Books: Playing away from home

Alice Thomas Ellis asks if male politicians need more mistresses
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Adultery & Other Diversions

by Tim Parks

Secker & Warburg, pounds 12.99, 184pp

THIS BOOK is something like the written equivalent of "thinking aloud", at once discursive and intuitive. It is a series of meditations on what Jack Trevor Story called "orsorafings" and the style is catching like a distinctive voice. A speaker engaged in a similar enterprise would precede the anecdotes with, "It was last Tuesday - no, I tell a lie. It was...", but happily the discipline of having to write it down prevents too many irritating diversions. The author's mind wanders, but we are pleased to follow him off the beaten track of linear thought into those misty, tangled areas where, in truth, we all spend much of our time without usually mentioning it to anyone else unless we are slightly drunk.

He makes his intentions clear on the first page: "My hope when I began work on these odd hybrids was rather to dramatise an intimate relation between reflections that are timeless and ongoing stories of our lives." Every idea here expressed, he tells us, he has since found in the writings of two centuries or even two millennia ago. This is oddly reassuring and a reminder of the value of reading. If we are struck by what seems to us a novel idea, we only have to spend some time in the library to find it described by someone else.

On a trip to present a petition to the European Parliament, a woman spoke of the politicians' sexual peccadilloes ("There were those who claimed that the Parliament only moved back and forth every month so that the men could get away from their regular mistresses for the week"), which caused Tim Parks to remember how, in Plato's Republic, Socrates suggested "that those who distinguished themselves in public life should be rewarded by being able to sleep with more women. This would ensure that the greater number of babies were born to the better sort." Now that is a truly novel idea not, I think, current today.

Still in the European Parliament, he was amused by the Meditation Room, a space trying desperately not to resemble a chapel, apologetic, amorphous. He is good on Europe, pointing out that the Community arose only as a last resort, fuelled not by enthusiasm but by a fearful necessity and a weary economic opportunism: another of those things which everyone knows but few say aloud.

The book begins and ends as the title promises with tales of adultery. "Clearly it is very exciting when you start destroying everything". In the last piece, establishing the difference between fidelity and faith in football and in love, he conflates the two passions, reflecting on his own fidelity to the Yellow-blues which endures without faith that they will ever be successful. At the same time he considers the case of his friend Giorgio, who is planning to leave his wife for his secretary. "It's insulting", says the author's own wife, "the way you keep comparing Marina and Giorgio's troubles to the football season". "I only do that," he replies engagingly, "because it's the only way you'll let me talk about football."

His method, which consists largely in effortlessly avoiding the accepted view, is particularly effective in the section on Charity. He quotes Roberto Calasso: "With La Fayette the alliance between Good Causes and Stupidity is signed and sealed. From now on, those who seek the good of Mankind will share a crude, imprecise, warm-hearted, obtuse, emphatic vision of men." Parks adds that the "post-Christian enterprise of substituting God with man becomes problematic if we forget to have as high an opinion of the latter as we once entertained of the former", while in Maturity he writes of his children and of appetence, that yearning which the Welsh call hiraeth. There are 13 pieces, all worth lingering over, leaving you with the feeling you might have if you'd spent the night drinking on a warm cafe terrace discussing with some well-disposed intellectuals the meaning of everything.

Alice Thomas Ellis

Tim Parks

Secker and Warburg

pounds 12.99

pub - 5 November 1998