celebrating medicine in literature




When the novelist, lecturer and translator Tim Parks was beset by sleeplessness and pains in his side in his Italian home, getting up seven times a night to urinate and only able to write standing up, he at first thought he had bladder or prostate cancer. The tests were all negative but the symptoms persisted until, desperate, he found himself turning to the internet and to alternative medicine, about which he had always been suspicious. An ayurvedic doctor told him he had blocked energy, or ‘vata’, and he was sceptical. But soon he had difficulties in his sex life too and before long he was enrolled on a course in meditation… The book is written with wry humour, self-awareness and highly wrought economy of style. The book explores the relationship between health and ambition, living in the moment and living to a timetable. His experiences pose questions: do we live modern life in too driven and narrow a way, and can we learn from older and more holistic approaches to living? There are no easy answers: Tim shows how hard it is to escape from the fundamentals of your own personality and the habits instilled from childhood, but he also tantalises and excites by opening possibilities of change.

About the author
Born in Manchester in 1954, Tim Parks grew up in London and studied at Cambridge and Harvard. In 1981, he moved to Italy, where he has lived ever since with his Italian wife and three children. He has written 14 novels including Europa (shortlisted for the Booker prize), Destiny, Cleaver and, most recently, Dreams of Rivers and Seas, all of them published in half a dozen countries. During the 1990s he wrote two highly personal non-fiction accounts of life in northern Italy, Italian Neighbours and An Italian Education, both winning him acclaim and popularity for their anthropological wryness. Other non-fiction works include Medici Money (a history of the Medici bank in 15th-century Florence) and his profound narrative reflection on health, illness and meditation, Teach Us to Sit Still. During his years in Italy, Tim has translated works by Moravia, Calvino, Calasso and Machiavelli and has written widely on the subject of translation. His book Translating Style analyses Italian translations of the English modernists, and is considered a classic in its field. He currently runs a postgraduate degree in translation at IULM University in Milan. A regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, his many essays are collected in Hell and Back and The Fighter. Visit tim-parks.com to find out more.


• Was this a hard subject to make interesting? Does it appeal to women as much as, or more than, men? Might men actually find the physical description hard to bear? • Autobiography is a tricky genre, in which an author is not only the storyteller but also the story. Truth, half-truth and invention are often blended seamlessly in a single narrative. How does Tim Parks strike you? Is he an objective inquirer? Is he a sceptic? Is the story he tells totally believable or do you think some episodes might be engineered? • The title of this book, Teach Us to Sit Still, implies that we may be about to read a self-help book. Is that the case? If not, why not? • Conventional medicine seems to fail Tim (or perhaps he fails it). But does ‘alternative’ medicine bring about a cure? Is the author’s condition, in fact, curable? • Tim’s wife and marriage are dealt with somewhat obliquely. Why do you think that is? • What did you think of the American guru, Coleman? • Does the end of the book suggest Tim has solved his problems, or is he fundamentally still the same driven man?

From ‘The Booker Speech’ (pp. 255–6): Coleman was on his last leg, pushing eighty, fat, sometimes fatuous. He spoke slowly in a sonorous voice between heavy sighs, sprawled in a deep armchair, wearing loose jeans and a sloppy sweater. A bland smile suggested he too was pleased with himself. Sitting on a table beside him, a young man with only one leg translated his words into Italian in a grating, high-pitched voice. At once this translation business irritated me. It hadn’t occurred to me that language would be an issue. Much of the translation was inaccurate and all of it expressionless. There were occasions when it was hard not to shout out better solutions. Coleman talked about the three refuges, the four truths, the five precepts, the seven stages of purification, the eight fold path to enlightenment, the ten perfections, the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, karma, anicca, anatta, samsara, dukkha, suffering, the root of all suffering, the remedy for all suffering, the bodhi tree. What drivel this was, I thought. And why do all faiths – because this clearly wasn’t science – share this mad appetite for numeration? The Trinity, the seven sacraments, the ten commandments. It wasn’t worth translating properly. On the other hand, I always tell my students that translating accurately is a pleasure in itself regardless of the inanity of the original. Certainly I was suffering more for the poor translation than the mystical content. Every few minutes the man behind me – and he was very close behind me – sniffed three times in rapid succession, then cleared his throat, then coughed. To my dismay, when the meditation proper began, fat old Coleman had someone fetch a large kitchen clock and place it at his feet. It was the kind of clock I could have heard ticking about ten miles away. Immediately I thought of all the guestrooms, classrooms, university offices and rented apartments, where the first thing I’d done on arrival was remove the battery from a ticking clock. What satisfaction that is, killing the sound that constantly returns you to the passing moment, that stops you being elsewhere in your head. Here I was helpless. This will be hell, I decided. And I hadn’t conquered the pain at all. Twenty minutes into the first session I was in agony.

Further reading
Essays by Michel de Montaigne (1580). Life: A user’s manual by Georges Perec (1980). A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker (2004). The Age of Absurdity: Why modern life makes it hard to be happy by Michael Foley (2010).

The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in health by supporting the brightest minds. The Wellcome Trust is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 210183. Its sole trustee is The Wellcome Trust Limited, a company registered in England and Wales, no. 2711000 (whose registered office is at 215 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE, UK).

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