For a book with a very long title, Adam Thirlwell?s The Delighted States: 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 has a simple premise: a novel?s style can be translated from one language to another. It may not sound like much, but it sets Adam Thirlwell, whom Granta named one of the best young British novelists in 2003 (he turns 30 this year), against some heavyweights: Flaubert, Beckett, and anyone else who has ever asserted, as Flaubert did, that “It is like body and soul: form and content to me are one; I don?t know what either one is without the other.”
Thirlwell?s refutation is not unreasonable: novels, he says, are about real life. Because they are about life, they can?t be identical to it; because they are not identical to it, form and content are not one and the same — and voil?, there?s room for a translator to find an equivalent form that gets at more or less the same thing. Because, Thirlwell asserts, that?s what style is: a way of getting at something. “All styles,” he writes, “are systems of operations on a language for the contrivance of effects: they are like machines. And these stylish machines are therefore also portable. Machines, after all — like cars, or typewriters — can be imported anywhere.”
What Flaubert mistook for the soul turns out merely to be a typewriter. To prove it, Thirlwell goes about documenting, with the scrupulousness of a customs agent looking over shipping manifests, the export of some stylistic mechanisms from one European nation to another, and to destinations overseas. Some of the paper trails are familiar: for instance, the novelist Ettore Schmitz, a.k.a Italo Svevo, studied English with James Joyce in Trieste, but Thirlwell uses little-known details to bring these stories to vivid, delightful life. Here is one of Schmitz?s exercises in English composition, a description of his teacher, Joyce:
When I see him walking on the streets I always think that he is enjoying leisure a full leisure. Nobody is awaiting him and he does not want to reach an aim or to meet anybody. No! He walks in order to be left to himself?
Other connections will be news to most: did you know that Nabokov gave a lecture on Pushkin in Paris in 1937, with James Joyce and the Hungarian football team in attendance? Still others belong not so much to the history of literature as to the catalog of isomorphisms that give life a feeling of eerie coherence: Joyce wanted all the accents suppressed from the French translation of Molly Bloom?s monologue, and the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal composed his first novel on a German typewriter, which lacked Czech accents; Tolstoy and the French novelist Edouard Dujardin both describe, in very different works, carpets with one corner turned up.
While these latter details may be significant only to tea-leaf readers and conspiracy theorists, the larger outlines of the import-export business Thirlwell describes bear directly on the shape of Western literature for the last two or three centuries. The Delighted States traces, roughly speaking, two traditions: a self-effacing style that?s handed from Flaubert to Guy de Maupassant to Dujardin to James Joyce (if you?re having trouble thinking of Joyce as self-effacing, think of Dubliners;) and a self-conscious style, which Laurence Sterne ships to Diderot, and which Svevo, Hrabal, and the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis license for use in their own productions. You can still find these traditions today: Robert Stone and Marilynne Robinson would be on Flaubert?s side of the fence; John Barth and David Foster Wallace on the other side, with Sterne.
Because all of these writers are trying to represent reality, though, the two traditions end up having important similarities. Flaubert, Sterne, and their heirs write against the illusions of sentimentality and romanticism; their weapons in that fight, though differently wielded, are the minutiae of observed life: the aching foot, the clich? that falls flat, the carpet with its corner turned up. “Detail is not just funny,” Thirlwell writes, “it is also true. It is a reality effect.” Or more than an effect: detail is a way — the only way, perhaps — to perceive life as it really is.
This is an appealing argument, but it poses a problem for Thirlwell?s optimism about translation. If Flaubert, Sterne, Joyce, et al. are all engaged with the imperfections that make experience specific rather than general, then how is that specificity to be translated? Thirlwell?s answer depends on the existence of equivalents: a feature of one world which has an effect that?s more or less the same as a feature of another. To choose, for a moment, an example that has to do not with culture but with sound, Thirlwell notes that in Gogol?s story “The Overcoat,” the main character?s name, Akaky, is echoed, as a kak sound, in Akaky?s speech. When the story is translated into English, these kaks disappear. But what, Thirlwell proposes, if Akaky?s name were translated as Mikey? Then you could write, “Crikey, so that?s how it is — he was saying to himself — I really didn?t think that it?d turn out like…” Which is well and good as far as the sound goes but gives up the fact that the story takes place in Russia, with its odd hierarchy of civil servants, which also plays an important part in “The Overcoat” and for which equivalents are not so ready to hand.
Translation is, of course, a skill, and a good translator will find equivalents where a poor one sees only differences. Still, The Delighted States seems to put more faith than is justified in the similarity of real life in all parts of the globe, at least where literature is concerned: “London is universal. It is also, for instance, Buenos Aires,” Thirlwell writes, by way of transition from Samuel Johnson to Borges. This may be true as long as you?re sitting in the library; say something nasty about the government, though, and suddenly it makes a difference whether you?re in London in the 1730s or in Argentina two centuries later. And this — to borrow a tic from Thirlwell?s style, which leans heavily on the word and, as though to stress the possibility of universal conjunction — seems like just the sort of thing that?s convenient to forget, when you?re in the business of exporting typewriters or importing them. If your job is to type on them, though, it matters where you are; and this is something writers cannot forget — unless they aren?t writing about the real world at all but about some other, delightful world, which exists only within the pages that roll out of their machines.