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HELL AND BACK by Tim Parks


Reflections on Writers and Writing from Dante to Rushdie

by Tim Parks

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 1-55970-610-4
Publisher: Arcade

A lively collection of 19 generally stimulating book reviews and literary pieces, most of which appeared in the New York Review of Books, by the prolific British novelist (Destiny, 2000, etc.), memoirist (An Italian Education, 1995, etc.), and essayist (Adultery and Other Diversions, 1999, etc.)

Parks, who lives and teaches in Verona, displays his credentials as a knowledgeable Italophile in the rich title essay, a review of Robert Hollander’s new translation of Dante’s Inferno that expertly analyzes the great poem’s virtuosic blending of history, theology, and literary artifice and offers a crisp comparative survey of earlier English versions. He also considers a biography of the 19th-century poet, idler, and hypochondriac Leopardi (“Surviving Giacomo”); Sicilian Giovanni Verga’s harshly naturalistic tales (“A Chorus of Cruelty”); the unconventional cultural nexus that embraced such great modernists as James Joyce, Italo Svevo, and poet Umberto Saba (“Literary Trieste”); and, in the most probing of these essays, the life of futurist painter Mario Sironi (“Fascist Work”). The intricacies and pitfalls of literary translation (another skill Parks has mastered) are a frequent subtopic and take center stage in “Different Worlds,” which speculates intriguingly on the truism “that the same text can be so radically different in two different languages.” Elsewhere, Parks analyzes such modern classics as Henry Green’s under-appreciated novel Party Going (with its “marvelous fizz of shenanigans,” Dino Buzzati’s eerie allegory, The Tartar Steppe, and Jorge Luis Borges’s enchantingly fluid and learned nonfiction essays. Incisive reviews of current fiction (including Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo, and José Saramago’s Blindness) are balanced by such pleasant surprises as his thoughtful review of Jay Neugeboren’s moving book about his brother’s schizophrenia (“In the Locked Ward”) and a pungent explication of British anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s theory of “schismogenesis,” which attempts to explain “strong personality differentiation within an overall group ethos.”

Food for thought and argument, invitations to widen the scope of one’s own reading. A fine addition to Parks’s rapidly growing oeuvre.