At a time when literary criticism is getting the boot in print media, and factually challenged wags on countless book blogs seethe with score-settling enmity, 30-year-old Adam Thirlwell is a refreshing throwback to the thoughtful man of letters who hides his radical heart behind the worn lapels of a tweed jacket. Thirlwell’s book The Delighted States is the most exciting literary criticism to be published here in some time. Structured like some pomo experiment in Barthelme-esque narrative, or Laurence Sterne on a Benzedrine bender, British novelist Thirlwell (Politics, Miss Herbert) uses his taut epigrammatic style to delve into the superstructure of certain kinds of (mostly European) literature, gleaning how style, translation, brevity, even errors have created sublime works of art. Jumping between England, Spain, America, Poland and elsewhere, unearthing new traditions that connect Joyce to obscure 19th-century French novelists, Thirlwell has fashioned an intellectual thrill-ride packed with rhetorical fireworks. He spoke with the Weekly from his home in Paris.
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The young British novelist as critic
L.A. WEEKLY:You’ve written a highly discursive book that is about, among other things, discursive literature.
Adam ThirLwell: My initial intention was to write a small book — the smallness of the chapters was important to me. Even though it floats all about and moves around a lot, the book does convey what I believe to be a cogent thesis about literature.
Kind of like the critical approach of Nabokov, one of the heroes of The Delighted States.
I’ve always been interested in novelists who write essays that are as playful and as pleasurable as the fiction they’re writing about. Nabokov is one writer who did both; Milan Kundera is another. I wanted this book to be an homage to that kind of tradition, of writing that may look improvised but isn’t. Nabokov said that the ideal novel would be about an idea.
You have a lot of fascinating theories about style in relation to translation. What started you thinking along those lines?
I had this conflict I wanted to work out. On the one hand, I really cared about style. On the other hand, I had read a lot of books in translation, and so I worried more and more about what I was reading. Were things that I loved in certain books getting lost?
When my first novel was being translated, it had gotten to the point in some regions where I didn’t even recognize my own title anymore. I realized these ideals I had, about the sanctity of the text, were really being challenged. It became far more complicated than I originally envisioned, and so it became a much larger book.
You make a lot of interesting connections between realist fiction and more experimental writing.
I’m torn between these two different strands of fiction: The hardcore realist tradition that stretches from Flaubert to Bellow, and the kind of off-the-wall, deeply digressive novels of a Joyce. They are often being seen as opposite, but I wanted to bring them together. I also wanted readers to understand that as much care goes into a seemingly mad piece of fiction as Madame Bovary, say.
You also suggest that misreadings committed by the translators themselves play a large role in literature in translation.
Translation gets treated with a certain philosophical gravitas that probably begins with Walter Benjamin — the notion of producing the platonic form of the text behind the real text. But when you’re really trying to translate a story, that goes out the window, because what you’re really trying to get across is meaning, not literal translation of the prose itself. In that sense, translation is a bit like writing fiction. You always think you can do better and the process can be never ending, really.
One of the more delightful aspects of your book is the prose itself. While it contains a multitude of provocations, it’s refreshingly free of cant or jargon.
The problem with literary criticism is that there aren’t enough novelists doing it. There are poet-critics, but the pragmatic nature of what fiction writers are actually doing in their work is missing from a lot of criticism written by academics or pure critics. The criticism is so lively in Nabokov’s lectures, for example.
You cite Nabokov as someone who really “got” translation — as a writer who crossed the borderlands between different cultures, he was uniquely qualified, obviously. Do you think more novelists should try their hand at it?
After I published this book, my paperback publisher asked me if I wanted to translate Madame Bovary into English. For five seconds, it felt like the greatest honor, but then I realized that I wanted to work on my own fiction. That’s why more novelists don’t translate — they’re too selfish!
Someone like Kundera had a huge personal stake in making sure his novels can be as good as they can be, because when you’re being translated into English from Czech, your reputation comes in the translation. Same with Nabokov to some extent, but not nearly as much.
It seems like the novelist-critic tradition might be stronger in England, where you have, among others, Will Self, Nick Hornby, Martin Amis.
Zadie Smith writes a good deal of criticism. A lot of my generation studied English at university, so that accounts for it to some extent.
In some ways, Delighted States is a kind of smackdown between form and content. You write that form doesn’t just impose on content — that it can be the content itself.
I found something by Osip Mandelstam. In his essay “Conversations about Dante,” he writes that form is squeezed out of the content. I started out thinking that form and content were two separate entities, but, in fact, everything we’re used to seeing as a formal breakthrough came as a result of the writer discovering entirely new subject matter. So when Joyce wanted to replicate the distracted nature of thought in Ulysses, he came up with that mad dialogue. But as soon as you put this stuff into the prism of translation, the whole thing goes haywire.
Tolstoy is entirely different in English than the original Russian, by necessity.
Tolstoy is virtually untranslatable. If you do it faithfully, it is in fact unfaithful to Tolstoy’s work.
Mistakes play a crucial role in translation as well.
There’s this great story of the man who translated Ulysses for the first time into Spanish. He came across a passage in which Bloom brings a potato with him before leaving his house. It’s a tiny mention, and this translator thought, “This is silly.” So he changed it to read “I’m such a carrot.” Well, hundreds of pages go by and the potato shows up again — it turns out that Bloom’s mother thinks it’s a cure for his rheumatism. Still, the translator kept on with the carrot references. There’s a pathos in translation — its kind of an inherently comic occupation!
What about some of the lesser-known writers in your book, like the Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis, and Édouard Dujardin, whom you regard as an important precursor to Joyce? How did you come across their work?
It was haphazard, really. I discovered Machado de Assis through my Brazilian publisher, who had assumed that I had read him. Dujardin is mentioned in Richard Ellman’s biography of Joyce.
There’s an argument roiling in certain circles currently about length in relation to the relative importance of a piece of literature — something you have some ideas about.
I’m currently interested in incredibly short stories — like one or two paragraphs long. Because there’s no correlation between length and the infinite nature of the world — between a long novel, or political novels, and their ability to accurately capture the essence of the human condition. One paragraph might seem truer than 17 volumes of Gorky.
THE DELIGHTED STATES | By ADAM THIRLWELL | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 592 pages | $30 hardcover