Category Archives: Parks Tim

Home Thoughts: Tim Parks

“And the people,” he went on, “who crave company are always moving about to get it, or to get a more satisfying version of it, while the people who like to be left alone are always moving about to escape it. It all keeps society in motion and generates a sort of dynamic tension.”

In Home Thoughts from Tim Parks, Julia, a 33-year old Londoner, dumps her job and her married lover for a new life teaching English in Italy. Through a series of letters from various characters, an image of Julia’s life emerges. As she settles into the somewhat miserable, incestuous British ex-pat community, dramas erupt including domestic squabbles, infidelities and backstabbing manoeuvres from various members of the British faculty as they claw to keep their jobs. 

Home thoughts

So a fresh start for Julia who thought her life was stale, but once in Italy, things almost immediately start to go wrong. Her secure job in London has been exchanged for an position that comes with a rapidly approaching expiration date. Her best friend Dinah is exchanged for the militant feminist, highly organized (read exhausting) Flossy who puts herself and Julia on diets with weekly weigh-ins. And then not long after Julia arrives, she becomes involved with Italo-Canadian Sandro–a “smary” sly, opportunistic, Lothario who, although he specializes in poaching married women, is perfectly willing to sleep his way to the top. 

The gym walls were all mirrors so that the chrome of weights and work-out machines seemed to stretch away in all directions. Likewise the bodies of the women doing their exercises. For although the exercise class was open to all, there was a tendency for the men to stay on the weights and leave the aerobic jumping about to the women. Thus, heaving in front of his mirror (mens sana in corpore sano), Sandro could watch not only the attractive flexing of his own muscles, but also the scissoring open and closed of fifteen pairs of legs

Initially, Julia doesn’t realise that “it was herself she had wanted to leave in leaving England.”

She had wanted a metamorphosis. Yet everybody back home had appeared rather to have liked that old caterpillar. […] And so when she had wanted the serial to end, to change her part, they had all protested.

Yet isn’t there a part of Julia that is dismayed when she realises that everyone in England is surviving, possibly even thriving, without her?  Julia writes to her friend, Dinah, brother, and her mother who “seems to be going backwards in time and is now cruising her way through an especially prudish patch of the 1880s.” While Julia ‘let’s go’ of certain aspects of her life in England, easily abandoning her ailing mother, for example, she obsesses on her past with married lover Lenny. She writes long, reproachful letters to Lenny–the man she supposedly left England to avoid. Some of the funniest letters are written by an outraged and disgusted Flossy as she sees women, “slave[s] to traditional conditioning,” continually fall into bed with worthless men. Somehow or another hyper-responsible Flossy always gets the raw end of the deal–from being stuck watching small children while women meets lovers, listening to the plumber lecture her about condoms (used by others) that have plugged up the toilet, to being propositioned by men when their other, more attractive options, run off. 

There’s a host of other characters here–mostly the shallow, self-obsessed British ex-pat community which is composed of men who’ve abandoned England and their first wives (and families) to start afresh in Italy. So with all of our characters, who see the world through the lens of their own problems, the issues they hoped to leave behind in England simply follow them. Alan, Flossy’s brother, who seems to be waiting for some cosmic event to release him from the doldrums, acknowledges he  “lost his way in life,” and writes in his notebook:

My wife: sometimes it’s as though I’d only met her yesterday and were trying to decide whether I really wanted to see her again. 

Minor academics who ostracize themselves abroad, for whatever reason: adventure, travel, a change of pace, to escape something at home, find that it’s not so easy to return, and miserable, depressed Alan is the epitome of this:

What was he doing in Italy in a dead-end job? And what was worse with a time limit attached that would cut him off at precisely the age he became more or less unemployable in the UK? He’d come out here to write (it was the ease of the job that had fooled him) and all they’d done instead was have children.

He had allowed his energies to be dissipated. He had lost his way in life. Friends back home were leaping up the career ladder and he was teaching lousy students where not to put adverbs, getting no useful experience and merely filling wastebins with this trash that no word processor would make saleable. 

The novel isn’t entirely composed of letters. I’d say it’s about 50-50 letters and narrative, and most of the vicious humour is found in the trainwreck of these characters’ lives–in the disasters that occur in between letters and the firm resolves which are followed by awful behaviour. I was waiting for the Italians to toss this lot out of the country. On a final note, we don’t all find the same things funny, and there’s one thing that occurs in the novel that’s in bad taste. But apart from that I liked reading about the messy lives of these Britons who move to Italy only to find that their problems have moved right along with them. 

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Loving Roger by Tim Parks

One of the reasons I began a book blog was to connect with other readers and get some fresh ideas. This recently paid off bigtime.

I was over at A Common Reader and read Tom’s review of a book by Tim Parks. I wasn’t interested in the book being reviewed, but I caught the author’s name, went to his website and liked what I saw. Then Max at Pechorin’s Journal mentioned that he’d read a few Parks novels and recommended a couple of titles. That takes me to Loving Roger, a nasty little novel built around the relationship between a working class girl and her middle-class boyfriend, Roger.

Loving Roger begins with an act of violence, and then the story tracks back over the events that led up to that point. The story is narrated by Anna, a pleasant, affable young woman who works as a typist in a London firm known as PP. The typical “office politics” are afoot: married boss and office Lothario, Mr G  looks on his female employees as part of a potential-mistress pool. He’s always engaged in an affair with one of the female employees much to the despair of Mr Buckley. Buckley worries about such things as professionalism and the vengeance of former typists-cum-personal assistants. The affairs provide the office with a great deal of gossip as they inevitably end badly. Here’s Anna in her matter-of-fact manner discussing Mr G up to his usual ways:

He liked to be generous and would tell Nadia, the girl on reception, to pop across the road for coffee and Danish pastries, so the switchboard would be blocked for five minutes and everybody upstairs would be nodding and winking and saying, oh no, Mr G was entertaining one of the secretaries again, and Mr Buckley would put on his weary professional’s look and grimace over the order-book. But the point was, of course, that Mr G couldn’t have his affairs outside the office because he spent his whole life in the company, and anyway, that was half the excitement of working for him. Everybody seemed to understand that perfectly, excepting Mr Buckley.

Anna is in a boring relationship with a young man who seems to be her parents’ pick of a future son-in-law when the arrival of new employee Roger radically changes Anna’s life. Roger, who’s a strikingly good-looking man, strikes up a relationship with wallflower Anna, and she begins to blossom from his attention. Even though it’s apparent that there’s something wrong with the relationship, Anna falls in love with Roger.

To Anna, a woman without complexities, life is simple, but the narcissistic, self-absorbed Roger, a would-be playwright who’s desperate to escape his middle-class background, constantly analyzes himself. He’s primarily an actor and the author of his own pathetic melodrama. These two characters are complete opposites, and their disastrous relationship is based on wild inequities. The peculiar thing is that Roger fuels these inequities in a sick-Of-Human-Bondage way.

Anna wants very little out of life, but Roger who’s always looking for drama and ‘meaning’ in his upwardly mobile life decides this means she’s stupid. In one great scene, Mr G asks Anna ‘what’s she living for’ and she unequivocably replies:

“But then I don’t see why you should have to know really–what you’re living for, I mean”–

The novel makes it clear that work has a way of fostering relationships that wouldn’t exist otherwise, and the book is at its funniest when depicting these forced relationships between different types and different statuses. It’s unfortunate that Roger suffers from such a superiority complex, and no doubt that’s why he feels, at least on some level, so comfortable with Anna–because after all, he can always find something to look down on. Here’s Roger berating Anna:

“You’re sick you are. You’re sick the way you draw everything into yourself, the way you never never never let be. You’re sick because you can’t adjust your trash literature expectations to the world as it is. To me as I am. And you eat your little heart out with that sickness and suck blood out of everyone else.”

And I said “But I love you, Roger. You know I do. How can you say…”

“You love an idea of me,” he said. “You don’t love me as I really am. You don’t love the me that’s struggling, fighting and adventurous. You don’t love a brave love. You want me as a failure, bled dry and white as a statue, posing traditionally by your side forever.”

“We’re not in a play, Roger,” I said

This is a savage dark tale of a relationship based on how much someone can dole out and how much someone can take. Most women would take a hike after a few minutes in Roger’s company, but Anna doesn’t. Is this a story of so-called unconditional love or is this a case of Anna and Roger having a sick need for each other? Loving Roger examines the various facets of love: romance and the idealization of the love object which in this case morphs into unhealthy obsession & sick emotional dependency. Opposites may attract and in some instances perhaps even create balance in a relationship. In this case, opposites are disastrous.

 Loving Roger is reminiscent of the best of Beryl Bainbridge (RIP Beryl), and that means the story is told with a great deal of sardonic black humour. Anna and Roger’s ‘romance’ plays out against the backdrop of the snippiness of office politics perfectly recreated in this slim novel.

This won’t be my last Tim Parks novel.

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