The Umpire of the Quality Lit Game
THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
November 10, 2016 Issue
The Novel: A Survival Skill
by Tim Parks
Oxford University Press, 185 pp., $24.95 (paper)
Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books
by Tim Parks
New York Review Books, 239 pp., $19.95
Life and Work: Writers, Readers, and the Conversations Between Them
by Tim Parks
Yale University Press, 308 pp., $35.00
Tim Parks; drawing by David Levine
Author of fifteen novels, nine books of nonfiction, and countless articles and translations, the prodigious Tim Parks is what used to be called a man of letters. He coolly sums up his multivalent reputation:
I am known in England mainly for light, though hopefully thoughtful nonfiction; in Italy for polemical newspaper articles and a controversial book about soccer; in Germany, Holland, and France for what I consider my “serious” novels Europa, Destiny, Cleaver; in the United States for literary criticism; and in a smattering of other countries, but also in various academic communities, for my translations and writing on translation.
His extensive experience as a novelist has given him an insider’s knowledge of the game of fiction: perhaps no one since V.S. Pritchett has turned out so consistently insightful, witty, even-handed, and readable a body of literary criticism.
Recently he has brought out three books, more or less simultaneously, on the entangled enterprise of reading and writing. His stated aim is to shake things up. “It’s time to rethink everything,” he declares. “What it means to write and what it means to write for a public—and which public.” He asks us to set aside our customary assumptions that fiction is necessarily a good thing, along with the rest of our pieties about literature:
Finally, why not try to imagine that there is no justifiable self esteem to be attached to the mere writing and reading of novels, however literary or sophisticated, or brilliantly entertaining they may be, nor any ultimate “need” for their existence, simply an appetite on the part of many for their consumption and a willingness on the part of the few to satisfy that appetite.
While he does not get very far in undermining our (or, indeed, his own) need for fiction, he does manage to poke holes in the self-congratulatory embrace of the form.
“I want to put forth this provocation,” he will start a paragraph. But he is a measured provocateur, and many of his assertions seem commonsense and reasonable, at least to a fellow writer like myself. He points out, for instance, that novelists are addressing not only the anonymous public but their family and friends, with coded messages that might give offense:
Writing offers a way of smuggling a message through a taboo, while leaving the taboo intact, threatening to break it—“this is the truth about our marriage”—but not quite breaking it—“actually this is only a novel and I don’t really think this is the truth about our marriage at all.”
He insists, rightly, that there is no such thing as literary justice; some good books perish while others that are worse prosper. He draws our attention to the grubby careerist aspects of being an author, supplying blurbs in the hope that the favor will be returned. He insists that critics and readers bring their own personal biases, based on family upbringing or regional and class backgrounds; and consequently that there is no such thing as an “authoritative” interpretation of a text: “impartiality is a chimera.” He challenges critics and academics to shed their pretense of objectivity and state clearly their value systems, where they are coming from.
More cheekily, he expresses a preference for e-books over printed ones, on the ground that their “discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience.” I don’t agree, but I appreciate his mischievous rhetorical effort.
Still, these are stray perceptions, and don’t get at the heart of Parks’s philosophy of literary criticism. What, then, are his main ideas on the subject? To begin with, he is at pains to puncture the old academic stricture against using a writer’s life to explain his work. His professors used to chastise him for falling into this “biographical fallacy,” but “Why were we never to talk about the authors themselves and the role the books played in their lives?…. Above all, why could you never speak about your personal reaction, why you disliked a book maybe, even a classic….”
Parks is out to change all that, with good reason; he is convinced, especially knowing how he wrote his own novels, that there is a rich connection to be explored between the tensions in a writer’s personal psyche and the literary production that follows. Not only is a written work drawn from these personal tensions, which the writer tries to resolve or at least allay through his fiction, but its subsequent publication alters the dynamic of the author’s relations with those around him. First, however, comes that fertile tension or pair of opposites, which is different in each writer’s case. Here, Parks draws on the work of the Italian psychologist Valeria Ugazio, who
considers the construction of identity in terms of a number of “semantic polarities” (fear/courage, good/evil, success/failure, belonging/exclusion) and suggests that in each family of origin one criterion of value will tend to be hierarchically more important than others in the way people talk about and assess each other. As a result, it becomes a matter of urgency for each individual in the group to find a stable and comfortable position in relation to this dominant polarity. Is it, for example, more important in this family to be seen as independent and courageous, or as pure and good, or as a winner?
Drawing on this theory, Parks argues that the polarity in Joyce’s case was between winning and losing; in Hardy’s, between fear and courage; in Dickens’s, between wanting to belong and to remain independent; and so on. I am not sure why he finds this schema of Ugazio’s so profound or alluring. The dominant idea of polarity certainly offers him a convenient way to structure a biographical review-essay, but it also seems arbitrary, since one could no doubt find several other significant polarities in the life and work of great writers.
In any case, it provides him ballast for a series of biographical sketches that are by turns illuminating, funny, and shrewd about the contradictions, vanities, and misdeeds of literary titans. In keeping with Parks’s inclination not to idealize writers, he zeroes in on Joyce’s cadging loans from his acquaintances, Beckett’s pretending to be a saint of austerity while living the high life with his mistresses, Dickens’s banishing the wife who had borne him ten children, while volubly expressing disappointment in those very progeny, and Dostoevsky writing the passage in Notes From Underground in which the narrator maliciously predicts a prostitute’s grim death from tuberculosis, while the writer’s own wife was dying of the same disease in the next room.
Drawing on his reading of authors’ biographies, Parks regularly singles out a writer’s hurtful treatment of a spouse or unavailability to family, the collateral damage, so to speak, of the writing life. In the process he makes these novelists come alive on the page as sacred monsters, or vivid characters in his nonfiction novel. Reluctantly, at the behest of his publisher he adds a portrait of himself, but with duller results, unable to turn “Tim Parks,” beset by the polarity of good and evil, into an amusing grotesque. Perhaps if he had been able to consult biographies of himself, he could have done so.
The key example Parks returns to again and again is that of Thomas Hardy. Admitting that he loved Hardy when he was younger, he has come to find the defeats of his novels’ protagonists painful to read, and now agrees with D.H. Lawrence’s accusation that Hardy loaded the dice for pessimism out of personal cowardice. Lawrence, he says,
brilliantly questions the motives behind Hardy’s habit of having his more talented and spiritually adventurous characters destroyed by society; Hardy goes “against himself,” Lawrence tells us (meaning, against his own specially gifted nature), to “stand with the average against the exception,” and all this “in order to explain his own sense of failure.” To Lawrence’s mind, a tremendously complex story like Jude the Obscure becomes an invitation not to try to realize your full potential but to settle instead for self-preservation. Hardy reinforces the mental habits of the frightened reader. It is pernicious.
Thomas Hardy, 1913; photograph by Olive Edis
National Portrait Gallery, London
Thomas Hardy, 1913; photograph by Olive Edis
In Parks’s hesitant words of “tremendously complex” you can almost hear him trying to resist the vulgarized simplification of Lawrence’s attack; but in the end, he subscribes fully to it. In painting a portrait of Hardy as a cautious soul, a nonbeliever who nevertheless went to church, who chose to “remain in a marriage that was increasingly arid,” and who was cowed into giving up novel-writing when the critics chastised him for immorality, Parks seems to me to be falling into the very trap of biographical fallacy—not because it is wrong to read a writer’s life into his work, but because this time he is misinterpreting the evidence. For instance, Hardy may have stopped writing novels because he had said all he wanted to in that form, and was more taken by the challenge of poetry. But Parks will not allow that, forcing every aspect of Hardy’s life into the opposition between fear and courage, and concluding:
Hardy’s writing is immensely seductive and powerfully draws us into a particular mental atmosphere. But one simply cannot make for it the kind of claims that people make for literature, that it is liberating, for example, or empowering. Quite the contrary. At most it is beautifully consoling, from a position of defeatism; more frequently it stirs up feelings of angry impotence…. It is hard (for me) not to feel that Hardy, whose work I love, can be a truly toxic, imprisoning influence, while Lawrence, however infuriating, is always liberating.
Such a reductionist viewpoint raises the question: Must “liberating” be the sole standard by which we judge literature? Must a “consoling” sense of resignation be considered valueless? Since Parks has requested that critics announce their positions, I confess that I too love Hardy, though without any sense that he is “toxic” and to be avoided.
One of Parks’s pet notions is that Hardy and certain other writers should come with a “health warning.” He writes:
Just as you don’t consult a pessimist when planning a major career move, so it would hardly be wise to give Chekhov’s short stories to the partner you have just proposed to. And you certainly don’t want to be reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure while planning a family.
Nonsense: I’d like to believe that any intelligent reader could benefit from Chekhov’s bittersweet irony or experience the sublimity of tragic literature without being poisoned into paralysis and conformity. Must we warn off the young from Sophocles’ plays or Hamlet just because they don’t end well for their talented, spiritually adventurous protagonists? (Curiously, Parks has no problem with Beckett’s or Leopardi’s pessimism, maybe because they stay throughout on a bleak even keel.)
Parks’s rejection of the scenario of defeat would seem to coincide with a dramatic crisis in his own life, which affected his attitude toward change itself. Part of the change included practicing Buddhist meditation. In a perceptive essay in these pages on Parks’s novels, James Walton noted:
To understand the scale of this conversion, you could pick up almost any of Parks’s earlier works, fiction or nonfiction, where it wouldn’t take long to spot one of his long-standing themes: in a world full of illusions, the idea that you can change your life is one of the most persistent and least intellectually defensible. In book after book, we’re plunged deep into the heads of erudite middle-aged men in crisis—marital, parental, professional, or more usually all three. These heads then buzz with contradictions as their owners try to overcome both their crises and “the burden” of the self, before being forced to realize that they’re stuck with them. This, in fact, is nothing short of our “destiny.”*
Though Parks does not tell us in these three books the crisis that made him alter his view, he peppers their pages with statements such as:
The conviction that one can’t change might be, on the character’s part, and perhaps on the author’s too, a way of blocking oneself, preventing oneself from moving on, of finding excuses for inaction, or of ennobling pain (“I would like to change, but alas life is not like that”).
When a writer like myself, who has preached the inevitability of destiny and the impossibility of change for so long, begins to write rather different stories and look for new versions of events, you can feel free to assume that the old “narrative strategy” hasn’t delivered the desired results, or no long delivers them. He’s no longer able to hold things together as they were by telling himself and the world there’s no other solution.
Parks’s increasing impatience with the contemporary novel seems of a piece with his desire for personal change. More and more, he says, he finds himself simply not finishing books he started. How much of this is a function of reviewer’s burnout and how much a characterological shift is hard to pin down. He agrees with David Shields that the traditional novel no longer entices:
My problem with the grand traditional novel—or rather traditional narrative in general, short stories included—is the vision of character, the constant reinforcement of a fictional selfhood that accumulates meaning through suffering and the overcoming of suffering…. Challenged, perhaps thwarted by circumstance, it nevertheless survives, with its harvest of bittersweet consolation and newly acquired knowledge.
I’m being reductive. The variety of stories told in the novel is indeed remarkable, but the tendency to reinforce in the reader the habit of projecting his or her life as a meaningful story, a narrative that will very likely become a trap, leading to inevitable disappointment followed by the much-prized (and I suspect overrated) wisdom of maturity, is nigh on universal.
That stunning aside that the wisdom of maturity may be overrated gives one pause. It is hard to think what might be put in its place (the self’s erasure?); but Parks’s very willingness to entertain such speculation is part of what makes him stimulating to read. He is equally skeptical about nontraditional novels that feature what he calls “the chattering mind”:
Our twentieth-century author is simply not interested in a mind that does not suffer, usually in extended syntax, and not interested in dramatizing the traumatic event itself, only the blocked and suffering consciousness that broods on it afterward.
Given this critic’s overall dissatisfaction with contemporary fiction, it almost seems that nothing will satisfy him: damned if the character gains wisdom and maturity, damned if he keeps chattering away in blocked obsessiveness.
There is an implicit political critique beneath Parks’s objection to conventional narratives of struggle and defeat:
It would surely make sense, after all, in a world that gives the maximum importance to individual emancipation but at the same time is so complex and interconnected…, that we would develop narratives that flatter our individual “progressive” spirit but discourage us from acting on it.
Though he never spells out his own political hopes, he is clearly leery of the quietism that ensues from complacency or resignation.
The “universal” is another bugbear for Parks. He warns repeatedly against a new, bleached-out type of globalized fiction, which uses simplified syntax and requires little knowledge of historical context, local details, or regional speech—all of which makes it easier to translate instantly into English. Distressed by the degree to which the English-language market monopolizes the publishing world, he is equally irked by the fashion for world literature, and goes so far as to advise “a young English writer to be building up a knowledge of, say, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, Anthony Powell, Barbara Pym, along with the writers they drew on and the later generation they inspired, than to be mixing Chinua Achebe with Primo Levi.” The reasoning behind this rather cranky suggestion is that “you can’t have a strong style without a community of readers able to recognize and appreciate its departures from the common usages they know.” (That may very well be, but I think I’ll take my chances and continue to read Gogol, Achebe, and Levi.)
The Nobel Prize’s requirement that the author’s work exhibit “an idealistic tendency” also irritates him, as it breeds another kind of global conformity, one that elevates humanitarian values of peace and brotherhood above artful prose. Parks, an Englishman living in Italy, is situated to observe close hand the currents and fads of internationalized literature. He notes that when a new book is touted for its noble themes, reviewers are usually missing the point:
After a while it may even seem as if those elements that raised the book to its special international status are quite incidental to its real performance, almost an alibi that allowed the work to circulate in a politically correct environment. This was certainly my experience a couple of years ago when I started rereading Thomas Hardy; there is so much more in the texture of his writing, the liveliness of his dialogue playing off against the absorption in landscape, than in any of the famed discussions of fate and destiny.
A reader can welcome his coming around to Hardy for the texture of his sentences, and overlooking momentarily his pessimism.
The three books under review, despite their overriding similarities, differ in many respects. The Novel: A Survival Skill comes the closest to putting forward a sustained cohesive argument. Perhaps because I read it first, it was my favorite. It must be said that there is an inordinate amount of overlap in these books: the same handful of authorial examples (Joyce, Dickens, Hardy, Lawrence, Beckett, Dostoevsky, Chekhov), the same observations, often the same wording for long stretches. Considering the fact that, by his own admission, he has written more than a hundred pieces for this publication and the London Review of Books, it’s surprising that Parks chose to repeat so much material in the three collections. Then again, he seems to have been infused by a missionary zeal to get the word out on his current literary outlook.
Any one of these books, read singly, will come across as lively and invigorating; no one (besides a reviewer) is obliged to digest all three. Life and Work, when you get past the initial repetitions, offers a generous selection of Parks’s reviews of contemporary fiction: here you can find out his (generally positive, balanced) evaluations of Geoff Dyer, Colm Tóibín, Peter Stamm, Julian Barnes (“exuberantly spoilsport”), J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth, and Dave Eggers. A sly put-down of Haruki Murakami concludes: “In the end this is the story of a woefully prolonged adolescence. There is talk of the Nobel.” Taking up the latest work of any author he has agreed to review, Parks does his homework: on the hunt for patterns over the course of a literary career, he invariably finds them.
Where I’m Reading From originated as a set of blog posts for this publication’s web edition. As such, it demonstrates just how polished a prose style you can get away with and still have it function effectively as a blog. In these brief essays, Parks seems relaxed and a little less formal, trying his hand at anything that occurs to him, with an exhilarating sense of freedom. In the end, his ideas are a mixed bag, some astute, some far-fetched; but his prose never disappoints. To encounter this author’s literary criticism in any format is to find a singularly sharp adjudicator and a consummate practitioner of good writing.
See “Fascinating, Fearless, and Distinctly Odd,” The New York Review, January 9, 2014. ↩