This hefty volume is misleadingly titled. It is not an escapist sort of travel book, ushering the visitor around the homelands and houses of the Italian literati. It is a selection of the author’s previous literary articles, mostly book reviews for the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, and believe me it is hardly a sunshine ramble or a splash in the pool.
On the contrary, it is an immensely learned, elegantly written rehearsal of the significance of 23 Italian writers, from Dante in the 13th century to Antonio Tabucchi in our own, and as such it amounts I think to an assessment of the Italian sensibility as a whole. Nobody is better qualified than Tim Parks to guide us through such an experience. A splendid prose stylist in English, he writes books in Italian too. He can be as entertaining as he is scholarly, and he is evidently profoundly concerned with the relationship everywhere between art and life.
I assume this means that, having spent years living and working in Italy, he has assembled these essays to a purpose: to reflect the nature of Italianness, that is, through its literature down the centuries, and in its relationship with mankind in general. Dante’s damned, he tells us for a start, live on around the world in the ideas of Eliot, Kafka, Borges and Beckett, just as the influence of Boccaccio’s Decameron is perhaps still evident in some of the today’s raunchier television comedies.
More to Parks’s theme is the relationship between the Decameron and Boccaccio’s other great book, On Famous Women, a collection of 106 mini-biographies which I dare say some of us have never heard of, let alone read: for the connection between the two works, says Parks, by way of the excruciatingly misogynist novel The Corbaccio, means that Boccaccio is ‘one of the fathers of the modern western vision of character which leads us to set so much store by a quality like consistency’.
Time and again, he seems to tell us, it is inconsistency that has characterised Italian thought, together with paradox, ambiguity and contradiction. Boccaccio himself wavers between the enlightened and the crass. Machiavelli on his deathbed accepts extreme unction, but ‘no doubt after careful calculation’. Giacomo Leopardi said that in the course of his life he underwent three intellectual ‘conversions’, literary, political and philosophical, and he once proposed to launch a magazine without any positive ideas at all, specifically for readers ‘tolerant of all that is futile’.
Time and again, as I worked my way through these challenging pieces, I was struck by the uncertainty of conviction or effect that so often plagued Italian intellectualism. Even Garibaldi the heroic republican created the Italian monarchy. Even Mazzini inspired fascism. Even the satirist Carlo Collodi, the pre-Disney creator of Pinocchio, delivered the first instalment of the tale to its publisher with the cynical comment, ‘Here’s some childish twaddle, do what you want with it…you’d better pay me well!’ Ignazio Silone, the great moralist, turns out to have been a Fascist police spy. The novelist Curzio Malaparte lurched between fascism, communism and Maoism before a deathbed reconciliation with the church.
Double lives, double thinking, contradiction, inconsistency! When was I first in Italy, at the end of the second world war, a man remarked to me that I should have seen the place in Mussolini’s time — ‘everything was certain then’; and Parks’s book seems to confirm that in art as in life a search for certainty characterises the Italian psyche.
Fragmentation, as he tells us, was ‘a recurrent Italian nightmare’. Metternich’s ‘mere geographical expression’ has been a single nation only since 1861, and its people have looked back over centuries of muddle to the lost certainties of Rome and the infallible dogmas of Catholicism. No wonder that just for a few years (Anno I–Anno XXI) Mussolini’s vision of his nation as a disciplined fascio, a ‘bundle’, to rival the rooted cohesion of countries like France and Britain, would have appealed to my informant that day in 1945.
But it was an illusion anyway. As Parks tells us, the mind of Il Duce at the peak of his success was in fact ‘muddled, indecisive and internally divided’. So it goes: as Jowett of Balliol once said to a young lady, ‘You must believe in God, my dear, whatever the clergymen say.’
Like most of us in these democratic times, the people of Italy continue to muddle through, however their leaders behave, and to an outsider at least the national genius seems as contradictorily fertile and beguiling as ever it was in Dante’s day — or Boccaccio’s, shall we say?
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.29 Tel: 08430 600033. Jan Morris’s many books include Venice, The Venetian Empire and Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.