If you’ve ever heard that literary skill is synonymous with a good memory, you’ve likely bemoaned your own forgetfulness, especially when it comes to important things. Tim Parks felt the same way, until he read a new book on forgetting, which led him to wonder how much knowledge we can retain. In The New York Review of Books, he tackles the paradox of the reader’s memory. You could also read our own Mark O’Connell’s review of Parks’s book Italian Ways.
It’s an age-old question for writers and thinkers: how do you quiet the noise of your thoughts? In Aeon Magazine, Tim Parks wonders if it’s even possible to silence internal monologues — and, if it is, whether that silence means losing sight of our identities. (Related: our own Mark O’Connell reviewed Parks’s latest book.)
Tim Parks investigates the idea of “writing to death” in the cases of Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Anton Chekhov, Charles Dickens and William Faulkner. “So many of the writers I have looked at seem permanently torn between irreconcilable positions,” Parks writes. “Eventually, the dilemma driving the work either leads to death, or is neutralized in a way that prolongs life but dulls the writing” (Bonus: Our own Mark O’Connell just reviewed Parks’s latest book, Italian Ways.)
If you didn’t know much about Tim Parks, and you just briefly picked up Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo as you happened to be passing by the Travel Writing display table at your local bookseller, you might be inclined to think of it as exactly the kind of book it isn’t. The cozy-sounding title and the jacket design — with its fetching pasturescapes, its hazily panoramic Florence skylines — might lead you to think of it as one of those harmlessly middlebrow lifestyle memoirs that tend to get written about places like Tuscany and Provence. But that, as I say, is exactly the kind of book Italian Ways isn’t. It is a book about traveling by train in Italy, but it’s not that kind of book about traveling by train in Italy.
Parks is English, but has lived in Italy for half his life. This doesn’t make him half Italian, of course, but it does make this something that isn’t quite travel writing; it is, in a sense, travel writing about that most familiar and confounding of places: home. And it’s the extent to which he’s never fully at home in the place where his life has mostly happened that makes Italian Ways such an interesting book. (There’s a running joke in Parks’s aggrieved mystification at the ability of all Italians to discern his Englishness before he even opens his mouth.)
As I read, I kept thinking about those mildly idiosyncratic areas of experience in a lot of peoples’ lives about which they’re inclined to say they could write a book. (“Seriously, I’m going to write a book some day about all the awkward first dates I’ve been on.” Or: “I could write a book about all the random situations I had to deal with when I worked in that video store.”) Italian Ways seems like a book that might have its roots in that sort of idle notion. Parks lives in Verona, but teaches at a university in Milan, and so, like a lot of Italians, he spends a great deal of time on trains, and has therefore had frequent occasion to reflect upon the oddities, pleasures, and torments that arise out of a daily interaction with Trenitalia, Italy’s state-owned railway operator.
Much of the book is given over to minute consideration of the byzantine inefficiencies of the ticketing system, and to the various sorts of tension that can arise between passengers and officials. As the pages mounted, I found myself being increasingly struck by Parks’s ability to relate multiple versions of the same basic situation without it ever becoming boring. There are numerous scenes of conflict here between ticket-checkers and passengers — including Parks himself — who have the wrong kind of ticket, or have purchased the right ticket in the wrong way, or have no ticket at all. He is, as he puts it, “fascinated by all the things that can go wrong between ticket bearer and ticket inspector, a relationship that has come to take on almost a metaphysical significance for me.” You’d imagine that a little of this sort of thing would go a long way; but actually, in Parks’s hands, a lot of it goes even further. Part of this has to do with the considerable comic self-possession of his prose, but mainly it’s because he’s using a seemingly very narrow scope of experience — the vicissitudes of the Italian railway commute — as an aperture through which to view an entire culture. (In this sense, it’s a bit like a macro-level version of the idea that you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes, except that it turns out not to be total horseshit.)
Reading it is in many ways a claustrophobic experience, in that we are rarely allowed to see the country outside of the stations and carriages; but what gradually becomes apparent is the extent to which Italian culture — or Parks’s version of it, at any rate — is exactly what goes on in these stations and carriages. At one point, he tells a group of Italians at a dinner he’s been invited to that he’s writing a book about the railways. They’re uniformly dubious about the notion of anyone wanting to read, let alone write, a book on such a restrictive and unpromising topic. It’s not really a travel book, he tells them, and “not really a book about trains as such.” This qualification only serves to deepen their bafflement, and so he tries to clarify why it is he wants to write about trains:
“Well, I’m of the opinion that a culture, a system of” — I hesitated – “communication, if you like” — they were looking at me with the wry skepticism with which one does look at foreign professors — “manifests itself entirely in anything the people of that culture do. Right?”
They smiled indulgently. I was their guest after all.
“Like this routine Sunday dinner of yours, every week, the same friends on the warm terrace, the things you prepare, the way it’s served, the things you talk about, even the way you invite and tolerate a foreign professore like me. All Italy could be teased out from this if we examined it carefully, the clothes you are wearing, the way you’ve laid the table, the pleasure taken cooking, the wineglasses.”
It’s this teasing out of a whole culture through the narrowest of apertures that makes Italian Ways something much more than a book about trains (despite the almost obsessive degree to which it is, precisely, a book about trains).
About halfway through the book, there’s an elaborate reconstruction of a particularly heated run-in between the author and a capotreno (ticket inspector) on the Verona–Milan line. (“I hesitate to tell the tale,” he writes, “since I come off rather badly, and perhaps the reader feels he has had his fill of capotreni.” This reader was not having such feelings.) In early 2012, Trenitalia had just introduced online ticket purchases for regional trains, a development which had delighted Parks because it meant that he would no longer have to deal with the long lines and temperamental ticket machines that had been such a feature of his 30 years in Italy. For his maiden voyage under this new dispensation, he saves on his laptop the PDF ticket sent to him by Trenitalia, and writes down the booking reference number to give to the capotreno. When the time comes for the inspection, however, the capotreno is having none of it: the ticket needs to be printed for it to count as a ticket. The situation that ensues, enthusiastically observed by every other passenger in the carriage, is as tense as it is funny, and impressively subtle for what in the hands of a less perceptive writer could very easily have been a dull rant about bureaucratic ineptitude.
Parks boots up his laptop in order to display the PDF, and then the capotreno insists on walking him through each of the terms and conditions outlined on the bottom of the e-ticket until finally, his lips twisted “in the triumphant smile of bureaucratic Italy celebrating another victory”, they get to the final regulation, which proves him correct. A furious Parks eventually announces that, rather than pay the €50 fine, he will get off the train at the next stop. When his antagonist finally moves on, the college students seated around Parks erupt in a torrent of commiseration and anti-authoritarian solidarity. When the inspector decides to come back and defend himself, Parks loses his composure, and puts the inspector in his place in a crowd-pleasing way that makes him instantly ashamed of himself: “I’ve agreed to get off your train, right? Conversation over. Go inspect tickets. Isn’t that what they pay you for? […] We don’t want to talk to you. I’ve agreed to get off the train, now basta!” What’s interesting about the scene is the way in which Parks keeps shifting, in real-time, from the perspective of his own frustration to the imagined perspective of his antagonist, whom he carefully ensures emerges as the more sympathetic figure. “I had the feeling he was now seeing all of us as privileged,” he writes, “whereas he came from a more honest, older world where workers had worked long hours and voted Partitio Comunista Italiano and deserved protection from foreigners and electronic tickets.” To make a scene like this into a sort of cultural case study is a reckless gambit, but Parks pulls it off nicely:
There was something deeper: this whole culture of ambiguous rules, then heated argument about them without any clear-cut result, seems to serve the purpose of drawing you into a mind-set of vendetta and resentment that saps energy from every other area of life. You become a member of society insofar as you feel hard done by, embattled. Others oppose you, or rally around you, for the entertainment. Almost everyone has some enemy they would like to crush. They become obsessed. They speak constantly about bureaucratic issues […] To hang on in the train now, so that I could either boast before an appreciative audience that I had outwitted or faced down the inspector, or worse still so that I could plunge into a conflict that would engage my energies for months to come, would be to become more intensely and irretrievably Italian.
Parks sees Italian culture with the more or less detached clarity of the outsider, but has spent enough time living in the place to feel justified in critiquing it from within. This liminal stance gives the book an interesting frisson of internal conflict. He doesn’t want to become irretrievably Italian, but at the same time he’s comically resentful of the ways in which his Englishness remains an issue in his everyday dealings with his not-quite compatriots.
And despite all Parks’s entertaining kvetching about the excessive chattiness of fellow passengers and the gratuitous complexities of the ticketing system, Italian Ways is unmistakably an expression of love for his adopted country and its people. The close confinement of the train compartment becomes a metaphor for a society, in all the ways it does and does not work. “Sooner or later,” he writes, “in a compartment, you just have to acknowledge each other’s presence, it’s so blindingly obvious that you’re in a group, in the here and now, for the duration of this journey.” And that everyday proximity is the idea at the center of this lovely and clever book: the straightforward and endlessly complicated fact of being among people — in a carriage, in a conversation, in an argument, in a community.