August 2008

Richard Wirick


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

Back in the days before deconstruction and its silly tyrannies, books of literary criticism tended to be highly structured, fortified citadels. They were like those very, very expensive watches you see advertised in magazines for the wealthy -- their interior mechanics seamlessly humming, their exteriors unassailable, the whole package offered on a take-it-if-you-can-handle-it basis. I.A. Richards’s Practical Criticism and Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (the English grad student’s dreaded ‘Anat-Crit’) brooked no bend or stretch: straight-backed as Prussian soldiers, these books gave all the orders, asked all the questions, and then slowly, didactically answered them.

Imagine instead a single, coherent critical study as breezy and casual as an open house, with other people wandering the rooms, speaking other languages, the broker a B-level translator (slightly) misinforming buyers about the rooms’ functions, so that everyone leaves with a different view of the dwelling’s configuration. But everybody wants the place. This describes both Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States and its central thesis, which is that (slight) mistranslations are the key to the novel’s evolving majesties.

Thirlwell looks about twelve-years-old on the flyleaf, so English burlesque he exactly resembles the Oliver Twist that Fagin sent up the dumbwaiters to burgle Marlybone houses in the '60s movie. But he is supposed to have graduated from Oxford and have one novel, Politics, under his belt. His misshapen, utterly comfortable book rests upon two axioms. The first is that precise literary denotation is infinitely important, because of that original language’s “uncanny specificity.” (The reason you cannot “speak” a language until you are “thinking in it.”) The second axiom is that novels not only survive, but flourish and are sometimes improved, by the well-intentioned errors that naturally result from Axiom #1.

I like contradiction as much as the next fellow, but was very skeptical from the opening pages. Thirlwell harmonizes a native word’s “uncanny specificity” and its amazing ease of migration not with any coherent theory; presumably because he imagines this to be the work of more dignified but less delightful academic critics. Rather, he “reasons by example,” as Edward Levi said all good (at least juridical) judges must. His specimens (he worships Nabokov and his Lepidoptera) are breathless, acrobatic digressions, adopting as their historical template Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy: “If all is digression, then there can be no digression; all is to the point.”

As an example, the author shows that while all the associations of Gogol’s Overcoat hero’s name, Akaky Akakievich, can only resonate in Russian, its basic stuttering sound and similarity to universal slang for shit can travel into a new tongue. This primes the reader to drop his expectations of living with a character who can make anything decent out of a decent sort of living. At other times, Thirlwell seems to abandon his “uncanny specificity” concept altogether with deconstructionist notions that details aren’t as important when there is an obvious subtext. Flaubert’s agonies in his letters to George Sand about Louise Colet -- all that mot juste stuff -- is really just subterfuge for the fact he doesn’t want to marry the girl.

But at moments his examples hit you with the force of a revelation, like the great shifts of a new movement in a symphony. In translating Kafka’s name "Josef K" into Polish, one gets "Jurek K." The gray anonymity of the name is retained, but the new, beautifully ironic notion of “justice” for one trying (through the entire book) to find out the charges against him is a wonderful expansion, a “deepening by the slightest shift or error” as a result of the new language’s inability to take the original’s equivalent. Thirlwell’s commentaries on Diderot are ingenious and fine expositions on the mechanics (three centuries early) of modernism:

Diderot’s This Is Not A Story is not quite literally true; it is a game with ideas of fiction and truth. It is true in other ways. At the beginning, Diderot announces that he is going to make up a surrogate reader within the story, who can play the part of the reader outside the story. This reader, in Diderot’s head, turns out to be a cantankerous, recalcitrant man whose theory is that all stories say the same thing -- that both man and woman are immoral animals... The essence of Diderot’s story that isn’t a story is to agree with this cantankerous statement, and then make it irrelevant.

But Thirlwell also misses things, sometimes big things, in his readings. While "Josef K" is -- as just stated -- trying to find out what particulars are on his criminal bill, he also spends a lot of time denying charges he never wishes to have any knowledge of. This exhibits something deeper, more psychologically idiosyncratic than the situation that confronts him, and is likely anchored in notions of shame and individual diminishment associated with the German recht or Reich (state or kingdom/prosecuting authority).

While the author’s style is sometimes too haphazard, too meandering and diffuse, it is in keeping with his own deft aphorisms on style itself: “A style is a quality of vision; there is no need for a style to have a single style.” And truest of all -- “A style is as much a quirk of emotion, or of theological belief, as it is a quirk of language.”

Armed with all this anti-structural structure, Thirlwell himself takes on the queasy, quantum exercise of a difficult, unexplored translation. When you turn the book over you see a different cover: Nabokov’s short story “Mademoiselle O,” rendered into English by one Adam Thirlwell. (The translator sets no small task for himself, as “O” later became the fifth chapter of Speak, Memory, one of the greatest memoirs, in any language, written in the last century.)

The critic’s exercise goes some distance in proving his point. Thirlwell’s version swings and echoes like a (somewhat broken) bell in the steep-staired tower of Volodya’s crescending tale. And though Nabokov’s English version brings across indispensable richness, Thirlwell’s is more than adequate; it possesses its own vibrant, thriving life. (The translation is not from the Russian but from the French, in which Nabokov wrote many of his Berlin-era ‘exile’ stories.)

One of the problems of The Delighted States may be that it unwittingly bites off on what it purports to dispel, that for all its “digression-as-truth” mantra it may adopt what Frye, Richards and others seemed unable to shake off: literary criticism as positivistic, measurable, something akin to a hard science.

One gets around these problems by doing Thirlwell one better and embracing Ezra Pound’s notion of translation giving the widest of latitudes, of being not a rendering but its own stand-alone work, retaining only the barest skeleton of the original. Still, word-for-word correspondence is a good departure point for even this broader view. As they said of Picasso, only the craftsman capable of rendering the real figure gets to go and play Mr. Potato Head with it. My Russian tutor, a Khazankan native speaker and my daughter’s au pair, was giving me solid Bs until I made the same error that sank Jimmy Carter’s Polish translator at the height of Carter’s already doomed presidency. I translated something that should have been akin to “We welcome you to our home” into something akin to “I express the warmth I feel in anally copulating with your father.” Translation, as Virgil knew, can form whole nations, and bloopers will never bring them down. Language is forgiving, but en face equivalence is the soundest of springboards. Accuracy isn’t necessarily unimaginative.

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
ISBN: 0374137226
592 Pages