Lead book review

The constant inconstancy that made Italians yearn for fascism

Jan Morris finds Tim Parks’s A Literary Tour of Italy a portrait of a nation — one rich in double lives and double thinking

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

A Literary Tour of Italy Tim Parks

Alma Books, pp.369, £16.99, ISBN: 9781846883521

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’.

Giuseppe Mazzini and Ippolito Nievo
Giuseppe Mazzini and Ippolito Nievo

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?

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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.

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  • Dr Corvus

    What an interesting review. The fascist urge is indeed rather deep-seated. Dante’s Monarchia, with its vision of a one-world state under an ideally virtuous (and impossibly impersonal) emperor, hits very close to the utopia satirised in Orwell’s ‘1984.’ For that matter, it’s not unlike the one-world technocratic visions we are all right now required to embrace and celebrate.

  • disqus_9I6C4azbIA

    It seems to me that the Italians were less fascist than the other Christian nations during the Nazi assault on humanity.

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  • Dan O’Connor

    Cynical and hysterical ” anti-fascism ” , has been for the last 50 years the modern day version of biblical Original Sin , and is one of the main weaponised neurolinguistic cattle prod mechanisms used to keep the slighest flicker of any uppity Whites who attempt to organise against the cultural vandalism and demographic terrorism waged against them by the ruling classes back in their proper place where they belong, and prevent them from straying off the Left mind plantation whose fence lines are policed and patroled by the Western establishmentsa Left activist / media attack dogs 24 /7.
    They spend all of their time accusing any oppostion as being ” fascist ” as a clever and very effective way of painting themselves as the exact opposite.
    Works everytime like using Pavlovian reflex conditioning to make a dog salivate and the sound of a bell .