A Portrait of the Critic as a Delirious Young Man

The New York Times


June 18, 2008

A Portrait of the Critic as a Delirious Young Man



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

By Adam Thirlwell.

Illustrated. 558 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30.


As James Joyce's H. C. Earwicker — whose dream sets off the associations, disassociations and language acrobatics of "Finnegans Wake" — stands to fiction, Adam Thirlwell stands to literary criticism.

His book "The Delighted States" shoves its delirious way around and through four centuries of great novelists, tumbles them down one trapdoor and hauls them out of another; it provokes as much as evokes and, in general, sets up a dance whose music he partly finds in them and partly invents for them.

He illustrates the book with photographs (the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal's prehistoric typewriter, Vladimir Nabokov scribbling and irritably sunning in a deck chair, Franz Kafka smiling at a smiling young woman), along with old title pages, wandering clumps of typeface and squiggles.

Squiggles, which disrupt the forward thrust of a line with all manner of curves and caracoles, are the main thing. Two are taken from Paul Klee, but the most important were drawn by Laurence Sterne in "Tristram Shandy." Sterne used them as explanatory illustration for his book's 600 pages of uninterrupted interruptions and purposeful digressions.

Mr. Thirlwell uses them the same way for nearly as many interrupting and digressing pages of his own. As with his Shandean mentor, that is the point. "Sterne's subject is digression," he writes. "Therefore, in the end, no digression can digress from the subject: in Sterne's novel, digression is impossible."

True enough for "Tristram," a masterpiece whose comic side trips, like Don Quixote's, are both mockery and affirmation of a graver straight line running beneath. Mr. Thirlwell, whose impossibly young face beams from the book jacket with an air of Little Jack Horner extracting plums, gets frequently lost on his side trips.

He is something of a prodigy and, as such, unstoppable. In his torrent of digressive connections — he joins together Chekhov, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Richardson's "Pamela" and Hemingway in the space of three dozen lines — there are times we feel we are losing headway and the page numbers are actually running backward.

But the plums are real, even if squashed by too much else. Mr. Thirlwell has several large themes that make their way insistently through his shoves and hops. One is an impassioned belief in the novel. "Although this is a history of ephemeral inventions," he writes, "the novel's history is also a history of objects whose value is durable and timeless." Then he adds, "Sometimes I believe this."

So there he is: impassioned, yes, and skeptical of the passion, as if skepticism were the contemporary version of a Victorian chaperon keeping an eye on a susceptible and hot-blooded charge. The charge keeps getting away, though, and Mr. Thirlwell's digressions purposely allow it to. "That is my personal form of romanticism. That is the romance of this book," he writes.

Romance is not sentimentality, though, and the author keeps returning to the different ways the great writers employed to upset the sentimentalities, the received opinions and the rigid styles of their times. Sterne's digressions — also used by the many he influenced, among them Denis Diderot in "Jacques the Fatalist and His Master" and the Brazilian Machado de Assis in "Epitaph for a Small Winner" — were one way.

Another was the rigorous devotion to style of Flaubert ("My sentences are my adventures") and the far more elaborate devotion of Joyce and followers like Hrabal. Irony is another means, in writers seemingly as far apart as Cervantes, Nabokov and Gogol.

As he swirls together his international troupe of writers, along with a fine prodigality of portraits, anecdotes and quotations, Mr. Thirlwell argues and sometimes goads at a universal mutual connection and influence.

That leads to the question of translation. Though he gives many examples of what is lost, he insists that even a mediocre translation will convey a writer's essence; his style, in other words. Style, he writes, citing Proust, is a matter of vision, not language.

He stands up for Constance Garnett's Victorian English versions of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, now unfashionable for having smoothed out the originals' rough edges. (For me, who first experienced the prodigious power of the Russians through Ms. Garnett, subsequent versions, if more accurate, cannot capture that sense of a first love. Indeed, they seem like bad imitations.)

He notes the influence of Sterne on both Machado de Assis and Pushkin, even though neither knew English and they both had to read him in a wretched French translation. He writes of the exiled Pole Witold Gombrowicz, sitting in a Buenos Aires cafe and working with Argentine friends to translate "Ferdydurke" (it became his best-known novel), even though he had little Spanish and they no Polish. He reproduces paragraphs of a wondrous French version of the supposedly untranslatable Ana Livia Plurabelle section of "Finnegans Wake," done by a group of French writers together with Joyce.

Naturally he cites Nabokov's increasingly quirky and rigid notion of translation, embodied in his literal word-for-word and unreadable version of "Eugene Onegin."

And then, as a reward to us and to pre-quirk Nabokov, he gives us his own translation of the short story "Mademoiselle O," first published in French in 1936, translated into English in 1943, then to Russian, then back to English (ending up as a chapter in "Speak, Memory"), and revised continually by Nabokov, as if art were not simply long but alive and still growing.

Mr. Thirlwell's version translates the unaltered original, and it is a treasure.

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