Tim Parks is the English-born author of award-winning novels and nonfiction. He has translated the works of Italy’s most prominent writers into English, including a new version of that quintessential Italian manual on acquiring and maintaining political power, Machiavelli’s The Prince. His essays liven up the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker.
I caught up with Parks in Milan’s bohémien canal zone, the Navigli. A tan and fit 60-year-old, in a striped T-shirt and a straw hat, he rolled up on his bike and we set off to find a comfortable bar. Over cold beers we discussed writing, Italy, and the irrepressible Morris Duckworth, the protagonist of Park’s new novel, Painting Death, the third in the Duckworth Trilogy.
The trilogy spans some 30 years of Duckworth’s and the author’s lives and follows Duckworth from his humble beginnings as a teacher of English as a foreign language in the provincial Italian city of Verona, through financial success and on to a manic quest for social recognition. His rise is, of course, accompanied by an ability to dispatch anyone standing in his way.
Parks, 60, started writing when he was at Harvard. “I was 22 or 23 and put together about seven novels in the next five or six years,” he says. “And they were all rejected.” During this time, Parks returned to the family home to visit his dying father. “I had reached the top of the stairs as I was coming up to see him, and I heard the doctor ask him what his children were doing these days. He said what the older ones were doing. I hovered outside the door and heard my father say, ‘Tim’s trying to write novels.’ ‘You shouldn’t worry,’ said the doctor. ‘He’ll get over that: he’s not stupid.’”
One of the manuscripts languishing in Parks’s stack of unpublished works was an autobiographical novel about his family’s involvement with the Charismatic movement. “It was about exorcisms in the family basically,” says Parks. “I sent it to more than 20 publishers, all of whom rejected it. At a certain point—in desperation—I gave it to my ex-tutor at Cambridge. I never gave books to anybody in that period. No one had read it but me, and the people who had were turning it down. And I said to him: look at it and tell me if this stuff’s awful, because I need to know if it’s time to stop.”
The tutor liked the book, Tongue of Flames, and sent it to a competition for unpublished fiction. “It didn’t win,” says Parks. “But it did find a publisher, and it started winning various other prizes. That’s how I got started. And then one of the other books got published.” This second book was Cara Massimina (1990), the first novel to feature Morris Duckworth. “Duckworth really came out of that unpublished period,” Parks says. “I had come to Italy in 1981 not really with Italy in mind. My project was to become hugely famous.” He laughs, then edits himself. “My project was to become a serious writer. I turned down a lot of promising openings in London, I suppose. I turned down a Ph.D. at Harvard. I was eager to succeed as a writer because there were loads of people telling me what a terrible mistake I’d made. So, Duckworth came out of that period of frustration and the desire to turn that negativity into something amusing, something funny. By objectifying, I was able to escape becoming too negative myself. A lot of the people and events in the book were based on things I knew.”
The second book, Mimi’s Ghost, came out five years later. It continues Duckworth’s adventures in Verona. He is now married to a lascivious wife, has two children, and is running his wife’s family wine company, all the while striving to be accepted by the Veronese. In Painting Death, the third to feature Duckworth, which Arcade is publishing in October, Duckworth has been married for 20 years to his second wife and has expanded the family business to include real estate and construction dealings. But, as always, Duckworth wants more: he wants respect and he will do anything to get it.
It was a British literary critic, Sir Christopher Ricks, who encouraged Parks to bring Duckworth back after a two-decade hiatus. “To my amazement he really loved these books,” says Parks. “I realized if I were to go back to Duckworth he would have to be seriously grown up and have become part of the Veronese establishment.” says Parks. Indeed, Duckworth’s rising fortune and his seeming acceptance by the Veronese mirror Parks’s own. “It was fun to open Painting Death with Duckworth receiving honorary citizenship of Verona. Like him, I am an honorary citizen of Verona. I am proud of that. I did do my time there: ’81 through 2011.”
Parks's additional experience of living in Verona also led to a deeper understanding of the Italians themselves. “As you go on in Painting Death you realize that Italy is not just a backdrop. Duckworth’s character has meshed with Italy in a particularly negative way. Duckworth thinks he is taking the Italians for a ride, but actually you discover that the Italians have taken Duckworth for a ride and that Duckworth is being used in all kinds of ways that he never understood.” Not surprisingly, Duckworth runs into his doppelgänger, “that scribbler Parkes,” in Painting Death.
“It was time that Park(e)s himself surfaced in these books,” says Parks. “And in fact later on in the book Duckworth actually has a brief email correspondence with Parkes. Duckworth, of course, considers himself far superior.” Parks explores the relationship between an author and his protagonists in his recently published The Novel: A Survival Skill (Oxford Univ., 2015). When its publishers suggested he include a chapter about himself, he chose to write about the Duckworth trilogy, titling the chapter “Good Boy, Bad Boy.”
Parks says that “It is about the way authors and also ordinary people essentially structure their personality around one central value polarity. That could be fear or courage, or it could be good or evil, or belonging and not belonging, or winning/losing. In any family, when other people are talked about, this will be done using certain criteria. In our family it was obviously good or evil.”
As noted, Park’s father, an Anglican minister, at times explored more extreme religious practices, dragging the family along with him.“Duckworth has to feel he is good, but to enjoy life he has to do things that are bad, and this creates huge problems for him. He only really enjoys life when he transgresses, but he has to present those transgressions to himself as being good,” says Parks. “I felt I knew Duckworth from day one. It was sort of an ugly manifestation of a gene that fortunately isn’t positive in me but is in him.” In the books, Parks explains, “There is a sort of rendering grotesque of potential elements in yourself, in the hope that they can be lopped off and made fun of. The thing is to have fun without being self-indulgent, to keep the fun that you’re having and that the reader is having as well.”
Mad, scheming Morris Duckworth continues to offer the reader his outrageously self-centered view of the world. Just the fun Parks hoped for.
Patricia Guy is a freelance writer living in Verona, Italy, where she writes about wine, food, and Italian culture.