NABOKV-L post 0016546, Sat, 21 Jun 2008 13:28:38 EDT

FYI, This book review frpm THE NYT, Wednesday, June 18. Constance Garnett
better translstor than "quirky" VN!!!


As _James Joyce_
( ’s H. C. Earwicker — whose dream
sets off the associations, disassociations and language acrobatics of “
Finnegans Wake” — stands to fiction, Adam Thirlwell stands to literary criticism.

_Skip to next paragraph_ (h

Alina Simonen

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
By Adam Thirlwell.
Illustrated. 558 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30.

_Excerpt: ‘The Delighted States’_
( (June 18, 2008)

His book “The Delighted States” shoves its delirious way around and through
four centuries of great novelists, tumbles them down one trapdoor and hauls
them out of another; it provokes as much as evokes and, in general, sets up a
dance whose music he partly finds in them and partly invents for them.
He illustrates the book with photographs (the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s
prehistoric typewriter, _Vladimir Nabokov_
scribbling and irritably sunning in a deck chair, _Franz Kafka_
er) smiling at a smiling young woman), along with old title pages,
wandering clumps of typeface and squiggles.
Squiggles, which disrupt the forward thrust of a line with all manner of
curves and caracoles, are the main thing. Two are taken from _Paul Klee_
ine=nyt-per) , but the most important were drawn by Laurence Sterne in “
Tristram Shandy.” Sterne used them as explanatory illustration for his book’s 600
pages of uninterrupted interruptions and purposeful digressions.
Mr. Thirlwell uses them the same way for nearly as many interrupting and
digressing pages of his own. As with his Shandean mentor, that is the point. “
Sterne’s subject is digression,” he writes. “Therefore, in the end, no
digression can digress from the subject: in Sterne’s novel, digression is impossible.

True enough for “Tristram,” a masterpiece whose comic side trips, like Don
Quixote’s, are both mockery and affirmation of a graver straight line running
beneath. Mr. Thirlwell, whose impossibly young face beams from the book
jacket with an air of Little Jack Horner extracting plums, gets frequently lost on
his side trips.
He is something of a prodigy and, as such, unstoppable. In his torrent of
digressive connections — he joins together Chekhov, Samuel Johnson, Samuel
Richardson’s “Pamela” and Hemingway in the space of three dozen lines — there
are times we feel we are losing headway and the page numbers are actually
running backward.
But the plums are real, even if squashed by too much else. Mr. Thirlwell has
several large themes that make their way insistently through his shoves and
hops. One is an impassioned belief in the novel. “Although this is a history
of ephemeral inventions,” he writes, “the novel’s history is also a history
of objects whose value is durable and timeless.” Then he adds, “Sometimes I
believe this.”
So there he is: impassioned, yes, and skeptical of the passion, as if
skepticism were the contemporary version of a Victorian chaperon keeping an eye on
a susceptible and hot-blooded charge. The charge keeps getting away, though,
and Mr. Thirlwell’s digressions purposely allow it to. “That is my personal
form of romanticism. That is the romance of this book,” he writes.
Romance is not sentimentality, though, and the author keeps returning to the
different ways the great writers employed to upset the sentimentalities, the
received opinions and the rigid styles of their times. Sterne’s digressions —
also used by the many he influenced, among them Denis Diderot in “Jacques
the Fatalist and His Master” and the Brazilian Machado de Assis in “Epitaph
for a Small Winner” — were one way.
Another was the rigorous devotion to style of Flaubert (“My sentences are my
adventures”) and the far more elaborate devotion of Joyce and followers like
Hrabal. Irony is another means, in writers seemingly as far apart as
Cervantes, Nabokov and _Gogol_
( .
As he swirls together his international troupe of writers, along with a fine
prodigality of portraits, anecdotes and quotations, Mr. Thirlwell argues and
sometimes goads at a universal mutual connection and influence.
That leads to the question of translation. Though he gives many examples of
what is lost, he insists that even a mediocre translation will convey a writer’
s essence; his style, in other words. Style, he writes, citing _Proust_
tml?inline=nyt-per) , is a matter of vision, not language.
He stands up for Constance Garnett’s Victorian English versions of Tolstoy
and _Dostoyevsky_
( , now unfashionable for having
smoothed out the originals’ rough edges. (For me, who first experienced the
prodigious power of the Russians through Ms. Garnett, subsequent versions, if
more accurate, cannot capture that sense of a first love. Indeed, they seem
like bad imitations.)
He notes the influence of Sterne on both Machado de Assis and Pushkin, even
though neither knew English and they both had to read him in a wretched French
translation. He writes of the exiled Pole Witold Gombrowicz, sitting in a
Buenos Aires cafe and working with Argentine friends to translate “Ferdydurke”
(it became his best-known novel), even though he had little Spanish and they
no Polish. He reproduces paragraphs of a wondrous French version of the
supposedly untranslatable Ana Livia Plurabelle section of “Finnegans Wake,” done
by a group of French writers together with Joyce.
Naturally he cites Nabokov’s increasingly quirky and rigid notion of
translation, embodied in his literal word-for-word and unreadable version of “Eugene
And then, as a reward to us and to pre-quirk Nabokov, he gives us his own
translation of the short story “Mademoiselle O,” first published in French in
1936, translated into English in 1943, then to Russian, then back to English
(ending up as a chapter in “Speak, Memory”), and revised continually by
Nabokov, as if art were not simply long but alive and still growing.
Mr. Thirlwell’s version translates the unaltered original, and it is a

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