The British author Tim Parks lives up a cypress-lined hill, some 6km outside the spectacularly pretty northern Italian city of Verona. Yet as far as the London literary scene is concerned, Parks might as well live on Mars.Underrated is not a term that can easily be applied to him, because he is rated, hugely, by leading novelists and intellectuals from Roberto Calasso to J M Coetzee. In many ways the originality, power and sheer prolificacy of Parks's production makes the work of his British contemporaries appear trite.
But part of Tim Parks's problem in gaining market share and those big prizes, has been the fact that he doesn't have a single voice, or consistent style. Nor does he stick to comfortable, correct or readily acceptable themes. His subject matter, where it's specifically discernible, ranges from mental illness to physical disability, from megalomaniacs to seemingly selfless missionaries. His prose can be sparse and lucid, or almost manically convoluted, though beyond the fierce and questioning intelligence are both humour and artfully constructed and invariably gripping plots.
In many ways, Parks's novels (there have been 14, including the latest, Dreams of Rivers and Seas, as well as his seven non-fiction works) skirt around philosophical issues of connectedness, belonging, engagement, non-engagement, celebrity and silence. While the Austrian Thomas Bernhard has been a clear influence, especially when it comes to an almost manic syntactical style, Beckett is the author who really turns him on.
"It might have something to do with my Evangelical upbringing – a way of putting a spoke into my father's evangelical wheels," he says, in crisp linen, on the sunny terrace of his neat home. His father was a Manchester-based clergyman, and his upbringing, with an elder brother and sister, was both rigid and stark, until he escaped to Cambridge University, and then Harvard, where he met his Italian wife, Rita.
"There is a definite element of a polarity between me and my dad, in the sense that he preached sermons that wanted to bring people to a certainty, and it's clear that I write books that want to leave you with a cloud of creative or positive confusion."
As to both the variety of his work and the prolificacy, he says, "I have this little bee in my bonnet that to stay alive as a writer it's a good idea to set yourself up with challenges and not simply accept the same kind of structure." The refreshing thing about Parks – as my afternoon with him drifts into evening – in person, and on the page, is that he's never afraid to hold back from being contentious or opinionated. "What's clearly not very attractive," he says, "is seeing everybody rush to do a 9/11 novel, or a terrorist novel, or so on. You feel that really there is a commercial desire rather than a genuine interest. Frankly, it's a failure of imagination. I shall name no names, but we all know that very major British authors have made fools of themselves, really, with this kind of thing." Having spent the last 28 years living in Italy – because Rita hated the rain in England – Parks's Mancunian accent has all but dissolved into a lithe drawl.
Dreams of Rivers and Seas is seemingly a departure from what's gone before, in that it's multi-voiced, and set in Delhi. The new novel follows three characters and how they are variously affected by the death of Albert James, an anthropologist. Effectively Parks has removed the main man. As he puts it, at "the anxious heart of this" is a debate about engagement and non-engagement.
As with all Parks's novels, this debate is both personal, relating to marriage and children, and political, in terms of how far you can either have an impact on society, or simply step away into some form of a meditative and observational role. The other strand at play, and a favourite Parks theme, is communication. "I'm constantly reading newspapers and just amazed that people feel so secure that they know what the words mean, especially words like good and bad. It's extraordinary that these people seem to know what a good person is. Surely philosophers have been through this whole problem. People go on blithely imagining that they are communicating. I also think marriage is a very strange communication system."
The key marriage which is explored in the novel is that between Albert James and his wife, Helen. She is a doctor, who tirelessly followed Albert James around the third world, getting work in primitive field hospitals, while he catalogued a series of intricate, though possibly inconsequential social experiments. Finally finding themselves in Delhi, Helen attended to the destitute and the dying for free, while Albert photographed young girls dancing.
The suggestion of impropriety remains just that – a suggestion. What fuels the plot, is how Helen copes with the sudden absence of Albert. "I think it's terribly interesting what happens when somebody important dies next to you," says Parks. The effect of Albert James's non-engagement or hands-off approach to child rearing is felt, especially after his death, even more violently by his son John, who flies to Delhi for the funeral. Into the frame also blunders Paul Roberts, an American journalist who wants to write Albert James's biography.
Parks was heavily influenced by the late British anthropologist and social scientist Gregory Bateson, when creating Albert James. As ever with Parks, the novel reaches a decidedly inconclusive, but ever questioning and ultimately enlightening ending. The resolution as such, is, as he puts it, "more like a catharsis of exhaustion".
Except that Dreams of Rivers and Seas, unlike his previous work, has the bonus of the Delhi backdrop, coupled with accessible prose. In other words, it's a big, easily readable book – though with a solidly intellectual core – more than ripe for big prizes.
Parks has been shortlisted for the Booker only once, for his novel Europa, back in 1997, the year Arundhati Roy won for The God of Small Things. "There have been moments when I've thought, hey, either I've got it completely wrong, or somebody isn't noticing who should be," he says. "But the important thing really is to learn to deal with it. You live only once. I've decided to pay no attention and get on with the business at hand." Living in Italy has afforded him both a welcome sense of escape, or certainly distance from the London literary fray, and embroiled him in a decidedly European intellectual sensibility.
At 53, Parks shows no signs of slowing down. Aside from his fiction, and he's already laid down the first few pages of a new novel, he's a world-renowned literary translator – he's just finished putting Machiavelli's The Prince into English – and is professor of translation at Milan's IULM University. He's also a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, with recent notable essays on Dante, Leopardi, Montale and Svevo.
Home life, however, is a little less frenetic, or "on an upward curve". His son, Mich, is studying biology in the States, his eldest daughter, Stefi, is having some success as lead singer of the all-girl band Cherry Lips, leaving 14-year-old Lucia to accompany her mother, also a translator, on lengthy walks in the cool hills with their Border collie. Parks's idea of relaxation is kayaking. If he doesn't have time to drive up into the mountains for some Tyrolean white water, he'll go for an afternoon paddle in the River Adige, which flows through Verona. "All my work is about that tension between being part of the collective mind, and not being swept away with it," he says. "It's about getting down the river, without just being pushed down the river. I want to stop in the eddy behind that rock where nobody goes."
'... Paul again had the impression that vital information was being withheld. Had he come to Delhi just a few weeks before and met Albert James in the flesh, everything would have fallen into place. Instead he had arrived only in time to see the smoke drifting up from the crematorium chimney. The man had escaped him'
Dreams of Rivers and Seas, By Tim Parks (Harvill Secker £16.99)