Monday, 8 February 2021

Guest review by C J Driver: ITALIAN LIFE by Tim Parks


"I wondered, as I read on, often amused by the wit and sometimes horrified by the satire, just how Italian readers would react. Accurate depiction? Wild exaggeration?"

Jonty Driver
has kept himself busy in lockdown working with a local firm, Artwrite of Rye, to produce four booklets of his poems, some illustrated by himself, and a card, The Slave-Bell at Doornhoek, a poem and a painting. The booklets are: Image & Image, some old photographs & a dozen unrhymed sonnets; The Journey Back; The Chinese Poems, 1979-2020; and A Winter’s Day at Westonbirt & other poems. All are available from Artwrite. See more on Jonty's website.

Because I had enjoyed Tim Parks’s Italian Neighbours (1992) and An Italian Education (1996), when I saw Italian Life advertised I wanted to read that too. I am under a marital embargo to buy no more books unless I get rid of a similar number to the Amnesty bookshop, so I had to read it on my wife’s Kindle. I found the book so entertaining, sometimes savagely satirical, often wise, I read it in only a couple of days; but of course now I can’t rely on my usual habit of paging back to find names and stunning quotations. I’ve never been able to rely too much on memory and have needed slips of paper posted at the relevant pages. There is I know some way of highlighting passages when one reads a Kindle, but every time I have tried that I’ve lost my place.

Italian Life is, I think, best described as a novel, and one might narrow that definition down to a “campus novel”, though I suspect it could well come into that increasingly common category, a memoir purporting to be a novel. Tim Parks obviously knows about Italian universities, as he taught at one in Milan from 1993-2019. One of the two central characters is called James, a middle-aged English expatriate teaching in a northern Italian university; the other is Valeria, a post-graduate working on a doctoral thesis. Around them are family and friends, and above them some monsters, especially the Vice Chancellor of the university, Rector Ottone, and his sycophantic side-kick, Professoressa Modesto.

The book is about much more than campus politics: the discussions of Italian clannishness, which might be called just as easily tribalism, the contrast of north and south, the cross-referencing to classics of Italian literature, the details of Italian food and drink, the details of family loyalties and obligations, all more than justify the title: this is genuinely Italian LIFE, not just Italian higher education. I wondered, as I read on, often amused by the wit and sometimes horrified by the satire, just how Italian readers would react. Accurate depiction? Wild exaggeration?

What I hadn’t realised, until I did a bit more research on Tim Parks’ literary career, was just how much he had written other than the three books mentioned here. My next step is going to be to read more by him. I don’t think I’ll bother with the books about football; I’ve always preferred the eccentric bounce of the rugby ball to the predictable flight of the soccer ball - but the book about Italian railways looks interesting, and then there are novels galore. The question is: can I somehow get around the wife’s embargo without giving away too many of the books I want to keep?

Italian Life is published by Harvill Secker.


  1. You really do need to read about 'Italian railways' and also 'A season with Verona'. They may nominally be about trains and football but in reality those subjects are but 2 more windows into the Italian soul. Have you considered 'hiring' copies to cope with the purchasing embargo ? ;-)

  2. I can't think of anyone who's written better about Italy than Parks.