In Tim Parks’s essay Why Finish Books? he admits to abandoning reading novels halfway through, eager to start something new. “Might it be,” he asks, “that, in showing a willingness not to pursue even an excellent book to the death, you are actually doing the writer a favor, exonerating him or her from the near-impossible task of getting out of the plot gracefully?”
It’s tempting to obey this impulse reading Parks’s new novel, the story of 75-year-old Frank Marriot’s incarceration in a Milan hotel as Covid sends Italy into its first lockdown. Although the prose is as smooth as the cabernet Frank sips, dining alone while the world disintegrates around him, one can’t see how the dramatic situation can be resolved without resorting to inelegant contrivances or a crashing deus ex machina. After all, when it comes to Covid, one has the benefit of three harrowing years of hindsight.
A veteran journalist and founder of the slightly opaque Institute of Plain Speech, Frank flies from London to Milan for the funeral of his old friend and love rival, renowned literary editor Dan Sandow. This “Elder Statesman of American Intelligentsia” seems loosely based on both the late Robert B Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, and George Plimpton, founder of the Paris Review. A man of prodigious appetites, Sandow slept with Frank’s ex-wife, Connie, the mother of his son. Frank hopes keenly for rapprochement with her at the funeral. When this doesn’t happen, he finds the vivifying throb of a northern Italian city compensation enough. Complacent and self-regarding, Frank lounges in his five-star hotel room, watching opera and sipping Veuve Clicquot, musing on Arthurian legends and the aging process. But his equilibrium is short-lived when he realizes he’s landed in the epicenter of viral transmission.
Very quickly, all flights out of Lombardy are cancelled. The hotel is reduced to a skeleton staff, with restricted access to the outside world; the hospitals are overflowing. Frank’s room becomes his “luxury cell”. Parks is excellent on the terror of these first days, with their ominous sirens and desolate streets. Initially a news refusenik, Frank finds himself glued to CNN, forced like everyone to learn the new jargon. “Asymptomatic. Super spreader.” However, apart from experiencing a single wave of panic, Frank seems relatively unperturbed. He embodies the sadly familiar libertarian stance that sees face masks as a form of “control”. Given the circumstances, this seems suicidal.
It’s at this point in the narrative that we feel Parks won’t, to use his own phrase, get out of his plot gracefully: Frank’s head-in-the-sand hubris seems bound to lead to his downfall. Yet it’s here that the novel veers off into much more interesting territory. A mysterious thumping on the roof is revealed to be caused by an Egyptian family, holed up illegally: a mother, her young son and a father-in-law critically ill with Covid. For the first time, Frank faces a real moral dilemma. Can he transcend a lifelong habit of self-interest and come to their aid? And how much will it cost him if he does?
Moreover, might these migrants have something to teach him about living? “Who could tell what experiences such people were coming from? What journeys they had made.” The answer to these urgent questions, and Frank’s seemingly impossible predicament once he moves the family into his room, grip the reader to the final page. Surprised by the urge to do “something noble”, he wonders if he has ever done anything serious in his life. The shade of Dan Sandow visits him in a dream, intoning, like Marley’s ghost: “The world is changing, Frank, and you must change with it.”
Despite these novelistic strengths, it’s hard to assess how we are to respond to Frank, who thinks and speaks a little too frankly – or plainly, as his institute would have it. Frank is the type of entitled male narrator long absent from contemporary fiction, complete with uninhibited male gaze. Are we to find pathos or offense in a septuagenarian noticing a fellow guest’s “coltish” legs? Is Frank’s late-life altruism merely white savior syndrome? How much of this is satire?
Yet Frank’s slow education in the world’s interconnectedness more than makes up for any authorial fence-sitting. The book’s message, in its quietly devastating final scene, is, to quote Larkin, that we should be kind to each other while there’s still time. While recent pandemic novels such as Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat and Sarah Moss’s The Fell gave us the claustrophobia and forced intimacy of the pandemic, Hotel Milano comes closest to evoking what it was really like to watch the world be redrawn in real time.