Monday, 29 July 2013

The Language Of The Body: Italian Ways 3/3

Tim Parks
I've met Tim Parks (at a Chekhov workshop). He looks English. To me, at least. It's his colouring, his posture, the way he walks. Or am I relying on racial/cultural stereotyping to come to this conclusion? Would I have known he was English if I didn't already know who he was, if I had just passed him in the street?

What makes a person look English, or Japanese, or Irish? [No prizes for guessing the nationality of this boy!]

This question seems to be a bit of a bone of contention with Parks in his book Italian Ways. In the course of his train travels through Italy, he is constantly irked when Italians speak to him in English before he's even opened his mouth. He doesn't understand how they know he's not Italian.

Where I sometimes go to write, in the library in Trinity College, I see tour groups through the window of all nationalities queuing up to see the Book of Kells. My guesses as to where they're from are usually right. It comes down to what they are wearing, what they use to carry their belongings, whether the men have beards and/or sideburns, how they wear their hair, what accessories, how they walk, how their facial muscles move when they talk, how they respond when the group leader is speaking, how they interact with each other… The list goes on. It's not foolproof, but the clues are usually there, in the language of the body. Parks understands this language too:

The nose is the dominant feature, long, thrust forward, slim, very slightly hooked. The eyes are large and very carefully defined with make-up, the eyebrows plucked in high arches. The forehead slopes back at quite a marked angle, accentuating the nose, and the thick raven hair, which is firmly gathered and swept back, is held tense and tight by a headband and three long wooden skewers, poking up and out at spiky angles…

His wonderfully observed description of a typical southern Italian woman's face is that of a fully tuned-in writer. Perhaps, just as it's easier to solve someone else's problems than one's own, easier to spot other people's faults, it's also easier to detect characteristics, and sometimes national characteristics, in others than to define them in ourselves. It's forgivable that he can't define his own Englishness as succinctly.

What I don't understand is why it should bother him — what's wrong with being taken for what he is, an Englishman who lives in Italy?

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Not A Book About Trains (Or Food): Italian Ways 2/3

I admit, as much as I love Italy, the idea of 260 pages about Italian train timetables and ticketing systems was less than inviting. But I like Tim Parks' writing, and I got Italian Ways courtesy of Harvill Secker via Twitter, so I got stuck in.
And what you get is, indeed,  lots about timetables and lots about Trenitalia's labyrinthine ticketing system.

But. And it's a big But, probably the same But Parks used to convince his editors that this was a book that had to be written: 'This is not a travel book. And it's not a book about trains as such…' The narrator Parks attempts to explain to his hosts in Sicily how the train system manifests itself in anything the people of that culture do. 

'Like this routine Sunday dinner of yours, every week, the same friends on the warm terrace, the things you prepare, the way it's served, the things you talk about, even the way you invite and tolerate a foreign professore like me. All Italy could be teased out from this if we examined it carefully, the clothes you are wearing, the way you've laid the table, the pleasure taken cooking, the wine glasses.'

'The way people drive,' one of his dinner companions adds, as a car roars past.

The secret, Parks tells us, is in the details, a point worth remembering for any writer. In the details of the train system of Italy Parks is writing about all of Italy. This is not, as he warns, a travel book; it's joining the party by climbing over the fence instead of coming in through the front door. And it's a compelling read. Any detailed discussion of the trains of Italy include by default the geography, the history, the politics, the culture of the country. Instead of a litany of galleries and beauty spots, Parks' Italy feel real. For me, it provides a glimpse into what living in Italy as opposed to visiting, the affair as opposed to the marriage, might have entailed — for better and for worse.

I hesitate to use the word reservations after reading Italian Ways, with all its connotations of confusing supplements, carriages classes, and category of train — but I have a couple. Often, Parks mentions the photos he's taking, of graffiti, of stations, of scenery, of people, and as well as he paints pictures with his words, I'd have liked to see a few in the book, even black and white. Not to include any seems rather out of step with the times, where we only need to half-form a thought to be able to see it online. I found myself supplementing Parks' descriptions with Google: that church in Lecce, that fence dividing Trenitalia from its competitor, Italo.

And while I accept this is neither travel book nor cook book, I wanted more about the food. (To compensate, I'm including this random pizza pic.) Perhaps he was just holding back from us, but I got the impression that one of Italy's most wonderful gifts, its food, was somewhat wasted on Parks ('the things you prepare, the way it's served') — and I don't eat meat either, so that's no excuse! 

Monday, 22 July 2013

Italian Ways 1/3

I recently had the dubious honour of winning a punning comp via twitter, but what's pride when the prize is Tim Parks' Italian Ways, On And Off The Rails From Milan To Palermo ('Nearly had something witty but I lost my train of thought'. Knew you'd want to know). Just leafing through the first few pages was enough to send me on tangents of Italian ways and days of my own.

Like Parks, my first introduction was courtesy of an Interrail card, which took me from Venice to Florence to Rome in about three days flat. My photos from the time include one where I've just bought a Wham-style bat-wing soft leather jacket from a stall and I am very pleased with myself. My favourite memory is of sitting on the Spanish Steps, with Babbington's Tea Rooms to my right, and the room where Keats died to my left. I pined (in my way, lapping a pistachio gelato, my first pistachio, my first gelato) for the young, dying poet. I was a bit jealous, to be honest. I suspected then, and it has indeed come to pass, that I would not be mourned for my dead young genius.

I'm a bit of an expert in gelato now, and I can order uno cappuccio with the best of them. I've made several trips to Bologna, with its famous red roofs, university, and novelist, Umberto Eco. I agreed to travel by scooter with a handsome boy to an all-night disco in the hills on the half-promised that he would introduce me to Eco (he didn't). Mostly, though, I wandered around the streets under the porticos imagining that I could live there, that I was as entitled to the ochres and the umbers and the endless sunshine as the next person.

A much later trip, a family holiday, found me in Umbria, in a perfect Italian village with winding, cobbled streets. Many years later, San Donato would provide the inspiration for my novel, Michaelangelos, in which my elderly protagonist Selina struggles with the immigrant plight of being both Irish and Italian, living in Dublin but missing Italy. It turns out that most of Ireland's Italian 'chipper' community hails from a nearby village, Cassalatico. I knew none of this then, as we wrestled with 40 degree temperatures and apartments without air conditioning. In the end we cut the holiday short by a week — a sacrilege. My favourite memory is of my father ordering coffee. Espresso was fine, he insisted. We warned that it was very strong, and that he might prefer a cappuccino. When it arrived he decided it needed a drop of hot water. The cafe owner brought some in a jug. Then a drop of milk. The owner brought steamed milk. The coffee was just right.

My last trip was too long ago, about seven years. I went with my sister to view Trulli For Sale. These are curious, conical-roofed little houses that look like they house elves. I liked the circular rooms and their isolated locations. We would live on olives and grapes and the walnuts the locals (us!) gathered in fine nets on the ground around the trees. Maybe this trip coincided with a certain stage of life…

It rained that trip. Torrents of rain streamed down the windscreen as we tried to navigate our way into the town of Lecce in our rented car in the dark, only to discover, eventually, that the centre is car-free, and we were restricted to park in the perimeter only. Cue dragging suitcases through puddles and soggy map-reading. But the hotel was lovely, right in the centre, and the dinner and wine incomparable.

When we met our estate agent the next day, in a restaurant as he had suggested, we began our acquaintance in a most civilised manner, with glasses of pinot grigio which arrived with  condensation dripping off the ice-cold glasses. It was a good start. After a leisurely chat, and some olives may have been consumed, he drove us all around Puglia to view trullis. Some were pristine to the last stone, but most were fixer-uppers, abandoned and falling down in the corner of a rocky field, for all the world like the famine cottages in the West of Ireland. There was something poignant about them. As we poked about in their ruins, imagining how families lived in the small rooms, I realised I would never buy one of these houses, and that I most likely would never live in Italy. I didn't know the people whose graves it felt like I was walking on, I didn't know their language beyond a few lessons, and the small foray I'd made into the house sale process showed me that I didn't understand the bureaucracy, the system, and most likely never would. Italy was for visiting, for having an affair with, not for marrying.

Tim Parks, however, decided to commit, and has lived there for some thirty years now. More on this in the next post.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Sun, Sea… And Kids Home From School

It's that time of year. Sun, sea, and kids home from school all day long.

I was at an event recently featuring two male writers and one female, and I wondered how long the female writer would be able to hold her tongue while one of the male writers explained how he filled his daily eight hours' writing time. She looked as if she was trying not to bite it off! As sun, sea and kids threaten to completely engulf my writing time, I wonder how many female writers have ever struggled with the problem of filling eight hours' writing time…

But let's not stoop to bitterness. It's an easily surmountable problem if, like me, you planned your family carefully (ahem…). For forty-five minutes each the two older kids occupy the twin four-year-olds and I have one and a half hours to write. It's not eight. But reader, here's the thing: the tighter my time, the more productive I become. In three of the above sessions (plus a bit of less precious, much-interrupted time) I outlined a story and put down 7000 words. If there's a moral to be had, I suppose it's not to make excuses. And maybe to trust in the revision process… that will wait for September.