This weekend, I read and thoroughly enjoyed the first volume of Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States (new in a handsome trade paperback edition from Picador at the end of this month). The word “volume” seems to imply multiple, discrete editions, but really the term has more to do with Thirlwell’s sense of humor. Like an 18th century novel, The Delighted States comprises chapters, books, and volumes. That playfulness also echoes in the book’s subtitle: “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.” Despite the mock-serious tone there, the subtitle is a pretty accurate description of the book. Not that Thirlwell is pompous or long-winded. Rather, he’s the rare literary critic who manages to show authority without being didactic, who balances scholarly insight with playful humor and a willingness not to answer to every little detail.
But what is it about? From Thirlwell: “This book — which I sometimes think of as a novel, an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters — is about the art of the novel. It is also, therefore, about the art of translation.” Thirlwell, a translator himself (the book flips over to his version of Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “Mademoiselle O”) uses translation (of books, of styles, of ideas) to relate a history of the rise of literary modernism. The first volume finds heroes in Gustave Flaubert and his would-be mistress, James Joyce and his French translator, Denis Diderot, Marcel Proust, and Balzac. There’s Gogol and Nabokov, Tolstoy and Borges–not to mention their characters, major and minor. It’s a lot of fun, but even better, it’s the kind of performance to which every literary critic should aspire. It makes you want to read the books you haven’t yet read and re-read the ones you already have.
Thirlwell, like any good avid reader, reads his books (and authors) in dialog with each other, and I can’t help but do the same. The hardback edition was published in 2008, but I can’t help read in Thirlwell’s work a response to David Shields’s new “manifesto” Reality Hunger. Both authors recognize that novelists attempt to represent or even re-enact “reality” in their works (despite Plato’s claim that mimesis was not the business of the poets). However, where Shields for some unclear reason nihilistically argues for the death of the novel, Thirlwell repeatedly demonstrates why a novelist’s depiction of reality is important. Thirlwell realizes that “The more a sign looks as if it’s real, the more it will have to be artificial,” citing Joyce’s interior monologues as an example. “The less artificial a sign is, the less likely it is to be convincing,” Thirlwell writes. Put another way, novels — and by proxy other narrative art forms — must use artifice to achieve reality. Like Shields, Thirlwell cites Joyce’s famous quote — “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man” — but the effect is far more satisfying in The Delighted States, where it is contextualized evidence used to bolster a point, and not mere solipsistic indulgence. But maybe I’m still holding a grudge against Shields. And maybe it’s not fair to use Thirlwell’s work to rap at his (metaphorical) knuckles. Unlike the sensationalism, negativity, and gimmicks of Reality Hunger, Thirlwell’s argument for the novel is measured, patient, well-researched–and thus far less likely to cause as big a stir. In a single parenthetical aside he reveals more about his critical subjectivity than Shields is ever willing to admit in an entire book: “Good novelists (or, maybe more honestly, the novelists I like) are often not just avant-garde in terms of technique; they are also morally avant-garde as well.” It’s a good thesis on its own, but what’s really wonderfully refreshing is Thirlwell’s honesty about bias in criticism–that “Good novelists” are really “the novelists I like.” Fantastic stuff so far, and I’m itching to read more.