Five questions for Nicholas T. Parsons

February 10, 2010

Nicholas T. Parsons graduated from New College, Oxford. His first jobs were teaching at the British Institute of Florence and as Lettore per la Letteratura inglese alla Facoltà di Lettere, Università di Pisa. In the 1970s worked for three London publishers, ending up as commissioning editor for an Australian house.
In 1981 he published his first book, Dipped in Vitriol, an anthology of, and commentary on, hatchet reviews. In 1980 he moved to Greece to set up a sales office for a UK publisher, and subsequently abandoned publishing for freelance work. He married the art historian  Ilona Sármány in the early 1980s and moved to Vienna, where he has worked as a freelance writer, editor, translator and occasional tour guide.
Nicholas T. Parsons has translated two books from German and written or compiled some seventeen others. Apart from various articles in the press and occasional contributions to The Hungarian Quarterly, he has also written chapters for “The Széchenyi Chain Bridge and Adam Clark” (Budapest, 1999) and “National Heritage – National Canon” (Ed. Mihály Szegedy-Maszák, Collegium Budapest, 2001). Works published in UK and (in some cases in US editions) include two anthologies, two works on literary topics, and ten guidebooks, including the Blue Guides to Vienna and Austria. His squib The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Austrians (written under the pseudonym of Louis James) has been in print for 16 years and a revised edition has just been launched. His latest works are: “Worth the Detour: A History of the Guidebook” (Stroud, UK, 2007) and “Vienna: A Cultural and Literary History” (Oxford, 2008).

1. What was your first (poem / piece of writing), and how bad was it?

School essay with the riveting title “A Description of a Bow and Arrow” that was entered in the school Honours Book of my English Primary School. The main point of the Honours Book was that the piece should be written out in a neat hand without the usual blots and smudges, and ideally employing a spelling familiar to other users of the English language. From this first effort (aged ten) I learned that my future as a writer definitely did not lie in the study of warfare, or indeed in the historical novel.

2. Are you currently working on anything, and why’s it taking so long?

I am always working on something, even when sitting in a Viennese coffee-house (unfortunately there are persons who seem unable to grasp this .)  Currently I am studying the writings of the Eduard Hanslick, the pope of music criticism in Vienna in the second half of the 19th century, and a much maligned man (especially by Richard Wagner.) Hanslick has been dismissed as a reactionary conservative with limited aesthetic horizons, a formalist, an establishment figure pandering to bourgeois philistinism and so on and so forth. When people as unpleasant as the Wagnerites,  or as  smug as the Modernists, go out of their way to attack someone in such violent terms, it usually means he has something interesting to say. So it is with Hanslick, and contemporary scholarship has rediscovered him, despite repeated announcements that he had been consigned to the dustbin of history. I don’t yet know what I shall write about him.

Why is it taking so long?

Well, firstly because I am lazy; and secondly because only the first six volumes (edited by Dietmar Strauss) of Hanslick’s “Sämtliche Schriften” have appeared. I think about ten are projected. It is really a question of whether Strauss dies before I do

3. Do you actually have moments of inspiration or is writing just a process of slogging day in and day out?

I think it is both. There are times when I work intensively, though that might be because of a deadline. But I can’t work intensively unless there is a concept buzzing in my head. Having said that, the concept changes and develops through the writing process. So yes, putting words on paper, even when feeling uninspired, is important, as it helps to clear the lumber. Inspiration usually arises from personality-directed preferences: certain subjects, figures or situations seem intrinsically interesting to a writer, though they may seem entirely insignificant to others. The trick is to turn this personal inspiration into something that appeals to the curiosity and intelligence of readers who wouldn’t necessarily expect to be attracted to your work. Of course few succeed in this, except to a very limited extent. A glowing recommendation of a work that comes from the author’s mother is sadly not much use on the dustjacket. The greatest writers, a Dante, a Goethe or a Shakespeare, are not simply “great” because they have been rammed down the throats of generations of unfortunate schoolchildren. They are great because, when studied and read with an open mind, they are seen to have transformed a personal inspiration into a universal insight. Easily said, incredibly difficult to do.

4. What’s the last piece of literature that made you cry?

Pride and Prejudice; it always makes me cry, sometimes with laughter.

5. What’s the worst thing about writing a book?

Nowadays, back pain!

2 Responses to “Five questions for Nicholas T. Parsons”

  1. Does Nicholas have any plans to translate Hanslick into English?

  2. […] Nicholas T. Parsons explains in Worth the Detour: A History of the Guidebook, Forster’s “irony is directed […]

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