Tim Parks is an Englishman who has lived most of his adult life in Italy. Since the publication of his first book thirteen years ago he has toiled away in the vineyards of literature, turning out novels (Europa is his ninth), translations, and essays about Italian life. Long residence abroad has freed Parks from the provincialism that afflicts much current British fiction. He has developed a clear and distinctive voice, which he uses to tell stories about the commonplace human psyche under great stress. I cannot say I think as highly of Parks as some of my literary acquaintances, who have praised him very extravagantly; but he is a serious writer working with serious themes, and Europa, in spite of an unsatisfactory ending, is a novel well worth the effort required to keep track of its narrative thread.
Here is what happens in Europa. In Part One, a group of lecturers and students from an Italian university set out in a bus from Milan to petition the European Parliament at Strasbourg. Their petition concerns the unfair treatment of foreign teachers at the university, which, the teachers and their student supporters believe, violates some provision of European law. The whole excursion is the brainchild of Vikram Griffiths, a half-Welsh, half-Indian lecturer and lecherer who has, as we say, difficulty with relationships. A movie is shown on the bus: Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society . It rains steadily.
In Part Two the group checks in to a nondescript hotel in the Strasbourg suburbs, takes dinner at a German restaurant in the city center, returns to the hotel, searches fruitlessly on foot, in the continuing rain, for a decent bar, goes back to party briefly in the hotel lounge. In Part Three the actual presentation of the petition to a committee of the European Parliament occurs, but is interrupted by a tragic event.
All of this is narrated by one of the foreign lecturers. Jeremy Marlowe, like the author, is an Englishman in his mid-forties living in Italy. He is a few months out of a passionate four-year affair with a colleague, a Frenchwoman, who is among those going to Strasbourg with the petition. The affair destroyed Jeremy’s marriage and still dominates his thoughts, and his narration.
Thus the book’s principal topic is amorous obsession — which is, as Robert Burton pointed out, a species of melancholy. To the portion of humanity susceptible to that malady, Jeremy’s slow drift towards madness will be all too credible. Here is the whole grisly catalog: the hopelessness so shamefully akin to grief, yet angrier and more resistant to resolution because the grieved-for still lives; the compulsive picking at the wounds of betrayal and regret; the endless circular recollection of all that happened with the loved one; the stalking and threatening; the whirlpooling of all thought and experience, all understanding of history and literature and science, down into a horrid solipsism:
Does he have daughters? Lear asked, of anybody remotely unhappy. And even this unexpected analogy, Lear, Cordelia, leads me back to her … Everything is past, I tell myself, and yet because of that more present than ever. As if the only paradise one might ever set out to explore were paradise lost.
Those who understand, will understand. Those who do not may read Lolita, Tennyson’s “Tithonus,” or — for light relief — Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris.
For a backdrop to the anguished seething in Marlowe’s heart, Parks has used the forms and symbols of European unity. As obvious and desirable as this latter project may seem to Americans, its appeal in Europe herself is limited to some small cliques of bloodless technocrats and millenarian ideologues, and to the ignorant young. Even to those not actively hostile (most of the English people I know regard the whole thing as a bankers’ racket), “Europe” is a cold temple, with no gods in residence — a state of affairs illustrated perfectly by the featureless Meditation Room in the European Parliament building, from which Marlowe narrates Part Three.
There are some lesser irritants contributing to the erosion of Marlowe’s sanity. Bad art, for example: that silly Robin Williams movie, an even sillier book given to Marlowe by his daughter, Italian pop music, cheap reproductions of mediocre paintings hung in hotel bedrooms. Also the repetitive occurrence of certain numbers, attention to which is one of the surest markers of incipient lunacy. (We all knew where we were with Louis Farrakhan, didn’t we, when he launched into that long exposition on the significance of the number 19?) In Marlowe’s case the number is 45 — his age, seat number on the bus, the adored one’s telephone area code, etc. Curiously, the novel’s printer has had the last laugh here: one of the few numbers in the book that is not composed of the digits 4 and 5 is the one on the door of Marlowe’s Strasbourg hotel room, 119. This fact is revealed on page 119.