Delightful Story by Nabokov ...
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The Never-Ending Story
A Delightful Story by Nabokov Is Buried in The Delighted States
by Charles Mudede
The Delighted States goes on forever. The book, by Adam Thirlwell, the author of the popular novel Politics, is not particularly long—in all, about 480 pages—and many of these pages contain nothing more than a faded image of a famous writer from Western literature's modern moment and late modern moment (James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein, Saul Bellow, et al.). The book is too long because it doesn't go anywhere. And going nowhere is not a bad thing in itself (a book that has a place to go can easily be worse than a book that makes a terminal point of its starting point), but going nowhere for more than 200 pages is hard even on a headstrong reader.
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Kingsley Amis once compared Vladimir Nabokov's writing style to a useless muscleman, the sort who likes to flex for girls and kick sand into the faces of thin men. Thirlwell is the sort of writer who gets sand kicked in his face. He has no literary or theoretical muscles, and the critics of his book have been hard on him for lacking any real strength. "Thirlwell's version of literary history," writes one of his harshest critics in the Observer, "is pretty standard, underneath the preening and the straining for effect. He leads us down virgin trails littered with crisp packets and undergraduate essays." What makes Thirlwell vulnerable to such blows and bullying is his dedication to a mode and manner that's much like the ideal reader described in Roland Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text: "The pleasure of the text is not necessarily of a triumphant, heroic, muscular type. No need to throw out one's chest. My pleasure can very well take the form of a drift... Like a cork on the wave, I remain motionless, pivoting on the intractable bliss that binds me to the text."
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Despite its endlessness, the end we finally meet in The Delighted States is a great success: Thirlwell's translation of Nabokov's "Mademoiselle O." The short story was first composed in French and later fused into Nabokov's autobiography Speak, Memory. A quick comparison of Nabokov's translation of the short story with Thirlwell's immediately reveals the latter's gift (or dar) and the whole purpose (or ultimate meaning) of The Delighted States: an improved translation of "Mademoiselle O." Indeed, Thirlwell's translation should function much like the poem in Nabokov's Pale Fire: One must read it first and then turn to the drifting series of literary portraits, data, notes, indexes, and so on. A good amount (if not all) of the information concerns the how and why of Thirlwell's translation. The how: a close translation. The why: Because he understood the story better than its author. The problem with Nabokov's translation? It's too strong and overwritten—he smothers it. Thirlwell's lightness allows the story to breathe and be itself.
If you do not read the translation first, page after page, you will see no end to The Delighted States.
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