“One way of becoming happier with the history of an art is to realize that every work, as an aesthetic value, is never quite irrelevant.”
This good-natured declaration, appearing midway through Adam Thirlwell’s lively exploration of the stylistic evolution of the novel, epitomizes its author’s cheerfully catholic stance as he considers the intersection of technique and subject matter in influential works of fiction from Don Quixote to Lolita. Examining the cross-cultural pollination that has occurred via translation (and mistranslation) of seminal works, Thirwell traces paths, for example, from Homer’s Odysseus to Joyce’s Leopold Bloom to a phrase in a story by the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, by illustrating the shared motifs and formal approaches that have collectively pushed the novel into new realms.
Key to this cross-fertilization, of course, is translation from one language into another. Thirwell believes there is no such thing as definitive or perfect translation, and that even somewhat scrappy translations can still manage to carry a writer’s style into a new tongue. This, Thirlwell argues, is partly because an author’s style is never purely linguistic; it consists of the merging of form and content, of technique melding with the writer’s unique worldview—what Proust called “a quality of vision.” (I was once given a volume of clunky translations of poems by the Hungarian poet Attila József that perfectly illustrated Thirlwell’s point: Despite forced rhymes and awkward re-phrasing, József’s imagery and insight survived.)
Thirwell prefers translation based on sound and connotation rather than literal meaning. Yet his attempt to illustrate this view via his own alternate translation of a paragraph from Gogol’s classic story “The Overcoat”—in which Thirlwell renames Akaky Akakyevich “Mikey”—creates one of the few off-the-mark moments in the book. Thirlwell’s point is that the “ak” sounds in the protagonist’s unfortunate name echo words that in Russian are minor parts of speech (“tak” and “kak”), just as the diminutive “Mikey” echoes comparable words such as “like.” In fact “Mikey” is much too cute and conventional to capture the oddness of “Akaky.” Though it is the name of a martyr on the Russian calendar (St. Acacius), to most Russians the sound of “Akaky” connotes—immediately and above all else—the word kaka. In other words, what most Russians hear first in the name “Akaky” is “poop.” This point Thirwell has either ignored or missed entirely.
But such an oversight is perfectly in keeping with Thirlwell’s overall take on the subject: “The history of translation is the history of mistakes.” Thirlwell relates some of the bigger errors (such as an extremely abridged version of War and Peace titled The Physiology of War) as well as the small (an early translation of Tolstoy’s work that gave his first name as “Nicola”), proudly declaring that, “The Delighted States …is written with a full acceptance of the mistake, the anachronism, the side effect.” The book’s title is itself a quirk of translation, from Hrabal’s autobiographical novel of letters addressed to an American girl who jokingly turned the Czech word for “United” (as in United States) into a version of the word meaning “happy.”
A novelist himself, Thirlwell presents The Delighted States as an epic novel in its own right, divided into Volumes, Books, and Chapters. Its “recurring characters” are the writers—as well as their translators, girlfriends, nannies, tutors, and fans—whose influence and inventiveness span cultures, languages and eras. The connections between these writers become a great web Thirwell spins, reminding us, for instance, that Henry James wrote critically about the work of Guy de Maupassant, who was himself mentored by Flaubert, about whom Proust once wrote a seminal essay concerning style—in much the same way that he draws connective lines from Tristam Shandy to Eugene Onegin. Thirlwell delivers these connections and parallels in what seem like the casual asides of an avid reader rather than the prescriptive assessments of an academic. Even his word choice has a boyish insistence on play, comparing, for instance, Tolstoy’s use of details to toy Transformers, and certain minor parts of speech to “blocks of Lego.”
Though the book’s constant assertion (in its title, packaging and self-reference throughout) of its own mischievousness can be grating, Thirwell has a talent for neatly summarizing complex ideas, in particular when he uses example as explanation. A section on Pushkin and Nabokov includes a helpful comparison of the principles Nabokov followed in his translation of Eugene Onegin versus his much earlier translation of Alice in Wonderland, just as comparison of early and later drafts of Kafka’s stories helps illustrate the elements that made his work avant-garde. We glimpse Flaubert’s diary entries and sections of early lectures by Nabokov; yet Thirlwell doesn’t necessarily take what any of these folks say as gospel and is willing to sometimes doubt, sometimes accept, their professed changes of attitude and affinities.
His prose can be wonderfully evocative, as when he refers to his own second and third languages as “quixotic French and hobbyhorse Russian.” At the same time, the simplicity of some of his declarations can be reductive and somewhat cocky: “Realism is everywhere. That is why it is realistic.” Or “the problem, obviously, with ephemera is that they are so ephemeral.” There is also an awkward habit of summarizing plot in the past (rather than present) tense—though Thirlwell’s goal must be to erase the divide between so many fictional happenings and the events of their real-world authors’ lives; just as Chekhov and Tolstoy, or Turgenev and Flaubert, were linked by friendship and artistic outlook, Thirlwell views Don Quixote, Madame Bovary and Jane Austen’s Emma as cousins of a sort—clueless dreamers defined by the dramatic irony their authors created by appropriating their language and mindset on the page.
The overall thesis of The Delighted States is that style is “conditioned by” choice of subject matter, a point best illustrated in Thirlwell’s section on Tolstoy’s use of omniscience and repetition in War and Peace. Comparing Tolstoy’s original, sometimes unwieldy sentences with Constance Garnett’s tidied-up versions, Thirlwell also puts forth a compelling argument in support of the novel’s long nonfictional essays, arguing that the book’s combination of historical fact and expansively detailed fiction was the embodiment of Tolstoy’s thoughts regarding “the human capacity for misinterpretation.”
Thirwell’s approach as a scholar is itself Tolstoyan, broadly examining the smaller motifs and repetitions across literature in order to discover the “weird genealogies” of novelists such as Saul Bellow and Bruno Schulz. Taking into account the “jet lag” that occurs due to the time needed for translation as well as the personal evolution of voice and mindset in any individual writer, Thirlwell recognizes that many of the novelists he has chosen to discuss are émigrés and escapees, travelers across politics and exile. And yet, as members of the artistic avant-garde, each directly or indirectly influenced by writers from Diderot and Laurence Sterne to Pushkin and Stendal, they are all, he happily points out, common inhabitants of “The Delighted States.”