Michael Dirda on 'The Delighted States'

Adam Thirlwell
Adam Thirlwell (Adam Thirlwell)
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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, June 15, 2008


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

Farrar Straus Giroux. 505 pp. $30

Adam Thirlwell -- a young British writer and author of a well-received novel called Politics -- may have written the most dazzlingly tedious book of the summer. Its lengthy subtitle, which harks back to those found in 18th-century tracts, vaguely suggests a kind of Shandean literary romp, though without ever quite saying what the book is about. In fact, the more than 500 pages of The Delighted States make up an extended meditation, with abundant quotation, on style in fiction, with particular attention to the nature of translation. Its chief examples are the usual masters of innovative narrative: Cervantes, Sterne, Diderot, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka, Nabokov and Bellow, along with the nearly as eminent, if not so well known, Machado de Assis, Italo Svevo, Bruno Schulz, Bohumil Hrabal, Witold Gombrowicz and Georges Perec.

All these are unquestionably original and (generally) entertaining writers, and anyone who cares about the nature of the novel will want to read their books. But The Delighted States isn't concerned with the myriad pleasures of reading, or with plots or characters: It focuses resolutely on stylistic idiosyncrasies and breakthroughs. Practicing a kind of highly syncopated, freewheeling prose, Thirlwell riffs on Flaubert's pervasive irony, Tolstoy's use of homely details (sometimes in leitmotifs), Kafka's dream-like quality, Chekhov's conciseness and Nabokov's views on pattern and coincidence, as well as much else. He shows us, for example, how Diderot adapted and reworked some chapters of Tristram Shandy in writing Jacques the Fatalist and how Gertrude Stein echoes the beginning of Flaubert's "A Simple Heart" (from Three Tales) in "Melanctha" (from Three Lives). Throughout, though, Thirlwell also delivers stark, draconian judgments about art, somewhat in the style of Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading but without Pound's wit, pizzazz and convincingness. More often than not, he just sounds smug and pretentious, like a kid who's always gotten straight A's in English class.

So it's hardly a surprise that the word "I" recurs with such heart-sinking regularity throughout The Delighted States or that the author's tone might be described as egotistical jauntiness. Yet once you discount the book's gaudy packaging -- a plethora of one-sentence paragraphs, myriad sections and subsections, tricked-up indexes, smudgy author photos, reproductions of title pages in Russian or French -- you are left with a mass of confident generalizations or familiar truisms: "A style is a quality of vision; it is not limited by language. . . . Literary value resides in the gap between the draft and the work. . . . The only duty, for a novelist, or a poet, or a novelistpoet, is to be interesting." N.B.: It's the only duty for an essayist, too.

Strangely enough, given his subject matter, Thirlwell's own prose is distinctly bland, despite its overbright talkiness. For instance, Thirlwell likes to build an argument or assert a point, then suddenly contradict himself (though oddly enough he deprecates Dostoevsky, whose Underground Man is the master of this technique). Worst of all, though, Thirlwell often comes across as twerpily arrogant. You can almost hear the "nyah, nyah" raspberry in remarks like these: "Unfortunately for Bellow, he had not read André Gide. Or if he had, he hadn't understood." "And this technique was noted a century later by Vladimir Nabokov, who did not notice the same thing in War and Peace." Sigh. Good thing there's a really sharp mind around who can set us straight.

Thirlwell's most annoying tic, though, may be his complacent assertion that he "likes" a particular image or phrase, as if he were some panjandrum of literary criticism: "It is the word prospector that I like especially. . . . And I like the fact that this echoes a letter by Tolstoy. . . . There are many anecdotes like this. And I like them -- they make me warm to Chekhov more and more." What a surprise to warm to Chekhov, probably more widely beloved as a human being than any other writer of the 20th century.

Despite Thirlwell's inflated sense of himself, he has obviously mastered his material: He's read his primary and secondary texts with attention and intelligence. He can neatly delaminate the layers of nuance in a sentence, show how small details give life to a scene, probe the multiple functions of digression and see the subtle connections among disparate authors. For the most part, Thirlwell takes a wholly aesthetic approach to fiction, arguing against using the novel to promote ethical ideas or political action. Most critics would agree that art is primarily a matter of form, combination and pattern, created by vivid specifics and repeated motifs. But great novels also take on great themes and so address politics, social issues, religion and even philosophy: Obvious examples include the work of George Eliot, Dostoevsky and Zola, Mann's The Magic Mountain, Ellison's Invisible Man. At least some of the impact of these works derives from their passionate exploration of the beliefs and convictions that govern men's lives. Flaubert might aspire to write a book about nothing, but most novelists actually do hope to say something in their books, whether about love, the world, morality or even existence itself.

Appended to The Delighted States, for no compelling reason that I can see, is Thirlwell's translation of Nabokov's original French version of "Mademoiselle O," later reworked by the novelist into a chapter of his memoir Speak, Memory. No doubt one should view this new Englishing of "Mademoiselle O" as some kind of example or test case, but of what I'm not entirely sure. That it's printed upside down, with its own title page, seems egregiously cutesy. I'm also puzzled as to why the title page of Maupassant's Mont-Oriol appears in the index, since that book isn't discussed anywhere in the text.

Normally, I would eagerly applaud a young writer's enterprising attempt to recreate the critical essay, to spin out a set of variations on a theme in the history of fiction. But to bring off the loosey-goosey manner of a book like The Delighted States requires more than a few appealing literary anecdotes: It needs considerable authorial charm, and this Thirlwell lacks. Instead, he proffers many thoughtful, if hardly soul-stirring, analyses of passages from classic authors and a slew of sloganizing generalizations, such as this gnomic description of Kafka's writing: "It is adagio, and massive, and very short." Well, Adam Thirlwell's The Delighted States is flashy, and pompous, and very long. Nobody likes a showoff. ·

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com. This is his last review for the summer, though his weekly book discussions will continue at washingtonpost.com on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. He will return to Book World at the end of August.

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