Miss Herbert by Adam Thirlwell Cape, £25, pp560
Adam Thirlwell clearly has a lot of charm. Literary estates are not generally administered by pussycats, yet Nabokov's heirs have let him publish his translation of the grand master's 'Mademoiselle O' (billed as 'a story never before translated into English', in fact a variant of a well-known work) as part of his own book on style and translation. The effect is of Thirlwell graciously taking Nabokov (who died in 1977, the year before Thirlwell's birth) under his wing. The design department at Cape has gone into overdrive to produce some lovely layouts, with headings in red ink and the enlarged title pages of famous books - Madame Bovary, Ulysses, War and Peace - reproduced at pleasing intervals. Only a major charmer could secure this level of collaboration for such a monumentally annoying book.
Flaubert's niece had a governess, apparently, called Miss Herbert, who worked with him on a translation of Madame Bovary, now lost. Adam Thirlwell doesn't undertake any particular research on this footnote in the history of literature but instead turns her into a sort of mascot. His conceit (the word is the right one) is that his book is a sort of inside-out novel, whose characters are famous writers. Miss Herbert is full of affected references to itself ('according to the logic of Miss Herbert' and so on). Elsewhere Thirlwell endorses Nabokov's dismissal of writers who pretend that their characters have independent life (they take over, they write themselves). Quite right - it's a form of infantilism, like pretending that your toys or your pets talk to you. But when Thirlwell pretends that his book has independent life and even a gender ('Towards her end, Miss Herbert needs, in a small way, to get religion') that's different. That's adorable. This may be baby talk suited to high table rather than high chair, but baby talk it is. When an academic intellectual writes that he'd like to think that Chekhov read Diderot, but it doesn't really matter if he didn't, since 'through Miss Herbert, they're friends', the only response must be a curling of the lip or the toes.
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Thirlwell is certainly well read. Witold Gombrowicz, Bruno Schulz and Bohumil Hrabal aren't on everybody's reading list. On the other hand, he can only read them in translation. Thirlwell's upbeat assumptions about translation contrast with the pessimism of George Steiner's After Babel, which though published in the Dark Ages before 1978 might have earned a mention in his own book. Steiner, himself trilingual to the point, he claims, of not knowing which was his first language, German, English or French, is preoccupied with the philosophical impossibility of something he does every day. Thirlwell offers himself here as the translator of 'Mademoiselle O', but that is a sort of cheat. We know what Nabokov's voice should sound like in English because he was helpful enough to write several thousand pages in our language. The task is closer to pastiche than translation from scratch (though the word order in Thirlwell's version sometimes seems to have stayed in French, and Nabokov might not have enjoyed the fancy 'screak' [sic] for the plain 'grincement'). If Flaubert had been similarly obliging, the job of finding the right English for Madame Bovary would be less daunting.