Wednesday, January 6, 2010


I’ve just finished Adam Thirlwell’s book of literary criticism, The Delighted States: a Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes.

That paragraph is the title. People don’t write titles like that anymore. Titles like, as Vlad from Third Place Press shared here, Walking, a fine art as practiced by Naturalists and explained by Original Contributions to this volume, and by Quotations from the published works of those who Love to Dally alongside Country Lanes.

The book has been a hit at the bookstore. Robert, the manager, was very passionate about it when it came out. Since returning in hardcover as a bargain book, no less than six staff members have put it on hold or are seriously flirting with it. It mentions the authors that are so popular with a certain sector of the bookstore staff: Witold Gombrowicz, Boromil Hbrabal, Bruno Schulz. It also makes mention of the more canonical Joyce, Nabokov, Sterne, Tolstoy. Actually, having just watched the film Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story, I was thrilled to have Tristram Shandy the novel discussed. It is on my soon-to-read list.

Thirlwell seems to me a literary wunderkind. He was less than thirty when the book was published, already an Oxford graduate; a pupil of Craig Raine, the founder and editor of the small highbrow tri-quarterly magazine Areté; and a contributor and assistant editor himself. The book is about the history of the novel, the history of translation, the challenges and impossibilities of translation, the history of style, the translation of style, and the style of translation.

Thirlwell acts as a great eye, which swivels, focuses on a remote (or domestic) location, zooms close until you overhear a conversation, read a letter or a diary entry, witness a change of ideals or philosophies, and then zoom out rapidly to swivel to somewhere new, to forge a connection between the two scenes. We see the influences, Thirlwell suggests obvious and less obvious connections. We meet Miss Herbert, the first translator of Madame Bovary into English, whose translation was never published and has since disappeared. We observe Joyce watching the translation of his groundbreaking Ulysses into French, the despair at Eastern European authors who can never have any accurate translation of this work which has reinvented the novel because one can never truly translate both form and content. One has to be sacrificed.

Thirlwell asks whether it is possible to translate both form and content. And then, is it necessary? Or is there something essential, the truth of art as Nabokov would say, which transcends linguistic barriers?

The book denigrates bad readers. It makes fun of the quixotic readers, whether characters in novels or the readers of those novels, who read to identify with characters, who read so closely that they miss the writer’s ironic intentions and stylistic accomplishments. I agree with Benjamin Lytal’s article in the New York Sun which said that Adam Thirlwell’s ideal author is “light-hearted, a formalist and an ironist.” The tragicomic is his schtick. He makes fun of the Romantics.

It has been a very stimulating and exhausting read. Hrabal and Gombrowicz are on my literary horizons, I intend to read them, but they’re not naturally my cup of tea. I appreciate the importance of original stylists to literature, but I think one’s reading diet can be expanded by including the smaller, humbler (though still talented) writers.

I shall do that now with Angela Carter’s Wise Children.

No comments: