June/July/Aug 2008

Power of Babble

Adam Thirlwell suggests mistranslation is the key to the novel’s glories

Michael Wood

"I think you are going to like Moshe,” reads the second sentence of Adam Thirlwell’s funny, inventive first novel, Politics (2003). “His girlfriend’s name was Nana. I think you will like her too.” And on the next page, “I like this couple.” Isn’t he overdoing the authorial intervention? Not a bit—this is a double bluff, and it manifestly works. “This may seem a little pushy to you,” the style says, “but I’m sure you’ll enjoy the book in spite of my pushiness—well, because of my pushiness, because my pushiness is so playful.” I say the double bluff works because you can’t argue with such tangible worldly success—the book has been translated into thirty languages, in 2003 Thirlwell was named one of Britain’s best novelists under forty (he was born in 1978), and he is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. Nevertheless, it is possible to think a novel is funny and inventive and also to find its relentless charm a touch too . . . relentless.

The Delighted States is an altogether different affair, although written in much the same self-advertising voice. Early in the book, Thirlwell says he has sometimes thought of it as “an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters”; he also describes it as “an atlas.” He says it’s “written with a full acceptance of the mistake, the anachronism, the side effect,” because “the history of the novel is, simultaneously, a history of an elaborate and intricate international art form—and also a history of errors, a history of waste.” This is to say that The Delighted States is itself a quirky history of the novel, a story of the textual travels of a particular mind, and I need to add that if novelists are characters here, their own fictional characters are just as important. They leave their own books and cross into others, making many of Thirlwell’s most ingenious points for him. It is from studying Emma Bovary rather than Flaubert, for example, that Thirlwell learns the novelist “wanted to be precise about how calmly people were imprecise about reality”; and from the same character, taking an additional pointer or two from the practices of Joyce and Nabokov, the author derives that “a mind is a scrapbook; a mind is a suitcase.” It is from a direct encounter with Saint-Simon’s prose, and not from any biographical background, that Thirlwell knows the style is “based on an impacted note form”; and it is in Nabokov’s novels rather than in anything the old monster ever said (or indeed in anything much that critics have ever said about him) that he discovers the writer’s “overwhelming sensitivity to pain.”

The story—inside out in the extended sense just described—involves Gogol, Sterne, Chekhov, Diderot, Machado de Assis, Proust, Kafka, Gombrowicz, Schulz, Tolstoy, Svevo, and others and, in spite of Thirlwell’s many grand and fuzzy claims about style and translation (“A style is . . . as much a quirk of emotion, or of theological belief, as it is a quirk of language”; “A style is a quality of vision”; “there is no need for a style to have a single style”), finally rests on two interesting and contradictory suggestions. Each proceeds from the fact that great writers, however monolingual they may be as speakers, rarely restrict their reading to works originally written in their own language. (Thirlwell invokes the example of Pushkin and Machado de Assis, writing away in Russia and Brazil, being deeply influenced by Sterne, read only in very imperfect French translation.) This is how what Thirlwell calls the Delighted States of Literature come to be formed in the minds of writers and readers.

The first suggestion is that the details of errors and shifts in translation are infinitely important because one of the virtues of language is its eerie specificity, or the possibility of that specificity. Thirlwell notes that Gogol’s choice of the stuttering name of Akaky Akakievich belongs only to Gogol’s Russian; that Saul Bellow translates two different words for fool in I. B. Singer’s Yiddish as if they were the same; that Chekhov can make a subtle point through a character’s slipping from “mother” to “mama”; and that Kafka’s Josef K. becomes Jurek K. in Polish. The second, contrary, and, for Thirlwell, more important suggestion is that all kinds of masterpieces, supposedly cast irreplaceably in their native tongue, manage to survive bad to mediocre translation and even butchery.

The volume concludes with an exercise in sympathetic literary archaeology—an appendix sporting its own title page and pagination that presents the original text and Thirlwell’s translation of Nabokov’s story “Mademoiselle O,” first written in French and later reworked in English as chapter 5 of Speak, Memory. The case rather confirms the first of the suggestions, since the work becomes memorable (unlike Thirlwell’s perfectly competent translation) only when Nabokov himself rewrites it.

Thirlwell can’t address the contradiction between linguistic specificity and the extra­ordinary ease of literary travel not because he doesn’t see it but because his cheerful tone doesn’t allow him to note such drearily academic stuff. The writing throughout is breezily populist, not always a bad thing, but a mode full of risks. Remember all that agony about the difficulties of writing in Flaubert’s letters? Thirlwell knows what was really going on—Flaubert was trying to tell Louise Colet that he didn’t want to go and live with her: “It is very difficult telling a girl whom you like but do not love that you do not love her.” (Colet was a “girl” of forty-seven or so when Flaubert was writing Madame Bovary.) Did you think Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey might have something to say about France and Italy and general questions of morals and manners in Europe? No, no, as Thirlwell’s mentor Craig Raine is cited as saying, “this novel is all about knowing which girl to pick up.” This instance is especially obtuse, since Sterne himself repeatedly says this is what the novel is about; the question is what we are missing when we take him at his word or paraphrase him into the language of the high school magazine. Thirlwell also likes to repeat himself, and his editor obviously shares his taste or just gave up. “The things of this world . . . are not permanent; they do not last.” They don’t last, you see—you may have found “not permanent” a little difficult.

Still, none of this matters very much—except where it does, as Thirlwell might happily say. And where it does is where the bright simplicity of this very clever writer becomes reductive—where interesting thoughts vanish into the populist mill. Samuel Beckett, for example, suggesting that Joyce’s writing in Finnegans Wake “is not about something; it is that something itself,” is rebuked for making an elementary category mistake: “A sign is not the same as the thing it represents.” Indeed not, but words are things as well as signs. Flaubert famously wanted to write “a book about nothing,” held together “by the internal strength of its style.” The meaning of this statement, Thirlwell says, “is not, let’s be frank, immediately clear. It is hyperbole.” I particularly like “let’s be frank,” good English common sense; no suspicion here that Flaubert might have known he was using hyperbole and might have thought it helped him to say what he wanted to say. There are one or two serious misreadings in The Delighted States, too, also stemming from this jolly no-wool-over-my-eyes approach. Josef K., in The Trial, is said to spend his time “trying to find out the nature of the charges against him.” It’s true that this is what a sensible person would do, but this character actually does something much crazier and more compelling: He spends his time denying charges he has no wish to know the nature of. In Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Thirlwell tells us, Catherine Morland imagines all kinds of horrors, “when in fact nothing extraordinary is taking place at all.” “In fact,” less speedy readers have always noticed that Catherine is not merely imagining horrors. She has misplaced them: She thought she was in a gothic novel, when the ordinary snobbery and cruelty of the English upper classes were already monstrous enough for any extravagant fiction.

Another Adam (Mars-Jones), reviewing this book (titled Miss Herbert in the UK) in The Guardian, said it was “monumentally annoying.” I would wonder about the medication levels of anyone who wasn’t annoyed at some point, but for all my resistance to the charm assault, I find myself wanting, in the end, to salute Thirlwell’s enthusiasm and energy, as well as his sheer affection for his ingenious and catholic selection of books. Indeed, he is sometimes onto something even when he doesn’t know it. “Tolstoy’s innovation,” he says, “was to invent a form which was able to be true to chance.” This isn’t the case, as Thirlwell knows, since he has been asserting the relationship between chance and Tristram Shandy since the opening pages. But the novel is dedicated to the representation of chance in a way that other genres like epic and romance are not. The intricate irony implicit in many of Thirlwell’s anecdotes and epigrams rests on the fact that chance can’t be represented except by choice—that the appearance of accident in a novel is always the design of the novelist.

Michael Wood’s most recent book is Literature and the Taste of Knowledge (Cambridge, 2005). He teaches at Princeton University.