x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Writing is fighting

Hephzibah Anderson: Pulled together from articles and lectures, The Fighter could have easily become an aimless hodgepodge.

Pulled together from introductions, book reviews and lectures, The Fighter might have easily become an aimless hodgepodge. Happily, writes Hephzibah Anderson, it is nothing of the sort.

The Fighter: Essays Tim Parks Vintage Dh58 At first glance, the writer Tim Parks might seem less the ideal dinner companion than the ideal dinner guest - the person who is placed beside the prickly element in any seating plan. He is well informed but not showily so, of firm opinions but eminently reasonable. Yet as this essay collection shows, his refined equanimity cloaks a passion that is not in the least bit polite. "Wake up! This is the experience," begins a typical piece.

Pulled together from introductions, book reviews and lectures, The Fighter might easily have become one of those aimless hodgepodges, destined to please neither the lay reader nor the academic and to leave both feeling shortchanged. Happily, it is nothing of the sort. The titular opening essay is devoted to DH Lawrence, Parks's literary hero, and it establishes and elaborates on the book's theme. Fighting, Park insists, defined Lawrence's life and writing. "The most urgent scrimmage," he tells us, "is between author and reader." The collection also closes with Lawrence. Parks follows the belligerent author around Italy as he nears the end of his life, pausing to feel a kinship with Etruscan princes and to enjoy some Sicilian baking.

In the pieces in between, Parks roams through Europe's literary canon in search of fellow fighters, from the three Thomases (Beckett, Bernhard and Hardy) to Emile Zola and the lesser-known Emil Cioran. In essays on translation and the computer-reliant "hypertext", he muses on the narrative tussle. "Language constantly invites us towards the commonplace, the standard, the conventional flourish." Parks does not confine himself to literature. A Matter of Love and Hate uses the Football World Cup as a peg for a noisy, chant-filled exploration of its fans' intensity, linking its rise to industrialisation and improved communications, which made it harder to maintain local identities.

In Hero Betrayed, Parks rescues Giuseppe Garibaldi from those who mock his clownish clothes, find his sense of self-belief preposterous and see his legend as being born not of heroism but a series of artfully orchestrated PR coups. Sure, Parks concedes, Garibaldi's life was a strange mix of celebrity, romantic intrigue and sartorial farce, yet he is a hero of the kind we need now more than ever. He was, we are reminded, "an insurgent who did not use torture, suicide attacks or indiscriminate killing, who did not want to enslave people to a creed or regime, whose image, however carefully cultivated, encouraged people to believe in the possibility of independent thought and action".

Italy is well represented throughout. Parks sees the unfashionable author Gabriele D'Annunzio as James Joyce's precursor; he follows Giorgio Bassani, author of the The Garden of the Fitzi-Contini, around graveyards; and he salutes the way Machiavelli let himself be seduced by the desire to tell the truth. Having made his home in Verona for over a quarter of a century, Parks does all this with a local's casually worn authority. A Model Anomaly tackles Silvio Berlusconi and the country's present-day politics, good-naturedly concluding that no government will be able to offer more "than another version of Italian immobility, which, after all, is but the downside of a social structure that still makes this country an extremely attractive place in which to live, and not quite like anywhere else."

While he delights in disorder, Parks's thoughts flow with clarity and style, and his "fighters" rally around the book's theme in a far more orderly fashion than you might expect. The thread never feels contrived. Yet he remains a novelist first and foremost - it is the story that fascinates him, and it is the narratives he weaves that bind together his essays and hold his reader rapt.

Musicophilia Oliver Sacks Picador Dh53 Fact can be infinitely stranger than fiction, and naysayers need only turn to the work of Dr Oliver Sacks for proof. In his latest book, he turns his attention to people with peculiar disorders with musical twists, some of which seem more outlandish than others. We've all had songs stuck in our head; Sacks give us the more interesting case of an atonal composer who can't stop hearing pretty lullabies. Synaesthesia, which causes people to experience sounds as colours, is also a moderately well known condition.

Other case studies have a fairy-tale ring to them. A 42-year-old man who is struck by lightning suddenly discovers a new-found passion and aptitude for the piano. A musical savant is able to remember not only entire operas, but also the scores for each component instrument and voice. Along the way, Sacks considers the effect of music on the average brain. Not only can it set our feet tapping, it can also influence our emotions and transport us back in time. A few bars of a song, for instance, can unlock forgotten memories from decades ago.

While the book becomes a little technical in some parts and repetitive in others, Sacks' philosophical bent sheds light on the workings of the human mind without robbing it of any of its strange poetry.

The Rebels Sandor Marai Picador Dh47 The Hungarian writer Sandor Marai first published The Rebels, which he deemed his finest work, in 1930, and it later became the first instalment of his multi-part magnum opus The Garrens' Work. Now, a decade after his rediscovery and almost two since his death, it has been translated into English by the celebrated poet Georges Szirtes. The Rebels is a bleakly comic saga of defiance and disenchantment set in a provincial town in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It follows a group of high school students on the verge of graduation and manhood. Abel is a doctor's son who dreams of becoming a writer. Tibor, whose father is a colonel, is handsome but weak. Erno is the bright one, but he has to work extra hard to make up for the fact that his father is just a humble cobbler. Meanwhile, Bela, the grocer's son, is usually behind any mischief, of which there is plenty.

The year is 1918; history casts their high jinks in an elegiac light. The town's menfolk are all off fighting in the first World War, and the boys know that they must soon follow. The plot pivots on the arrival of an actor with a travelling theatre company, a corrupt Pied Piper who leads the town to calamity. The Rebels is haunting: an evocation of loss in its myriad forms.

Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black Nadine Gordimer Bloomsbury Dh53 The same focus on race, identity and truth that galvanises Nadine Gordimer's novels also stalks the pages of her 11th volume of short stories. Her prose, whether in experimental sketches or intimate portraits of ageing, is radically minimal. The results vary and mystify. The story that gives the book its arresting title, for instance, turns out to be disappointingly scanty. And then there are the tales narrated by an African parrot and a tapeworm, both of whom sound suspiciously like writers.

Mourning shadows several of the collection's more interesting stories. In Dreaming of the Dead, Gordimer conjures up the ghosts of a trio of lost literary friends: Edward Said, Susan Sontag and Nelson Mandela's biographer, Anthony Sampson. The backdrop is Sontag's favourite Chinese restaurant in New York. Mystery and mistrust also recur, as in the story of the widow looking back over her marriage, trying to untangle a riddle from her husband's life before he met her. Its title is Allesverloren, a brand of South African wine whose name translates as "everything lost". The story's strength lies in what goes unsaid.

Patchy and frustrating though it is, Gordimer's distinctive intelligence and linguistic verve are enough to make this collection worthwhile.