A prolific novelist, memoirist, literary critic, and translator investigates “Italy’s collective imagination.”
British expat Parks (Life and Work: Writers, Readers, and the Conversations Between Them, 2016, etc.), a resident of Italy for the last 35 years, reflects on the nation’s literature and history in this gathering of insightful essays and reviews. All previously published, the pieces focus on writers (Giacomo Leopardi, Eugenio Montale, Ignazio Silone, and Natalia Ginzburg), a few artists (the modernist divisionists and Mario Sironi, championed by the fascists), and three monumental political figures: revolutionaries Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi and dictator Benito Mussolini. Parks aims “to pin down what it is that makes Italian life so characteristically charming and frustrating—so rich on the one hand yet irretrievably stalled on the other.” Italian identity, he concludes, comes from a sense of belonging to groups such as family, friends, region, church, and political party. He often takes issue, therefore, with biographers who fail “to draw on the disciplines of psychology and anthropology” to examine the personal and historical contexts of their subject’s life. He rescues Garibaldi, Italy’s heroic unifier, from a biographer who refuses to “give an account of the moments in battle when Garibaldi’s decisions did affect the course of history” and “has nothing to say about the passions that moved him.” In an astute preface to an edition of The Prince, Parks portrays Machiavelli as “a worldly man and compulsive womanizer” who was imprisoned and tortured, charged with conspiracy. Forced into isolation, he became “fascinated by the way certain personality traits can mesh positively or negatively with certain sets of historical circumstances.” That is a fascination of Parks’, as well, informing his review of several biographies of Mussolini, all of which, in his estimation, fail to offer “a serious psychological study of this unusual mind.” Several pieces—on Sironi, Moravia, and Curzio Malaparte, for example—provocatively probe the connection of artists and writers to fascism.
The author’s deep familiarity with Italian culture informs these intelligent, perceptive essays.