Tag Archives: Tim Parks

Travels From My Sofa: Walking in the Mountains of Italy, Switzerland and Austria,

Walking is the thing that’s helped keep me sane – so far – throughout the pandemic. That and blogging with its virtual community, still there when I can’t see my other friends. I’ve resisted The Dolomites - near selvausing the term ‘lockdown’ because, for me, that would have meant the end of the permitted daily exercise outside the house and I’m not sure how I’d have coped with that. Mountain walking wasn’t something I did until my late twenties, although I did start in a big way when H and I spent a few months travelling which included trekking in Nepal. There are three countries much closer to home of which I have fond hiking memories to revisit. If you fancy a bit of virtual exercise with the odd city break plus links to a few reviews thrown in, you’re welcome to join me. We’re off to Italy first.

It was on our way to the Dolomites that the idea of railway holidays took root having flown to Munich where we spent a very pleasant evening before catching the train into Italy. The destinations listed on the Munich station departure board held out the tantalising prospect of a bit of real travel. We’d booked two hotels for this trip, the first of which was in the tiny village of Badia and very smart in a laid-back kind of way it was too. TheVia Garibaldi (Genoa) second was in Selva, still a village but it felt almost like a city after a week in Badia. The walking was all we’d hoped for although there were a few too many cyclists intent on keeping their stats up rather than avoiding us on the paths around Badia. The wildflowers were gorgeous as was the pudding buffet on offer in our second hotel, recced every night by a few anxious diners even before they tucked into their starters.

Our most recent visit to Italy had nothing to do with walking but I loved the city of Genoa with its splendid mansions and mosaic lined colonnades so much I can’t not give it a mention. Not nearly so crowded as the likes of Florence, where I spent a wet Cover imageNovember week years ago, or Venice, which I’ve been lucky enough to visit twice, and it offered a glimpse of real Italian life.

Italian travels from my sofa: The Eight Mountains, Ties, Three Light-Years, My Mother is a River

We could go either way over the border to Switzerland or Austria but let’s take the Swiss route as H and I did a couple of years back, revisiting the sweet little town of Adelboden. Many of the walks were familiar from a previous holiday but just as gorgeous with spring rather than summer wildflowers to enjoy plus a bit of marmot-spotting. This time we managed to fit in a visit to the immaculately kept church opposite the delicatessen whose sculpted cow View from Adelboden (Switzerland)moos now and again advertising the cheese counter inside. With its richly coloured stained-glass windows and stars painted on its wooden beamed ceiling the church is a little gem. Its central window was designed by Augusto Giacometti, a relative of the sculptor Alberto Giacometti. This was the church where we’d seen a freshly married couple picked up and seated on top of some hay bales before being carried off on a very small tractor last time we were there.

Swiss travels from my sofa: Housefrau, Sweet Days of Discipline, Year of the Drought

Cover image for A Whole Life by Robert SeethalerOff to Austria for two more weeks high in the mountains above Zell am See where more marmots were spotted. We’d been hoping for another Adelboden but Zell has suffered from a little too much tourism losing some of its charm on the way. Oddly, it’s become a destination for young Saudis, some in traditional dress looking a little out of place against an alpine backdrop. The walking was so enjoyable we never got around to exploring nearby Salzburg. Apart from a brief stop in Innsbruck while hitching around Europe, back in the day, when we turned up to find everything closed on a Saturday afternoon, my other two visits to Austria have both  been to Vienna, once on a winter break when I was struck by how conservative the city felt and the second in the summer at the end of our first Central European railway jaunt when it seemed entirely different. What a difference a season makes.

Austrian travels from my sofa: The Tobacconist, A Whole Life, The Empress and the Cake, Me and Kaminski

I hope that’s stretched your virtual legs a bit. Any vicarious travels you’d like to share?

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy (transl. Tim Parks): Happiest days of your life…

Cover imageFleur Jaeggy’s novella is part of And Other Stories’ response to Kamila Shamsie’s ‘provocation’ back in 2015, calling for a year in which only books written by women should be published. For me it’s not so much the gender ratio of authors published that’s the problem, more the level of serious coverage books by women are given. I imagine Shamsie wasn’t expecting much of a take up but And Other Stories responded with alacrity. Written in 1989 and set in post-war Switzerland, Sweet Days of Discipline explores life in a boarding school with all its stifling intensity.

Our unnamed narrator looks back to when she was almost fourteen. She’s boarded at a variety of schools since she was eight, spending holidays alone with her taciturn father. Her mother lives in Brazil, sending instructions about her daughter’s education but having little else to do with her. When an elegantly dressed, perfectly behaved new girl arrives, our narrator determinedly monopolizes her. Soon she and Frédérique are the closest of friends. Our narrator has nothing but contempt for her German roommate with her pink cheeks and frilly dresses, only cool admiration for the girl who tells her all about her Andalusian adventures and talks to her of philosophy. Then Micheline arrives, brightly vivacious and full of tales of her flirtatious father. Frédérique fades into the background but our unnamed narrator will not forget her, meeting her later in life and coming to a deeper understanding of her friend.

Written in austere, pinpoint sharp prose, Jaeggy’s novella takes a scalpel to teenage boarding school relationships. Our narrator’s determination to win Frédérique’s devotion seems, at first, more about the challenge it presents than a sincere interest and yet Frédérique is the person she continues to look for, even in adult life. The cruelty of boarding school life is painfully vivid – our narrator’s apparent regret at the hurt caused by rejecting a younger girl’s overtures turns out to be something else entirely: I had lost a slave, without getting any pleasure out of it. The school’s cloistered claustrophobia is smartly skewered: We saw life pass by beneath our windows, observed it in books and on our walks. The effects of this life stripped of parental affection are clear: The pleasure of disappointment. it wasn’t new to me. I had been relishing it since I was eight years old. Obedience and discipline are the school’s watchwords but love seems nowhere to be found in Jaeggy’s elegantly expressed, forensically observed novella. A deeply unsettling piece of fiction.

Books to Look Out For in February 2016: Part 2

The BallroomTop of the list of my second batch of February books to look out for has to be Anna Hope’s The Ballroom. Her debut, Wake, was one of those novels in the tidal wave of fiction that dealt with the First World War and its aftermath back in 2014. I liked it very much and have hopes for this one which is set in the summer of 1911 in an asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire moors where men and women meet briefly once a week to dance. ‘A tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which’, according to the publishers. I suspect this one will be hyped to the skies but it may well live up to it, or close at least. Lovely jacket too – almost a match for the gorgeous Wake cover.

I’ve long been a fan of Julie Myerson’s fiction all the way back to Sleepwalking  but the last one or two novels seemed a little formulaic to me. The synopsis of The Stopped Heart sounds as if it may well be in the same vein. A good deed to a stranger, a century ago, seems to have left its mark on the apparently idyllic cottage where a couple are trying to make a fresh start after the loss of their child. ‘The perfect place to forget. To move on. But in The Stopped Heart, the past never dies.’ say the publishers. Hmm… Not at all sure about that but once more for old time’s sake, I think.

At one stage I was convinced that Tim Parks had a huge alimony bill, either that or a Cover imagesubstance abuse problem, so great was his output. It turned out to be neither as the happily married, sober Parks revealed in his moving memoir on his driven nature and inability to stop working, Teach Us to Sit Still. His new novel, Thomas and Mary, is about a long-married couple who are facing the prospect of separating. Billed as ‘a love story in reverse’ Parks’ novel chronicles Thomas and Mary’s marriage from its first heady days in what the publishers have described as ‘a fiercely intimate chronicle of a marriage’. Sounds quite appealing to me.

Entirely different, Sunil Yapa’s debut, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, is set in Seattle against the backdrop of the 1999 World Trade Organzation protest. Victor, the estranged son of Seattle’s police chief, finds himself homeless after a family tragedy. On a day that will see the city under siege from protesters, Victor and his father are set on a collision course. This one could go either way but it has an unusual setting and that’s an eye-catching title.

Cover imageI’ve seen Paraic O’Donnell’s The Maker of Swans talked about on Twitter – not always a good thing – but a striking jacket and an intriguing synopsis has piqued my interest. Once a man of note with extraordinary gifts, Mr Crowe has given himself over to earthly pleasures, living in faded grandeur with his ward, Clara, and his manservant. When he commits a crime of passion he draws the attention of the head of the secret society to which he belongs, attention that’s soon diverted to Clara who, it seems, may be able to save them all. Sounds like it might be just the ticket for long dark evenings, if done well.

That’s it for February. Lots of reasons to wrap up warm and stay inside. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis and If you’d like to catch up with the first set of February titles they’re here. First batch of paperbacks next week.