I bought a book the other day called Miss Herbert, by Adam Thirlwell, an up-and-coming young English novelist. It purports to be a part-novelistic / part-critical study of the phenomenon of style in fiction, as revealed (principally) through the medium of translation.
Those are all positive terms in my book, so I was happy to pay the twelve dollars odd it cost (fortunately I found it second-hand). There were lots of pretty facsimile pages from Madame Bovary and Tristram Shandy and Ulysses and other classics of the smart-arse canon scattered about the text. What's more, it had another book soldered onto the back, like one of those old pulp science-fiction doubles - only in this case it was Thirlwell's new translation of the original French version of an early short story / autobiographical vignette by Vladimir Nabokov, "Mademoiselle O".
How strange I haven't heard of this delightful book before, I thought. Surely so ingenious and amusing a volume would have come up somewhere?
Thirlwell, Adam. Miss Herbert: An Essay in Five Parts. 2007. Vintage Books. London: The Random House Group Limited, 2009.
So I went online to check it out. The American edition was apparently entitled Miss Herbert aka The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, ... & a Variety of Helpful Indexes, which sounded ominously reminiscent of some of the books which used to be sent out by the Readers' Digest. Even more disturbing, though, was the nature of some of the reviews it had received (linked to from Thirlwell's own Wikipedia page):
The design department at Cape has gone into overdrive to produce some lovely layouts, with headings in red ink and the enlarged title pages of famous books - Madame Bovary, Ulysses, War and Peace - reproduced at pleasing intervals. Only a major charmer could secure this level of collaboration for such a monumentally annoying book.- Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer (4/11/07)
Ouch! So what's so "monumentally annoying" about it, then? Mars-Jones (incidentally, what a great name!) goes on to explain:
His conceit (the word is the right one) is that his book is a sort of inside-out novel, whose characters are famous writers. Miss Herbert ["Flaubert's niece had a governess, apparently, called Miss Herbert, who worked with him on a translation of Madame Bovary, now lost"] is full of affected references to itself ('according to the logic of Miss Herbert' and so on) ... This may be baby talk suited to high table rather than high chair, but baby talk it is. When an academic intellectual writes that he'd like to think that Chekhov read Diderot, but it doesn't really matter if he didn't, since 'through Miss Herbert, they're friends', the only response must be a curling of the lip or the toes.
Cringe-makingly coy, appears to be the verdict. Which is in itself a little disconcerting in a book ostensibly about style. Thirlwell's own style doesn't come out of a cornflakes packet, exactly, but it does bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the annoyingly trite repetitions which bedevilled poor old Kurt Vonnegut's last, weakest novels ("so it goes," repeated at regular intervals, was the principal offender).
You can tell that Mars-Jones has conceived a real dislike to Thirlwell:
Thirlwell mentions more than once his similarity in shortness of stature to Pushkin, and emphasises at one point (as if to quiet frantic fans) that he is a less important person than Gombrowicz or Flaubert.
More to the point, though, he sees the basic problem is that Thirlwell is trying to write in a pretentiously simple, would-be epigrammatic style, when what he has to say is not original enough to warrant it:
Thirlwell's version of literary history is pretty standard, underneath the preening and the straining for effect. He leads us down virgin trails littered with crisp packets and undergraduate essays. Cervantes prefigured the modern novel. Austen does irony. Kafka's fictions are structured as dreams ... Early drafts tend to be inferior to final versions, but illuminating for that reason. All this is painfully mainstream.
It's tempting to keep on quoting, as Mars-Jones's is an extremely thorough-going and devastating hatchet job, the kind which should at least make you toy with the idea of simply sticking with the day job. He concludes by mocking Thirlwell's own attempts to "improve" on various standard translations of sentences in French and Russian (the only two languages Thirlwell can read with facility, it appears):
Thirlwell quotes a single sentence from Eleanor Marx-Aveling's translation of [Madame Bovary], and offers his own improvement. Her sentence is: 'Emma leant forward to see him, clutching the velvet of the box with her nails.' His goes: 'Emma leaned forward to see him, scrunching with her nails the plushness of her box.' He adds, 'It isn't perfect; but it's a start.'
Sorry, that won't do. You can't claim, in a 500-page book, that you haven't had the time to produce even a single finished sentence of Madame Bovary in English. And is Thirlwell's version even an improvement? The neutrality of Marx-Aveling's sentence has been sacrificed, without much gain in terms of reproducing the assonances of the original ... The slight awkwardness of Thirlwell's version even hints at an obscene double meaning.
His re-translation of Nabokov from French to English isn't much cop, either, I'd add on my own behalf. Too obviously and self-consciously attentive to banal details of French word order.
Was there a chorus of dissent at the time, I wondered? After all, the book jacket of the paperback is peppered with high-culture endorsements from the likes of Tom Stoppard ("an interesting fact on every page") and A. S. Byatt (" a work of art, a new form") - it's even "the year's most richly pleasurable reading experience" claims the middle-brow Sunday Telegraph. Alas, no, it would appear not. The Times reviewer had this to say:
Thirlwell compares himself to Proust, declares that he is “going to take over” from Tristram Shandy, generously allows that “Joyce was right” and that “sometimes I agree with Eugenio Montale”. Such proprietorial presumption is perhaps meant to be comic but sounds ominously owlish.- Tom Deveson, The Sunday Times (11/11/07)
He's a bit too up himself, is the conclusion, and over what?
At one point, we are told that the rhymes in Eugene Onegin “are not a side of fries. They are part of the Big Mac” ... We hear about “the grand French critic Paul Valéry”, “the Russian novelist and poet Alexander Pushkin” and “the famously stylish poet Stéphane Mallarmé”. It seems that Thirlwell can’t decide whether he is writing “an inside-out novel”, producing a look-at-me-mum firework display or instructing those less fortunate than himself in how to appear well read.
I guess that's the risk of publishing books like this in the UK. The reviewers have an annoying tendency to have read all those terrifyingly obscure and knotty texts one flourishes like war-scars.
Strangely enough, these swinging reviews didn't put me off (after all, I did invest $12 in the book - enough to make me want it to have been a good buy). I therefore set out to write a post disputing these uncharitable attempts at character-assassination. And it all seemed to be chugging along nicely enough for the first few chapters (or "books", as they're called in context - kind of like Tristram Shandy with its multiple volumes, you see). Stoppard is right. There is "an interesting fact" on (almost) every page, and Thirlwell does have some quite useful things to say about the characteristics of French and Russian, at least - if he can't read German or Czech or Portuguese or (I guess) Spanish there's no great shame in that. It does make it a bit difficult when he's making fairly precise points about texts in those languages, though.
Then I came across a couple of warning signs:
First was his chapter on "The Problem of the Small Language." His case in point being the (great) Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis:
The history of Machado de Assis's translations ["he translated the writing which the public in Rio de Janeiro wanted to read. They wanted romance, so he gave them romance, He translated the poetry of French romantic poets, like Lamartine. He also translated the bad libretti of bad romantic operas'] ... demonstrates the problems of provincial taste: they show what he was up against. 
There are a lot of interesting assumptions embedded in this passage. I guess that comment about the "problems of provincial taste" makes me see red because I am, myself, such a provincial. How can we delude ourselves, living in so obviously provincial a backwater as New Zealand, that such a sentence isn't meant to apply directly to us? Give the public whatever romantic tosh they want, that's the rule of life in the provinces ...
To do him justice, that isn't quite what Thirwlell means. He goes on to explain, of Machado de Assis: "Like every novelist, he had to cope with his own provinciality, and learn an international technique." The stricture is meant to apply to everyone (though when one thinks of the kind of slop that was being churned out in the great cosmopolitan centres of London and New York in the 1880s, it hardly seems necessary to be so elaborately condescending to the poor inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro). His basic message is clear, though: "provincial bad, international good" - it's a bit like Animal Farm: "four legs good, two legs bad."
What's so wrong with being provincial? (Take careful note, fellow provincials):
As with every value, there is a flipside, a shadow, a secret twin to his value called cosmopolitanism. the opposite of cosmopolitanism is provincialism. And provincialism is emptiness. It is an absence of subject matter; a lack of local ephemera. 
Hmmm. Kind of like the dark side of the force, is it, then, Adam? The opposite of goodness and niceness and the international (or, here, "cosmopolitan") way? This seems a bit of a stretch from Borges's claim, in his famous essay on "The Argentine Writer and Tradition", which Thirwell quotes approvingly, that the less self-conscious "local colour" writers include, the more truly "local" they will become.
"A lack of local ephemera." I suppose that's one way to understand the idea of being "provincial." Another way to see it would be to note how obvious it is to Thirlwell that he himself could never be accused of being "provincial". He was, after all, born with advantages. He lives (and publishes his books) in London, and is a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. How much closer to the centre can you get? No wonder it's so obvious to him that he should be the one lecturing the rest of us on Pushkin, Sterne, Nabokov, and Flaubert. Who knows if provincials will even have heard of such figures? We're probably still reading Warwick Deeping and Hall Caine. The great movements of history might otherwise completely pass us by.
The main problem with the kinds of authors people wanted to read in Rio de Janeiro in the 1880s (and which Machado de Assis was therefore forced to translate), though, was their sentimentality. These two words, "provincial" and "sentimental", make up Thirwell's axis of evil:
As he grew older he continued to translate - more of the French romantics, Baudelaire's translation of Poe's romantic poem 'the Raven', more romantic sentimental poetry.
Everything came via French and everything was romantic. It was just like Socialist Realism. 
I can't quite work out from this if Baudelaire is another one of those "romantic sentimental" poets or not. The basic problem with this kind of "sentimental" work is, I gather, that it aspires to be heartfelt. It lacks that fundamental international technique which Thirlwell revealed with a flourish in his previous chapter, "On Collage": irony.
So against these two negative values ("a flipside, a shadow, a secret twin") provincial and sentimental, we should set the shining lights of internationalism and irony. How fascinating! How original! How ... every stage one literature course since roughly 1955 ... How, fundamentally, boring and shop-soiled. Welcome to 1912, Adam! You've finally caught up with Messrs Joyce and Pound (if not yet with M. Proust).
Don't get me wrong. Thirlwell is not an idiot. He knows - he must know - how much of a cliché this is. Just because it's a cliché, though, does that make it untrue? Well, yes, I'm afraid it does. Even in Thirlwell's own terms. Later in the book he quotes approvingly from Nabokov's defence of Dickens's Bleak House "against the charge of sentimentality":
Nabokov deftly asked his students to distinguish between sentiment and sentimentality. 'I want to submit that people who denounce the sentimental are generally unaware of what sentiment is.'
People like Thirlwell, you mean? After all, he's just been denouncing sentimentality as a kind of cloying, ubiquitous stylistic imposition, "like Socialist Realism." Now, however, he's back in the camp of the angels:
... this is a crucial distinction for Nabokov. It's a crucial distinction for anyone, bit is is especially an important distinction for Nabokov - whose style, with its harsh elegance, its fierce nostalgia, is based on an often overwhelming sensitivity to pain. It is based on sentiment. That is why, simultaneously, it denounces the sentimental. [414-15]
Another term occurs to me here: one of Nabokov's favourites, one he hoped to transfer bodily into English: "poshlost." And what is poshlost (Naobokov preferred to spell it "poshlust") when it's at home (it unfortunately doesn't figure in Thirlwell's very full "index of themes and motifs" let alone his slightly slimmer "index of real life")?
Poshlust is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive.- Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol. 1944: 70.
Actually a running definition might just involve quoting those phrases of Thirlwell's attempting to characterise Nabokov's style: "its harsh elegance, its fierce nostalgia, is based on an often overwhelming sensitivity to pain. It is based on sentiment. That is why, simultaneously, it denounces the sentimental."
"Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature" — this is Nabokov's list of definitions, remember, not mine: "harsh elegance / fierce nostalgia / overwhelming sensitivity to pain" ... Give us a break! Cut the crap. We get the (obvious) point about the difference between sentimentality and sentiment (or feeling), but where does it leave your earlier trite distinctions? Isn't it all this a bit hashed-up, unclear, self-contradictory as a set of critical distinctions? Well, yes:
At this point, I think I need to contradict myself, ever so slightly.
You don't say!
As soon as the aesthetic is taken as seriously as Nabokov takes it, then something odd occurs. The aesthetic becomes something else as well: it becomes its opposite. As soon as the aesthetic is taken seriously, then it becomes an ethics, also. 
You can see why Adam Mars-Jones got quite so mad over this kind of patronizing babytalk. "The pace of the book is artificially slow, in a way that seems to be asking, 'Am I going too fast for you?' Many readers will find themselves gritting their teeth and saying, 'Not at all. Rather the reverse.'"
And yet it's rather an interesting point that Thirlwell is making, despite his irritating way of expressing it:
The effects of an absolute aesthetics - a concern for detail, for ironic particularity, for the suspension of immediate or conventional moral judgement, for the restoration to objects of their correct and small size - are ethical. They constitute a small, amateur but sincere ethical system - which teaches respect for the minor, the overlooked, the unsure.
For me, that passage is worth the whole rest of the book. It's interesting to notice that he suddenly forgot the babytalk and just started writing ordinary grown-up prose instead once he'd launched into it. This small (provincial?), amateur but sincere (sentimental?) ethical system which is the inevitable by-product of an "absolute aesthetics" is the reason why it's worth having these kinds of discussions in the first place. It's also the point of writing the kinds of novels that constantly interrogate - and accordingly undermine - their own aesthetic (or theoretical) assumptions.
Throughout this book I have been arguing for a separation of ethics and aesthetics. But I am not sure how easy this is to maintain. Unfortunately, irrevocably, the two turn into each other. The desire for an absolute aesthetic ... is itself a form of romanticism. It is absolute as well. It is a wish not to acknowledge the imperfect, haphazard truth about real life.
Quite so. Thirlwell has learnt on the job, while making his series of - finally bogus - distinctions between 'irony' and 'sentimentality', 'artifice' and 'real life', 'provincialism' and 'internationalism', but he has, finally, learnt. "Unfortunately, irrevocably, the two turn into each other."
One of the authors he quotes from most often and most approvingly, Witold Gombrowicz, specialized in the dissection of immaturity. Ferdydurke (1937), his first and still most influential novel, drags its hero back to school and the horrors of young idealism and puppy love in a kind of paroxysm of shameful and embarrassing detail. I fear that Thirlwell may look back on his own book (he was only 28 when he published it, after all) rather similarly - like an awful aberration of youthful arrogance and over-enthusiasm.
I can't bring myself to regret having persevered with it to the end, though. Something was definitely achieved. True, it's hardly Nabokov's Lectures on Literature, but then Nabokov had had more than twenty years to think about the art of fiction before he wrote those, and they did have a more straightforward function than Thirlwell's book. Nabokov's notes were directed to undergraduates in a university course, which entails a lot of contextual explanation and also has the advantage of demanding intense attention to detail and to pedagogical clarity.
The audience for Thirlwell's book is harder to define: people who've already read Proust and Joyce (if not Hrabal and Gombrowicz) and already know a good deal about literature? People who haven't read anything much, to whom all this is news? The tone of the book really has to accommodate both groups, with all the gradations in between, and that's not an easy balance to achieve.
It may have been a dumb idea to take on so ambitious a scheme at so early a stage of his own career as a novelist, but perhaps if he'd waited he'd never have written anything at all. I think that would have been a shame. There are a lot of good things in this book, a lot to be learnt from it - one of the main lessons, however, is how careful you have to be not to patronise and irritate your readers when all you really wanted was to have a conversation with them.
[Eamonn McCabe: Adam Thirlwell's room (2008)]