I discovered Tim Parks's essays a few years ago. One of them was included as a sample chapter on the New York Times web page, and I remember reading it and thinking it was good. I checked out the entire essay collection from the library (I was pleased to discover another writer who loved Henry Green as much as I did) but wasn't captivated by it.
Over the years, for some reason, I kept going back and having the urge to read that essay again, and it started feeling better than just good. (Click on the link and read it; I have sent it to several friends who all liked it.) I checked out the entire collection recently and more and more of the essays started to come alive; they were vibrant and worthy of repeated reading like very little I had ever come across. I must just have been too young before. I've also read most of his essays in The New York Review of Books and think he might be the best literary critic currently working in English.
I decided to read more of his work and checked out Europa, which had been nominated for a Booker. I immediately noticed that Parks was reworking material from the essays: the entire novel was based off two earlier essays, Adultery and Europa. (As you can see, he certainly isn't hiding the connections.) The voice was also almost exactly the same as the one that Thomas Bernhard uses in his novels -- the same endless sentences, working over the narrator's obsessions with clause after clause. A sample:
"Be yourself, I remember her saying; as she was also capable of saying such things as honesty is the best policy and make love not war, and even, on our return that night from the hospital, despite a heavily bandaged jaw, that there was no point in crying over spilt milk, an expression which exists, remarkably enough, not only in English, but in Italian and French as well, and even, I believe, in Georg's German, and is equally ridiculous in all of these languages, since what would one ever cry over, I demanded of her then, if not spilt milk? I wanted to hit her again for saying that. For the stupidity of saying that. Would you cry over milk if it hadn't been spilt?"
Except maybe for "make love not war" (does anyone say that seriously?) there is not a false note in this passage, and there is a rarely a false note in the book. Huge pages of unbroken prose are handled with beautiful, musical control, just like in Bernhard. Once you start getting a feeling for the rhythm of the clauses, reading them is no problem. And the book is hilarious.
The basic plot is that some foreign lecturers in an Italian university are taking a bus to the European Parliament in Strasbourg to protest their treatment by the Italian government. The professors are mainly male, and a number of them are clearly hoping to sleep with some of the female students who have come along on the trip to show their support. Among the professors is a woman, unnamed for most of the book, who the narrator (Jerry) had an affair with and broke up his marriage for, only to discover that she did not take the relationship quite as seriously as he did.
She is on the bus, a few seats in front of him, and he obsessively goes over their relationship in his mind, while puncturing the pretensions of everything around him before turning (repeatedly) on himself. It is hard to remember another book that is quite so honest about how men think. I could quote and quote but the material usually can't be divorced from its context and also the sentences are damn long.
There are some problems; it is hard to end books that deal with obsessive states of mind, that pile things on top of each other, in any sort of satisfying manner. The development that does occur at the end of the book feels melodramatic, irrelevant almost. And there are some straw men -- a particularly lame example of a PC novel, for example -- that are material for the narrator's rants, and don't seem like worthy opponents.
These are small gripes, though. After reading this book, I went online to see why I hadn't heard more about Parks, and stumbled across David Gates's review in the New York Times. It is sheer idiocy. Gates seemed to be upset that Parks did not judge his narrator (who should be "slapped ...down," apparently, while narrating the book himself); basically, Gates argues, the man should be exposed as being in the wrong for saying all these disturbing things. In other words, make the book reassuring to the audience, so they don't bother trying to take any of the narrator's arguments seriously, and they are in fact deadly serious. It is aggravating to think how many readers Parks might have lost because of this dunce. But then I suppose maybe the reviewer is just doing his job: most people won't actually like this novel.
It is the few, however, that keep a book alive, and I think this one -- along with Parks's essays -- might actually last. They are rarely perfect, but they give off sparks of genuine greatness. I am reading my way through all of his books (there are several novels and books of essays, a volume of history, and two memoirs) and I think that he is something special.