Authors: Tim Parks
I explain to her that I am not reading the novel I hold in my hands, because I already know it to be a tiresome thing written by a woman who can think of nothing better to do with her very considerable talent than prolong a weary dialectic which presents the authorities as always evil and wrong and her magical-realist, lesbian, ethnic-minority self and assorted revolutionary company as always good and right and engaged, what's more, in a heroic battle where
will one day triumph over the evils and violence of an uncomprehending establishment.
Again I smile, warmly, to show that I am perfectly aware that this fierce demolition will seem pompous and presumptuous and even fascist, whereas what I really feel is that my criticism, far from exaggerated, is, if anything, inadequate, since what needs to be said is that people who do nothing more than analyse the world in a way in which it has grown used to being analysed, offering their readers the illusion of participating in a movement that gives them a sense of moral superiority with regard to a society they have no intention of ceasing to subscribe to (as indeed why should they?) - people, whether writers or not, of this variety deserve nothing better than scorn and perhaps a good deal worse.
But it would be unwise to say this. It would be, I have discovered, and indeed it generally is, unwise to say almost any of the things one feels most moved to say. Unless you can somehow present them as a joke.
So why are you reading it? she asks me.
In a pantomime of patience I explain that, as I have already explained, I am not reading it.
But you've got it open.
It was given to me.
She looks at me with big young eyes, wondering if she can ask the question, and perhaps because we're on a coach and hence all part of the same group supporting the same cause, my cause, she feels she can. Who by?
I tell her: Somebody who wanted me to read it.
Clearly she is being teased, and clearly she enjoys being teased. She bounces up and down on her knees, she is young, she smiles, she raises an eyebrow (endearingly bushy), she cocks her head to one side, smooth cheek for just a moment against the synthetic stiff blood-red of the upholstery. Immediately I'm thinking that if I don't tell her who gave me this book, with all that the two words involved would imply, perhaps
I'll have more of a chance
with this young student, a thought which equally immediately short-circuits to have me thinking, uncomfortably, of Georg and of
, so expert in the withholding of information, so that in the kind of reflex that isn't so much a decision as a small convulsion of self-recognition followed by fearful rejection (as of one throwing away a cigarette after the first puff), I decide I will tell her who gave me this miserable novel. I will tell her so as to save myself from all equivocation. Just as I open my mouth, she asks, Your girl-friend?
Was it your girl-friend gave you the book?
She smiles warmly She is being bolder now. She has noticed - I saw her eyes - that I don't wear a ring.! close my mouth, hesitating again, when our conversations if such we are to call it, is interrupted by an announcement. Vikram Griffiths is standing in the aisle of the coach up front by the driver and he has a microphone in his hand and his mongrel dog at his feet. His voice is harshly electronically deep, and deeply Welsh: Welcome to y'all! he begins,
envenuti, bienvenus, wilkommen, croeso
, good t'see ya!
When Vikram Griffiths begins to speak, the girl in the seat in front of me, whose great brown eyes are of course like those of a million other Italian girls, not to mention Spanish and Greek and doubtless other races too, by which I mean to say, unique, splendid, eminently replaceable, swivels on her seat to pay attention, and what I'm telling myself now, slightly right of centre in the back seat of this packed coach, assailed by Vikram Griffiths' efficiently amplified, demotic voice, what I'm telling myself is that
truly am in this now
, in this coach I mean, like it or not, for twelve hours and then the two nights in Strasbourg and then twelve hours in the coach again on the way back, not to mention the danger that it could well be more than twelve hours, depending on traffic and circumstances beyond your control, since of course the moment you set out on the road with other people, the moment you undertake a trip together in a coach, the moment you commit yourself to some joint project, some communal enterprise, circumstances are always well and truly beyond your control.
I'm in. Deeply, inescapably in. We've already left Milan behind, we're on the
, speeding along, a solid group of us, so that, as when they bolt the doors on the plane and it moves out onto the runway, there can be no more getting out now before the other end, no more splitting us up into separate sovereign urges and desires. You're in it now, I tell myself, with all these young students, girls for the most part, to either side and in front, beautiful and plain, and Georg next-but-one to my left, plus your other colleagues, liked and disliked, but mostly the latter, from France and Germany and Spain and Greece and God bless us even Ireland, and with
in the third seat from the front, with her dark brown hair and dark brown document-case that she just took down from the overhead rack, the same case where she used to keep such things as her train timetable and the rubbers we used and the photographs we took of ourselves with the time-delay, and then miscellaneous memorabilia of the air-ticket and hotel-bill variety, the receipts for meals I always had to be careful not to put in my own pockets, and my letters of course, my many many letters, some of them ten or even twenty pages long, some of them no more than fragments of poor poetry I had written, or better poetry I had copied out for her but which she never recognized, and later an aerosol can -of ammonia spray, as is the way with things that are intense and have to change, things that start well but can't stand still and end badly, very badly, though now no doubt she will have nothing more in there than notepaper for the reflections she is gathering and will be using this trip to gather further, for her research into a possible constitution for a
which is part of a competition she has enrolled in to win a
for a year's work and study in Brussels, or so I heard from my daughter, a move that she sees as the indispensable next step in her career, for she still thinks of life in terms of career and self-realization, she is still at that stage.
Yes, I am in this now, with all the singing and the toilet stops and the making friends and the exchanging of addresses and the boredom and doubtless the confabulation as some try to grab more power and responsibility in our little group and others (myself) to refuse it, and the enormous waste of time it will no doubt be going through the bureaucratic procedure of presenting our petition to a European Parliament whose exact functions and powers and suffrage none of us understands, except perhaps
, perhaps the Avvocato Malerba, perhaps Vikram, and on the way back we will all have to discuss the importance of what we have achieved and mythologize it and tell ourselves we did well to come and that now we are safer, meaning that we can feel more secure that we will continue to receive our salaries for some time to come.
Yes, I am caught now, I am not in my small flat where the answering machine vets all the calls and where no photograph, ornament, poster or object of any intimacy whatever dates back before 1993, not in my own private space so dear to me and so dull, but here in the thrall of forty or fifty people. You are caught, I tell myself, trapped. And despite my late arrival, due mainly to a half-hour spent in a cafÃ© on Corso Sempione debating all the reasons for avoiding this ridiculous excursion (without ever for one moment believing I would avoid it), despite my late arrival and all my misgivings, I must say that the thought that I really am
now is beginning to get me rather excited, it's cheering me up, so that already I am considering indulging in a little fling, an
as the Italians say, with one, with any one for heaven's sake (for they are all the same to me - how could it be otherwise?) of these young women. You should have an adventure, I tell myself, looking around at the fresh young students, a little fling, in full visibility of everybody, flagrant. By which of course I mean in full and flagrant visibility of
. As if such a gesture could in any way upset her! As if she would care, which I know perfectly well she wouldn't. On the contrary she would probably say, if we were to speak to each other at all on this trip, which frankly I doubt, she would probably say how pleased she was that I was having
a healthy sex life
, a notion this, whatever it might mean, that she always advocated and indeed used, as a
, to excuse almost any behaviour, and by any behaviour what I mean I suppose is betrayal, which is surely the most terrible behaviour of all, and the most inevitable it seems sometimes. And this reminds me now how, with her historical studies, so similar to my own, and her desire for sophistication, or at least to be seen to be sophisticated, she liked to say that European hegemony in the world began with a woman's betrayal, and she meant Helen, Helen's betrayal, which prompted the Achaean triumph and the shift of civilization's centre from east to west, Troy to Athens and thence of course further west to her beloved Paris. Another protagonist. Every epic adventure (I remember her saying this and myself thinking how intelligent she was and how well-read and articulate), every epic adventure turned on a woman's betrayal, of father, family, or husband - Medea, Antigone, Ariadne - and she would laugh her laugh, her liquid French laugh, and whenever history's wheel began to move, she said, it was betrayal set it in motion - Hitler's of Stalin, De Gaulle's of Britain - and she said that so long as we saw our affair in
the wider world perspective
I need never worry about feeling guilty or justifying myself.
She laughed her very French laugh. And if I mention that a second time, the Frenchness of her laugh, it's because I've just remembered that I found her laugh special and I'm trying to remember exactly what it was like, because so often one remembers that something is, was, wonderful or special without being able properly to recall it, or properly to savour it, or understand exactly why it was so. One remembers that one would like to recall it. One remembers in order to be frustrated, in order to savour not the thing itself but its absence, the shape of its absence. And thinking of this while sitting slightly “right of centre -on the big back seat of this big packed coach with Vikram Griffiths launching into his amplified speech somewhere on the
north of Milan, clearing his throat, his ridiculous mongrel dog Dafydd snuffling round his legs, grizzly wet nose patted by all the girls, it occurs to me that one of the main things I fell in love with when falling in love with her was herÂ
, and the remarkable thing about this is that I had already fallen in love with foreignness once before, of course - my wife - with hardly spectacular results, and here I was doing it again, so that you might well suppose that if I were to go to live in Africa or Asia or Russia or the far north or the polar south, if I had the energy, that is, or the courage or optimism to move around like that, as some people so amazingly do, I would probably fall in love with foreignness over and over again and be at the mercy of every different cut of female lips, eyes and nose, every different cadence of female vocal cords, every language, gaze and gait, since quite probably it is foreignness and only foreignness that is capable of making me fall in love, lose control, approach a state of adoration â except of course that I'm perfectly aware that I shall never fall in love again.
Nor would I want to.
Nor am I remotely interested in thinking about such matters, or in reading about them, or in talking about them, so that if I do think and read and talk about them incessantly, then it is presumably because I am compelled to do so. Presumably.
I'm at sea again, that's the truth, clutching the very bad book my eighteen-year-old daughter gave me, sitting amongst a coachload of sirens and ne'er-do-wells, while at the front, microphone in hand, Vikram Griffiths - and apparently he explained to the coach driver that he absolutely had to bring his dog along, because if he left it with the wife he is separating from she would never give it back to him - is explaining in a surely exaggerated Welsh Italian (but he knows how much people love his quaint, or as they put it
incompetence, his extraordinary mixed-ness and minority-ness) the reasons for our trip, id
,the unlawful, on the part of the University, reduction of our salary, the attempt to limit to four the number of years we can renew our contracts, the threat of firing, the misrepresentation under oath of the nature of the work we do (i.e. our professors' work), the refusal to comply with court orders, even orders emanating from the European Court, the arrogance in short of the Italian state in its dealings with us through the University and hence our decision to take a petition to the European Parliament and to insist that pressure be brought to bear to reinstate those of us who have been fired, return our salaries to what they were and pay damages for lost salary and likewise for the psychological distress brought about by this illegal and disreputable way of treating us.
Am I right or am I right?
Vikram Griffiths shouts (in Italian, demotic), upon which everybody claps and cheers, the dog Dafydd barks and is made a fuss of, since women so love to make an exhibition of their affections, chasing his tail wildly, and now Vikram, sucking in catarrh, thanks the students who have come along for their solidarity and he says how impressed officials at the European Parliament will be by this
since it indicates that the students have
with their foreign-language teachers and are aware and care, and the press will surely notice this and hence the University will be forced to take note too, since the last thing they need is for the classrooms to be occupied.