A Natural History of Squiggles & other Literary Theories
When was the last time anyone saw a hard cover dos-à-dos book in the new literature section of the bookstore? As a kid I used to read cheap back-to-back science fiction paperbacks. As soon as you finished one you flipped if over and started on the second. Sometime in the 1980s Capra Press issued a series of back-to-backs with short stories by authors like Robert Coover, Raymond Carver, Ed Abbey and others. So, the moment I picked it up I suppose it was inevitable that I would buy Adam Thirlwell’s book The Delighted States with its back-to-back companion of Thirlwell’s translation of the Nabokov story Mademoiselle O.
Although The Delighted States poses as a paean to books (it reproduces the original title pages of many of the books that Thirlwell discusses) and to the act of reading, reading The Delighted States is more like settling in for a long evening with an erudite, witty conversationalist. Everything Thirlwell says sounds great as it passes between one’s ears. But in the pauses, one wonders if there is any substance beneath the extraordinary verbiage. The answer for me is a qualified yes. This is a book for the tolerant reader, for those who love the act of reading and puzzling out meaning, but it will frustrate those who seek anything less than a unified theory of literature. It’s a book of nuggets, not great veins of gold ore.
That’s not to say that Thirlwell doesn’t attack big questions. In fact, the book is basically an attempt to understand and discuss literary style and its concomitant problem – translation. Does style exist, is it different from or integral to content, and how do you translate style from one language to another? Hence, Thirlwell’s own translation of Mademoiselle O, chosen, in large part, because Nabokov originally wrote it in French (not Nabokov’s first language), then translated into English, then Russian, and then back into English. And with each translation, Nabokov also altered parts of the text.
It also helps if you take the book’s subtitle as little more than a playful homage to 19th century literature: 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. If you think that tells you much, you will be sadly mistaken. (Just imagine: this book was titled, even less helpfully, Miss Herbert when published last year in Great Britain.)
The Delighted States is deliberately digressive and irreverent, glib, and full of gratuitous details and throw-away lines. A cafe where everyone’s playing ping-pong; that’s my new definition of literary history. It contains quirky illustrations somewhat in the manner of W.G. Sebald’s books. Deliberately eccentric, it includes an Index of Real Life (which is mostly an index to the actions of characters in novels, like “Leopold Bloom eats an erotic sandwich”), as well as an Index of Squiggles (with ten entries). All of this is more or less in keeping with the novelists that Thirlwell most admires and discusses. Cervantes, Diderot, Sterne, Flaubert, de Maupassant, Svevo, Kafka, Joyce, Borges, Perec, Gombrowicz, Chekhov, and Nabokov are more or less his literary dream team
Thirlwell has the same kind of passion for literature that others have for things like Formula One racing or English football, and I actually found reading it contagious (although I can imagine it will irritate purists no end). Think of this book as expert color commentary for three centuries of literature.
[The theory of literature] has to cope with the persistent conspiracy of themes signaling to each other, with no regard for time or place…