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The Beast He Was

Tim Parks: ‘Kapo’, 26 May 2022

Kapo 
by Aleksandar Tišma, translated by Richard Williams.
NYRB, 306 pp., £14.99, August 2021, 978 1 68137 439 0
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... Miroslav​ Blam appreciates his apartment because it’s ‘in the centre of things, yet remains a hideaway’. A mansard at the top of his town’s most prominent building, on the edge of Main Square, it presents several lines of defence. There is a watchful janitor, no lift, many stairs to climb, ‘meddlesome people’ to pass. Even if you find the apartment, you might not find Blam: he may have slipped out along the narrow walkway that crosses the roof, above ‘the abyss’ of Main Square ...

The Truth about Consuela

Tim Parks: Death and Philip Roth, 4 November 2010

Nemesis 
by Philip Roth.
Cape, 280 pp., £16.99, October 2010, 978 0 224 08953 1
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... In the 1980s I translated some of the late novels and stories of Alberto Moravia, elderly but still prolific. These books, which abandoned observation of society for concerns with ageing and sex, did not get a good press and have since disappeared from the shelves, while Moravia’s earlier work will be a part of Italian education for decades to come ...

Talking Corpses

Tim Parks: ‘Gomorrah’, 4 December 2008

Gomorrah: Italy’s Other Mafia 
by Roberto Saviano, translated by Virginia Jewiss.
Pan, 424 pp., £8.99, October 2008, 978 0 330 45099 7
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Gomorrah 
directed by Matteo Garrone.
October 2008
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... When Lot lived in Sodom and Gomorrah,’ Peter wrote in his Second Epistle, ‘he was oppressed and tormented day after day by their lawless deeds.’ Having grown up in Naples, Roberto Saviano is similarly tormented and oppressed. Gomorrah is his account of the lawless deeds of the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia. Conveniently assonant as the two names may be, the crimes of Naples are not those we associate with the Cities of the Plain, and Saviano is not the righteous man who withdraws when God steps in to incinerate the sinful townsfolk ...

Have you seen my hand?

Tim Parks: Rodari’s Toys, 18 March 2021

Telephone Tales 
by Gianni Rodari, translated by Antony Shugaar.
Enchanted Lion, $27.95, September 2020, 978 1 59270 284 8
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... Look both ways when you cross the street,’ Giovanni’s mother tells him when he goes out. He’s a careless boy, easily distracted, and the reader is primed. In the street, the boy is ‘so pleased with how careful he’s being that he starts hopping along like a sparrow’. A polite gentleman warns him that this is carelessness indeed: ‘You see? You’ve already lost a hand ...

Vaporous Shapes

Tim Parks: Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Whereabouts’, 1 July 2021

Whereabouts 
by Jhumpa Lahiri.
Bloomsbury, 176 pp., £14.99, May, 978 1 5266 2995 1
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... Jhumpa Lahiri​ made her name with two collections of stories – Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008) – in which a range of characters negotiate the kinds of tension that Lahiri herself may have experienced growing up in New England as the daughter of Bengali immigrants. Families are torn between different cultures and languages, children divide their loyalties between Eastern parents and Western partners ...

A Venetian Poltroon

Tim Parks: Gentlemanly Bullets, 6 January 2022

Honour and the Sword: The Culture of Duelling 
by Joseph Farrell.
Signal, 327 pp., £20, June, 978 1 909930 94 0
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... Between​ the third and fifth centuries of the Christian era the major world religions ceased to sacrifice animals to appease their gods. For reasons that remain unclear, a practice that had been central to devotional behaviour for thousands of years came to appear grotesque. Joseph Farrell observes that the practice of duelling is now similarly ‘uniformly judged as outlandish and incomprehensible’, its ‘canons and creeds … as beyond recall as the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians ...

Rebel States

Tim Parks: Surrender by Gondola, 1 December 2005

The Siege of Venice 
by Jonathan Keates.
Chatto, 495 pp., £20, September 2005, 0 7011 6637 1
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... In the 13th century, Florence banned its noble families from holding public office and instituted a republic. The names of a few hundred select citizens were placed in leather bags and every two months a new government was drawn by lot. In more conservative Venice, a group of nobles simply elected one of their number doge for life. There was no question of hereditary succession ...

Che pasticcio!

Tim Parks: Carlo Emilio Gadda, 20 September 2007

That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana 
by Carlo Emilio Gadda, translated by William Weaver.
NYRB, 388 pp., £8.99, February 2007, 978 1 59017 222 3
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... Despite his eighty years (1893-1973) and many publications, an air of incompletion lingers about the work of Carlo Emilio Gadda. His most popular novel, That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, is an unfinished murder story. His best work, Acquainted with Grief, is again unfinished and again leaves us with an unsolved crime (in this case we are not even sure whether the victim will die or not ...

Bloody Glamour

Tim Parks: Giuseppe Mazzini, 30 April 2009

Giuseppe Mazzini and the Globalisation of Democratic Nationalism 1830-1920 
edited by C.A. Bayly and Eugenio Biagini.
Oxford, 419 pp., £45, September 2008, 978 0 19 726431 7
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... On 22 February 1854, James Buchanan, then the American ambassador in London but soon to be president of the US, celebrated George Washington’s birthday with a dinner to which Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi were invited. At Mazzini’s request other leading revolutionaries were present: Kossuth (Hungary), Worcell (Poland), Ruge (Germany), Herzen (Russia) and Ledru-Rollin (France ...

Fresh, Generous, Colourful, Idyllic

Tim Parks: ‘Graziella’, 21 February 2019

Graziella 
by Alphonse de Lamartine, translated by Raymond MacKenzie.
Minnesota, 168 pp., £12.99, November 2018, 978 1 5179 0247 6
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... Ecstasy​ and chastity. In Alphonse de Lamartine’s two most famous novels, a young man and woman seem to feel for each other what we usually think of as romantic love, but never become lovers, don’t kiss and hardly touch. The ostensible reasons for this are social and moral. In Graziella, the class difference between the young French aristocrat and the Neapolitan fisherman’s daughter makes marriage unimaginable to both of them ...

Full of Words

Tim Parks: ‘Arturo’s Island’, 15 August 2019

Arturo’s Island 
by Elsa Morante, translated by Ann Goldstein.
Pushkin, 370 pp., £9.99, May 2019, 978 1 78227 495 7
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... Given​ the current enthusiasm for the practice of literary translation, the frequent claims that this or that English version captures or even surpasses the original, one might suppose that there is little point in reading a foreign novel in the original language. Yet some literary styles remain elusive in translation. The characters in Elsa Morante’s masterpiece, Arturo’s Island, are bewitched and bewitching, in thrall to someone, or to some idea, and, simultaneously, enthralling to someone else ...

My Hermit’s Life

Tim Parks: Chateaubriand, 27 September 2018

Memoirs from beyond the Grave 1768-1800 
by François-René de Chateaubriand, translated by Alex Andriesse.
NYRB, 512 pp., £12.99, January 2018, 978 1 68137 129 0
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... The Lord giveth​ and the Lord taketh away. Likewise François-René de Chateaubriand. Again and again, in this first volume of Memoirs from beyond the Grave, a character is introduced only for their death to be immediately announced. ‘President Le Pelletier de Rosambo, who later died with such courage, was, when I arrived in Paris, a model of frivolity ...

Quite a Show

Tim Parks: Georges Simenon, 9 October 2014

A Man’s Head 
by Georges Simenon, translated by David Coward.
Penguin, 169 pp., £6.99, July 2014, 978 0 14 139351 3
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A Crime in Holland 
by Georges Simenon, translated by Siân Reynolds.
Penguin, 160 pp., £6.99, May 2014, 978 0 14 139349 0
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... In​ 1974, aged 71, having announced the end of a writing career that had produced nearly two hundred novels, and having retreated from a mansion with 11 servants to a small house in Lausanne where he lived with his second wife’s ex-maid, Georges Simenon dictated his Letter to My Mother, Henriette Simenon née Brüll, who had died four years earlier ...

Beware Remembrance Sunday

Tim Parks: Graham Swift, 2 June 2011

Wish You Were Here 
by Graham Swift.
Picador, 353 pp., £18.99, June 2011, 978 0 330 53583 0
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... Perhaps the finest piece of storytelling in this novel has to do with the death of a dog. Three characters are involved: Michael Luxton, a taciturn dairy farmer; Jack, his elder son, aged 26; and Tom, his much younger son, approaching his 18th birthday. The old sick dog, named Luke, was originally just a farm dog, then for many years Jack’s close companion, but now more recently Tom’s ...

In Some Sense True

Tim Parks: Coetzee, 21 January 2016

The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy 
by J.M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz.
Harvill Secker, 198 pp., £16.99, May 2015, 978 1 84655 888 7
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J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time 
by David Attwell.
Oxford, 272 pp., £19.99, September 2015, 978 0 19 874633 1
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... Whenever​ we are in the company of J.M. Coetzee, whether it be an interview, a novel, a memoir or an essay, we are inexorably drawn into the realm of the ethical. We must judge and be judged, or at least strive to do the one and brace ourselves for the other. Hence a book titled The Good Story will not offer an analysis of the qualities that make for a satisfying reading experience, but investigate the consequences of storytelling in terms, frankly, of good and evil ...

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