Ilana Kohn

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.

The writing style of The Delighted States is light, but the pages do not fly. Each page offers the reader a soft flow of facts about this or that writer, of this or that incident in literary history (which for Thirlwell pretty much begins with Laurence Sterne), of this or that idea about style, the tricks of translation, and the high art of composing a novel. The information is rarely dull and is often delightful, such as Gustave Flaubert's admiration of the ass of his niece's English governess, Juliet Herbert ("I hold myself back on the stairs so as not grab her behind," wrote Flaubert to a close friend). The charming weightlessness of the book, however, does result from honest research and an intense respect for the little things in the lives of outrageously great authors. So why is a book full of things that are pleasing to know so slow? Because Thirlwell's writing is not intellectually driven or disciplined by strong opinions.

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."

Thirlwell drifts from text to text. On this set of pages he writes about Guy de Maupassant's daring description of an exposed woman in his novel Une Vie ("As Jeanne slept on the right, her nipple was often exposed..."); the next set of pages is about the main character in Joyce's Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, eating an "erotic sandwich" ("Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum."); and another set of pages is about an obscure French author, Edouard Dujardin, whose novel, We'll to the Woods No More, is entirely about a man, Daniel, trying to get into a woman's pants ("Leah told Daniel to wait in the drawing room while she undressed for bed. And this would be, it must be, thought Daniel Prince, his moment: This would be when she finally slept with him.").

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. recommended