment in the notion that one can arrive at some sort of definitive statement about a work of art and which very rarely admits the notion that reader response is absolutely part of a book’s being in the world. A lot of academe is governed by a desire to retreat to a secure place where the expert can’t be contradicted; the idea that engaging with a novel is an engagement with life that puts the reader on the line is not admitted. Outside academe, though, there is a desire to set writers on pedestals, if only to explain and ennoble the pleasurable activity of reading. And my approach does tend to bring writers off their pedestals, suggesting that many of the reasons underlying storytelling are far from honorable and have little to do with the famous liberal-humanist enterprise.

The legitimacy of literary biography ‎is sometimes questioned. Why should we care, after all, how Dreiser liked his eggs? What has this to do with literature? But I take it you believe that a reader’s impulse to investigate the life of a favorite writer is natural — and possibly even necessary to a full appreciation of the writer’s work. What then is the genre work of literary biography? 

It’s not necessary of course to know anything about a writer to read and enjoy a book. But reading the book we do have a sense of engaging with the person behind it, of being in someone’s presence, as it were. When we read more than one book by the same author we become aware that there are certain preoccupations, certain kinds of relationship that turn up again and again. We might also see how this changes over time, intensifying, or suddenly taking exactly the opposite position on an issue like, say, adultery. So if you read Roth’s novels you are aware what the major issues are for him. Likewise with Lydia Davis, Alice Munro, whoever. And you know how you react to those issues, how you argue or agree with the author, how your position changes in relation to issues in your life, etc. Made curious by this you might turn to a literary biography, where you realize that the narratives the author has created stand in a particular relation to his life. Thomas Hardy, trapped in a frustrating marriage, seems to be anxious both to imagine a rewarding sexual relationship, and at the same time to warn himself of the catastrophic consequences involved in any attempt to move toward it, as if the books were both gratifying to him, but deliberately inhibiting. Lawrence felt Hardy’s novels also had the pernicious effect of seeking to inhibit us. Joyce, who always made impossible demands on people until at last they walked away from him, seems to make escalating and ultimately impossible demands on the reader, until indeed most readers abandon him at page three of Finnegans Wake. What’s behind this dynamic? That is the kind of question I was seeking to answer in the book. In the end, literary biography is justified by the simple fact that when you have an important relationship with someone, in this case a writer, you want to know more about them, and about why you respond to them as you do.

In Italian Ways you examine your experience as a frequent rider on Italy’s national rail system. It’s a small-bore subject that somehow comes to stand for all of Italy as you’ve experienced it, in both its charms and its frustrations. At what point in the writing did you suspect that you were onto something larger — that you might be attempting something like a study of the Italian character?

This is the fourth book I’ve written on Italy and I’d been commuting 30 years on Italian trains when I wrote it. I knew from the start that the book was a study of Italian character and if it doesn’t feel like that it was because there was no need to announce it. I just needed to get going and talk about how it all happens in Italian stations and on Italian trains. I suppose I’ve become intensely aware of Italian behavior patterns over the years; the problem starting a book on Italy, or any other country I suppose, is to find a sufficiently circumscribed area of experience to give the material some shape, some sense, a feeling that something concrete has been captured. So at the beginning I wrote about the condominium I lived in, our five or six neighbors. Later about the world Italian children grow up in. Years later the football stadium where I held a season ticket for about 12 years. And then this book on trains. I knew it was a hugely fertile subject because trains hold such an important place in Italian history and life. If I ever have the energy and the courage I’ll write about Italian universities … 

You’ve made a successful and apparently happy life in Italy over these 36 years, in spite of what seem to be irreconcilable differences between the Latin cast of a place like Verona and the more self-effacing disposition of the middle-class London household in which you were raised. I sense that you’re proud of having adapted so well and so completely. Is there something you can identify in your own character that made this possible? Many people in my city can’t imagine moving from one side of Central Park to the other.

Of course going from the East Side to the West Side is a big move. Yes, I suppose I am proud of having settled here. It was completely unplanned. There were many obstacles, not least but not only the language. Slowly a narrative began to emerge — “me in Italy” — which eventually consolidated into a sort of destiny. Getting into the university career track was complicated beyond belief. But somehow it happened. I know of nothing in my character that suited me to this, aside from a certain stubbornness, the same that had me writing seven novels before publishing, always disappointed by rejections but always hoping that if I threw the dice one more time maybe something would come of it. Perhaps the other thing was the fascination that clicked in for a culture that is indeed radically different from the Protestant evangelical world I was brought up in.

Your wide learning and your curiosity about the world have obviously been a source of great pleasure to you, and they have given you a career, wide recognition, the esteem of famous peers, etc. But is your intellect also in some small measure a burden? 

Yes, it’s very exciting to be interested in things, and at the same time of course it is a burden. I think it’s in Destiny that the narrator says in one sentence that the greatest pleasure is the active mind, and in the next that greatest pain is the active mind. In general, consciousness is something we can’t easily put down. We open our eyes and we have to see. We can’t detach ourselves from the world any more than we can detach from our bodies; the mind fizzes in contact with whatever is out there, whether we like it or not. Learning to manage that — some people call it stress — is an important part of making it past 60. Not for nothing did I call one book, Teach Us to Sit Still. Every day, I practice an hour’s meditation and it’s a great relief to have learned techniques to cool down the sort of compulsive thinking that goes on in a lot of my fiction. Yet, you’re right, I love the compulsive thinking too. It’s life to me.


Jonathan J. Clarke is a lawyer and critic living in New York. His work has appeared in Bookforum, Nieman Storyboard, The Millions, and elsewhere.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan J. Clarke is a lawyer and critic living in New York. His work has appeared in Bookforum, Nieman Storyboard, The Millions, and elsewhere.


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