There are a select number books where I audibly exhale when I realize the paragraph I'm reading is the last one. I actively miss its pages when I'm no longer reading them. Moby-Dick was one. So was War and Peace, and Out Stealing Horses, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. These aren't necessarily my favorite books — but they cast a particularly spacious mood. They became intimately entangled with my life by virtue of me spending a lot of time with them, carrying them in my bag or in my hands, reading them in bed and in other people's homes. After they are done, I feel them like a phantom limb.
I feel The Delighted States. Or, as the full throwback subtitle of Adam Thirlwell's book puts it: "a book of novels, romances, and their unknown translators, containing ten languages, set on four continents, and accompanied by maps, portraits, squiggles, illustrations, and a variety of helpful indexes." This nonfiction book of blinding brilliance and rare pleasures — one that I will easily name as a favorite — orients itself on questions of literature in translation. How does style translate, or not translate, across not only language, but also time and country, politics and personality? What does it mean to be influenced by a writer from another language? How does translation wrangle up the relationship between form and content? How does the map of the imagination match up with the map(s) of our literal world?
Thirlwell, a novelist and translator himself, simmers with these questions alongside the likes of Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Vladmir Nabokov, Italo Svevo, Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, Saul Bellow, Anton Chekhov, Denis Diderot, Jane Austen, Stendhal, Balzac, Nikolai Gogol, and Bohumal Hrabal, among others. Thirlwell is concerned not so much with what is lost in translation, but what is found: the peculiar magic of a writer's style communicating itself to readers even through the mediating work of the translator. He contradicts the familiar ethos that you can't really get a novel if you do not read it in its original language. Instead, Thirlwell puts forward his belief in literature's multiplicities: it is not one thing, and it never was. The majesty of the novel survives misinterpretation. At the same time — and this is the tension that spans the 500+ pages of The Delighted States — the novel's "uncanny specificity" is essential.
The Delighted States centers on style as something not constructed out of words, but of a vantage on the world. It is vision, not language. Much of style survives, even in the most terrible translations. This is what fascinates Thirlwell, and what drives his long, lingering and not at all linear meditation on originality.
But here is the true genius of The Delighted States: its form manifests its meaning. This book about style is intentional about shaping its style. Thirlwell moves through his huge questions not through the traditional nonfiction techniques of chronology or argument. He moves thematically, with an associative logic. He calls real-life people his characters — a gesture toward his sweeping formal intentions. Consider this progression of the opening sections. (Note that "chapters" are about a page or two in length).
- Chapter i: Normandy, 1852: Two Letters from Gustave Flaubert About Style
- Chapter ii: Warsaw, 1937: Witold Grombrowicz Writes a Review
- Chapter iii: Paris, 1930: James Joyce in Paul Leon's Living Room
- Chapter iv: Paris, 1929: Samuel Beckett Writes an Essay
- Chapter v: St. Petersberg & Rome, 1842: Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin
- Chapter vi: Croisset, 1852: A Short Essay on Style (1)
It takes a while for the reader to get used to this. Chad W. Post described it as like listening to a brilliant drunk ramble on at a pub, telling story after story with sometimes the thinnest of threads of connection. It certainly feels that way at first, and the reader is wise to sit back, loosen control, and take it in. As Thirlwell writes early on, "the history of the novel is, simultaneously, the history of an elaborate and intricate international art form — and also a history of errors, a history of waste." His book, he indicates, fully accepts the impact of "the anachronism, the side effect" in this history — and it does so not only in the text of the The Delighted States, but also in its form. The author's migratory narration mimics the flow of chance, error, and exile that has shaped world literature.
But after awhile, Thirlwell's associations gain substance, and his intentions become more clear. His themes gather weight as they proceed through both close readings of literary texts and a joyful accounting of the lives of writers. My fear that this book was coated in pretension dissolved, and instead I felt charmed and inspired. Thirlwell finds the most astonishing rhymes among the writers and books he features, inciting readerly delight at their discovery, while not underlining them so thickly that they become inflated with false meaning. What seems like digressions are in fact full of meaning and discovery.
This is a raveling, not an unraveling. This is a book of rabbit-holes and looking-glasses. This is a book of and by metaphor — things being multiple things at once. After awhile, it is not the author who is intoxicated, but the reader.
The book is also noteworthy for its literal layers — it is full of large and striking images (Nabokov sunbathing!), squiggles that are both quotations and metaphors, those "helpful indexes," and a translation by Thirlwell of Nabokov's "Mademoiselle O" that appears alongside its French version — at the back of the book, printed in reverse. (It is one of only two stories Nabokov wrote in French.)
Little white pieces of paper are packed into my copy of The Delighted States. Here is what one of them marks:
Everything Nabokov writes is intent on exploiting the possibilities which language offers to do more than one thing at once. This medium called literature is the perfect medium for turning a person into a medium, a person to whom time does not exist. And so Nabokov's definition of poetry, in his book on Nikolai Gogol, is a definition of his own style too: 'the mysteries of the irrational as perceived through rational words.' With his magic carpet, his clear misleading sentences, Nabokov shows how two moments separated in time can be made congruent, how they can be folded on top of each other, neatly, and mystically.
Thirlwell experiments with bold statements about both style and reality that sound almost as if he's testing their truth by saying them aloud.
Real life is not utopia; it is the opposite of utopia. But because it is the opposite of utopia, it is also utopian. It is full of projects not to be real at all. Real life is diet books, time-management plans, timetables, travel brochures, interior-design magazines. It is always wishful.
Real life, therefore, is like a dream. Everything which is ordinary and everyday, like a stuffed parrot, is also latent with transfiguration.
While this is a work of literary criticism, finally, Thirlwell comes across as an enthusiastic and intelligent reader who simply wants to talk out these topics with you, in all their contradiction and slipperiness. It is a rare sort of criticism, and a beautiful one. His love for literature is palpable and awakening. I might've wished for the book to be less centered on European literature — I'm curious how his themes would cross into literature from Asia, in particular. But, truth be told, that centering is probably essential to this impossibly broad narrative.
So it comes to this: I love this book without qualification.