“I want to be one of those isolated lights high up on the mountainside at night.”: Cleaver, a novel by Tim Parks

March 31, 2008 at 5:14 pm (Book review, books)

cleaver1.jpg Harold Cleaver is a British media darling. He interprets the news when not actually making it himself. Recently, he has made very big news indeed by savaging the U.S. president in a no-holds-barred interview that left viewers and listeners in no doubt about his opinion of America’s chief executive. But the anger that Cleaver let fly in that televised confrontation was, in fact, displaced. As it happens, just one day before the interview was scheduled to take place, a defamatory – and inflammatory – book had fallen into Cleaver’s hands. In it, a thinly disguised Cleaver substitute is exposed to almost unrelenting ridicule and scorn. Although calling itself a novel, Under His Shadow is a roman a clef if there ever was one. Cleaver recognizes everyone in it: Amanda, his wife – or non-wife, since they were never legally wed – and his contentious brood of children, numbering at one time four, but reduced to three by the untimely death, in an auto accident, of the teen-aged Angela. Angela had a twin brother, Alex, and there are two younger children, Philip and Caroline. Alex is the author of Under His Shadow.

His elder son’s monstrous betrayal, and the furor over the interview with the president, have caused Cleaver to flee Britain in search of solitude and anonymity. He finds both, to an extent, in the Tyrol, a region of the Eastern Alps that’s part Austrian and part Italian. Cleaver is both amazed and pleased to have fetched up in this remote place. tyrol.jpg The Tyrol is beautiful but dangerous, though, with heavy winter snows and challenging terrain. It is a country for fit outdoorsmen, a description that in no way applies to Cleaver, who is overweight and has smoked, drunk and eaten way too much for most of his adult life. In addition to these vices, so happily indulged in, he has been a compulsive womanizer, not only cheating on Amanda, but frequently cheating on his lovers on with yet another girlfriend. But no matter – the Tyrol, “the forgotten heart of Europe” –  is where he wants to be.

Cleaver is looking for a kind of purification, a purging of his excess baggage, both physical and emotional. In a rare moment of honesty with himself, he acknowledges how difficult it will be to bring about this transformation: “How sombre I feel, he realised, …a ghost shackled old haunts, but unable to take pleasure in them, eager to be exorcised.”

He arranges with a farm family to rent a primitive hut in the Alps. His new abode is without electricity or indoor plumbing. Cleaver is a man who has always been happy to let others do the heavy lifting while he entertained guests and television audiences with his facile wit. Now he is faced with the daunting prospect of laboring on his own just in order to survive.

Initially he is inept and clumsy. It doesn’t help that members of the farm family, whose help he desperately needs, speak almost no English, while he himself knows only a few words of German. Moreover, this family’s relationships are murky, tangled, and therefore very intriguing. Cleaver can’t help himself – he wants to know what’s really going on with these people. Here he is, trying to cultivate an indifference to the affairs of others, but he gets sucked into their story in spite of himself. He has left an extremely troubled family situation behind, only to find himself immersed in something disturbingly similar. Yes, there’s a barrier to communication here – but that barrier seems always to have been present in Cleaver’s personal life, even – especially? – when the people involved supposedly spoke the same language! The irony of this fact, for a man who has made his living by being articulate in public, is not lost on him.

This is a complex and volatile story, told with a high octane urgency that often resembles stream of consciousness. And Harold Cleaver’s consciousness can be uncomfortable space in which to dwell. Rage alternates with despair; when Cleaver is not heaping venom on others, he’s pouring liberal helpings on his own head and lacing them with humor that is bitter and black. His mind does indeed seem to be filled with scorpions.

But then things start to change. In the beginning, Cleaver comes across as a narcissistic, self-indulgent whiner. That changes, too – but it takes a while. And the change, when it comes, is momentous without being radical. To be fair, right from the start there are hints of another, rather different human being, hidden behind Cleaver’s smug, resentful persona. For one thing, it becomes increasingly clear that he has never stopped mourning his daughter. Angela had been his darling; once she was gone, his carapace had hardened and no new, forgiving light could penetrate. From this deep, unhealed wound, much pain has flowed.

There is some very powerful writing in Cleaver:

“The dark glass gave back the low flame of the lamp. It was the kind of light women liked to make love by, liquid, soft and mobile: the light most like the mind, as Cleaver had once scored points by observing.”

“Auld Lang Syne is a sort of mounting frame, Cleaver laughed, which holds the mind still while it is violated by a certain rapacious emotion. Perhaps a bell clangs. And through that emotion the song brings you close to other people, as when everyone sang so movingly at the funeral: Abide with me, fast falls the eventide. Including his partner’s lover, and her Scottish parents. It was horrible.”

parks.jpg goodness.jpg I’ve read several novels by Tim Parks. I remember that Goodness, which I read when it came out 1994, affected me deeply. In it, Parks describes how the birth of an infant with severe disabilities turns the lives of an upwardly mobile couple upside down. It’s a short book that packs a wallop.

And so does Cleaver. This may not be a novel for everyone, but I loved it.


  1. Local booklovers, mark your calendars! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] are five titles that I’ll be talking about: Cleaver by Tim Parks; The Ghost by Robert Harris; The Graving Dock by Gabriel Cohen; Best American Magazine […]

  2. “Personal best” for 2008: Fiction, with a (brief, I promise!) sentimental digression « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Cleaver by Tim Parks. I really liked the throw-caution-to-the-winds writing that made Cleaver such a wild ride. I haven’t liked everything Parks has done, but I do admire his willingness to go slightly crazy in his fiction from time to time. (Parks has also written several nonfiction works about living in Italy.) Of his earlier works, I very much enjoyed Tongues of Flame and Goodness. For readers like myself who are always alert for a novel that features a provocative moral dilemma, Goodness is a real gift. […]

  3. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] – Paul Theroux On Chesil Beach, Saturday, Enduring Love – Ian McEwan Trauma – Patrick McGrath Cleaver – Tim Parks Senator’s Wife – Sue Miller The Northern Clemency – Philip Hensher The […]

  4. A Lady's Life said,

    Wow this sounds like a great book.
    I will look for it.

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