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A pastiche of facts about fiction

'States' explores the art of the novel, idiosyncratically

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matthew Price
August 3, 2008

The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, and Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, and Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, and a Variety of Helpful Indexes
By Adam Thirlwell
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 558 pp.,illustrated, $30

Adam Thirlwell is a talented young literary Brit, and "The Delighted States" is a clever if rambling treatise on style, translation, and the art of the novel. This is not your grandfather's literary criticism but one with bells, whistles, and a bunch of other gimmicks. Thirlwell envisions this unconventional study as a sort of loose, baggy novel, "an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters." But that's not all. He also calls his book, among other things, "an atlas" and "a description of a milky way, an aurora borealis."

With such descriptive panache, Thirlwell allows himself plenty of latitude to explore his preoccupations with language, literary technique, and how the novel developed into an art form. It's also an excuse for self-indulgence. I'm all for innovation, but Thirlwell's attempt to break out of the confines of a stuffy genre can lead him down some blind alleyways, and leave the reader scrambling to keep up. And his fondness for cute aphorisms - "Like life, literature is lived forwards, and understood backwards" - tends to obscure the thrust of his argument more than illuminate it.

That said, the 30-year-old Thirlwell has distilled the wisdom from what amounts to a lifetime of reading onto his pages. Considering the work of an eclectic who's-who of world letters - Gustave Flaubert, Denis Diderot, Laurence Sterne, Saul Bellow, Miguel de Cervantes, James Joyce, Franz Kakfa, Italo Svevo, Vladimir Nabokov, Leo Tolstoy, Georges Perec, Bohumil Hrabal - Thirlwell ranges across time, space, borders, and several languages.

He doesn't really make a formal argument so much as expound on several themes. He argues that the history of the novel is deeply bound up with the way writers dealt with the quotidian, what Tolstoy called "real life, with its essential interests of health and sickness, toil and rest." So-called "real life" was mundane, unheroic, even boring; but this didn't render it ineligible for artistic consideration. Far from it: Real life had enormous potential. Flaubert, Thirlwell's presiding spirit, triumphed in studying the way his characters tried to escape the clutches of health and sickness, toil and rest.

For Thirlwell, the novel is almost a utopian form, infinitely flexible in its reach, able to transcend the specifics of language and culture. He is a true believer in the imperfect art of translation and the portability of style and technique. The limitations of translation make it all the more suitable for its task. "The history of the novel," he writes, "and the history of translation, is happy with the idea of mistakes - a more haphazard definition of accuracy."

An expansive, unbound critic, Thirlwell makes a series of unexpected connections between writers of vastly divergent styles and eras. Perec, a postmodern trickster, and Tolstoy, the supreme 19th-century realist, aren't usually yoked together as fellow travelers, but Thirlwell suggests they were linked by a common concern: "With their differing styles, Georges Perec and Leo Tolstoy were saying the same thing as Gustave Flaubert. Because what is real? The only thing which is real is not the extraordinary, not the historical or surreal or romantic: it is prosiness, it is the everyday."

Thirlwell covers so much ground that even he gets lost along the way. Digression is a virtue in his eyes, even if his zigzagging leaves you mildly disoriented. "The Delighted States" is best read as a collection of literary anecdotes, and Thirlwell has gathered many. He is fascinated by the ways writers read and learn across the barriers of language. Translation is never a matter of mere words - "I'm not convinced that a style is so linguistic," Thirlwell argues.

Case in point: In the 1930s, the Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz, author of the oddball classic "Ferdydurke," wrote an admiring essay on James Joyce. However, Gombrowicz did not read Joyce in Polish translation - there was none - but in French. Gombrowicz despaired that he could not read Joyce in Polish, but Thirlwell says this was unnecessary. A Polish writer reading a novel written in English in a French translation is fitting metaphor for the principles Thirlwell advances: "Just as most of a style survives a talented translation into one language, because it is a quality of vision . . . it survives its talented translation into a further language, as well. Style is international."

Translators may quibble with Thirlwell's optimism about the limitless possibilities of rendering words composed in one language into another. Thirlwell doesn't want to get hung up on technicalities, though the fine points of translation are hardly insignificant or trivial. (Still, he is game enough to append his own version of Nabokov's novella "Mademoiselle O," translated from the French.) But "The Delighted States" is a not a how-to manual or beginner's guide, nor is it pure literary criticism. Thirlwell's animated commentary belongs on a shelf all its own.

Matthew Price is a critic and journalist in Brooklyn.

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