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The last word on literary creativity in late capitalist society
on 2 November 2013
I bought this novel after reading Ian Thomson's review of it in The Guardian on 26 October. Being an amateur author myself, the subject matter appealed: the emptiness and vanity of literary awards.
Thomson made the problem and the book's take on it sound specifically Italian ("In Italy, more so than in Britain, literary prizes are regarded as something of a vanity; showbiz impresarios, fashion models and industrialists all clamour to attend the awards"). But in fact, I think Thomson is only partly right. The phenomenon under consideration in The Parrots is not primarily literary awards: it is the very possibility of being a writer within a developed industrial capitalist system. In their different ways, each of the protagonists is stymied by the compromises required. There are three authors, and they each represent a different mode of failure, and a different stage in the process: beginning, middle and end.
Incidentally, Bologna's refusal to give names to his characters underlines this. Readers expecting a novel on the US/ UK model will be at a loss. Bologna is not aiming for photographic realism: this is a more of philosophical essay developed as a parable with superficially quirky commentary. The author himself is as much a character in his story as anyone within the narrative. The title of the novel is partly perhaps down to the idea that even the `best' writers have nothing new to say. But things are more complex than that: there is an actual parrot in the novel, a genuinely disturbing creature. Birds, identified by their (loose) colloquial and (precise) Latin names, are a frequent motif. Genuineness, and how genuineness must be ignored or obliterated or both.
But to return to those three protagonists, each a contender for `the Prize', a career-making literary award of national significance. `The Beginner' has written a promising novel, although from what we learn indirectly about it (through readers' comments on the internet, for example), it is an ambiguous achievement, some commentators deploring its eccentric chronology and lack of direction. The Beginner's girlfriend (`The Girlfriend') accuses him of having become vain and self-centred since having achieved success as a writer, and Bologna seems disinclined to argue. His one chance of retrieving some sort of personal authenticity, it eventually becomes explicitly clear, is to deliberately lose the contest for The Prize.
`The Master' is an old man at the end of his career and his life. Right at the beginning of the novel, he is diagnosed with prostate cancer, and comes to see The Prize as his sole remaining hope of retrospectively justifying his artistic life. His big mistake is to have perpetually tried for some sort of authenticity: swimming against the ever-changing tide of literary fashion, sticking with a small publisher out of personal loyalty when a big one would have served him better, writing poetry. His indifference to commercial success has come to seem, in hindsight, a mistake. He is poverty-stricken, ruined and bitter.
`The Writer' is a successful author who does not write his own novels. He enjoys massive worldly success, but not happiness. As the novel wears on, he becomes aware of his own fraudulence to the point where it becomes unbearable.
Bologna continually implies that none of the three has written anything genuinely worth reading. In an extended reflection in the middle of the novel by `The Beginner', at a poorly-attended provincial Book Club event, there is even the suggestion that the commercial literary system, though irretrievably poisoned by capitalism, is nevertheless the only game in town. "The Beginner had immediately recognised the type, universally known as `provincial writer who hasn't made it'. It was a very specific, widespread and in no way innocuous anthropological and literary category".
In general, I dislike novels about novel-writing (Amis's The Information, McEwan's Atonement left me cold). But this is different. Because The Parrots is the last word on the subject. I can't help feeling its accuracy is chilling.