on 15 February 2015
Thirlwell's book seems at first to place a high bar for any reviewer, as it implies familiarity with a wide variety of foreign languages and literary traditions. Soon enough, though, one realizes that this standard is so exacting it can scarcely be met – least of all by the author himself. Besides English (his mother tongue), Thirlwell knows French and some Russian. He nonetheless deals fearlessly with stylistic aspects of novels written in a variety of other tongues, including Spanish, German, Italian, Polish and Czech, none of which he speaks.
Moreover, though he deals with an impressive array of primary sources, he includes few secondary ones. Many people, for instance, have examined Nabokov's views on translation. Thirlwell finds none of them worthy of note. One of his few extended discussions of actual translators deals with Constance Garnett and her "swarming precision." He also makes a daring suggestion when it comes translating the names of fictional characters: "in Gogol's story 'Coat,' it's not so much important that the main character's name is Akaky: it's more important that his name sounds like a minor part of speech. Mikey, therefore, will also do." And near the end he joins Nabokov in rejecting "the cliché of the smooth translation" (pg. 388). But that's about it.
He does attach his own version of Nabokov's "Mademoiselle O," a story that has already been translated repeatedly, first by Hilda Ward, then by Nabokov himself – twice (once from the original French, later from the Russian). Perhaps someday a graduate student in search of a thesis will take the trouble of comparing all these efforts, and then we can see how Thirlwell's stacks up. He himself never spells out why he thinks a new one is needed. He reveals little about the choices he presumably faced, the compromises he had to make, or even whether he found it difficult or not.
Really, though, it is style, not translation, that is Thirlwell's main subject. When he concentrates on this, readers may well find themselves seduced by the expansive sweep of his argument, as he flits from century to century, from Bellow to Borges, from Prague to Rio, alighting only as long as it takes to offer a provocative insight. He provides a checklist of Flaubert's techniques, including style indirect libre, the device by which seemingly objective third-person narration is colored by a character's subjective, first-person point of view. He examines Kafka's subtle humor and his technique of taking metaphors literally, with side glances at Gertrude Stein and Stendhal, with César Franck thrown in for good measure. Along the way, he offers up a variety of pictures and drawings, squiggles and maps, so that the volume at times recalls a scrapbook. Even Saul Steinberg makes an appearance.
His chapter on Sterne and Diderot rehearses in a witty, playful, and decidedly un-academic way some familiar arguments about these digressive authors. He claims, however, that theirs is a truncated tradition, that they allegedly had no 18th-century followers. This is not quite accurate. Thirlwell should at least have mentioned the neglected (and alas untranslated) German author Hippel, whose novel "Die Lebensläufe nach aufsteigender Linie" represents a continuation of this line, with its memorable opening words, "I – Stop! Who goes there?" (see my book, "The Elusive "I" in the Novel: Hippel, Sterne, Diderot, Kant").
Considering that style is his subject, it seems legitimate to examine Thirlwell's own style. Is it entertaining, provocative, and stimulating? Yes, most definitely. Is his argument thorough, well-organized, and soundly reasoned? Hardly. Anyone expecting a sustained approach, built up brick by brick, is in for a disappointment. He writes about style the way he writes about translation – as though practically no one else has ever studied the matter before. Not even "le style c'est l'homme même" gets a passing nod. Reading Thirlwell is akin to listening to the book-length chat of a café intellectual who has the gift of making simplicity look smart. He flatters his readers by treating them as being clever enough to follow his butterfly-like flight plan. His meandering course is disguised, to some extent, by an elaborate division into five volumes, sixteen books, and innumerable chapters, all of whose headings, for some unfathomable reason, are printed in extremely faint typeface. I counted five indices, but may have missed some.
He also seems determined to prove the truth of his bold claim: "Inelegant prose style may still be part of a good prose style." At its best, his own prose can be quirky, provocative, whimsical, and aphoristic (to choose some of his favorite adjectives). At its worst, it is made up of flat pronouncements that rely heavily on that most humdrum of verbs, "to be." All the heavy lifting is done by the nouns and adjectives, which rest on the plainest foundation imaginable: variations of "it is." Here's a sample from a single paragraph early in the book: "Joyce is… His style is… One consequence of this is… It is possible… Because style is… It is more amorphous… It exists… It is biological" (pg. 22). You can’t get much more basic than that. For readers and writers who were taught to use strong, active verbs, this can be annoying.
A good bit of this flatness can pass unnoticed, though, because of his technique of tacking on the startling apercu. Take, for example, his final assertion – that style is biological. He proceeds to spin this out, listing various body organs and parts by way of example, not omitting the left and right ventricles. His technique is to indulge in the banal, lulling the reader in commonplaces, then suddenly veering off in some unexpected direction: "A style, in the end, is a list of the methods by which a novelist achieves various effects. As such, it can seem endless" (pg. 20). You could call this the flash-bang effect. The problem is that if you let yourself get caught up in the flow, some rather dubious assertions can slip by. As when he asserts, for example, that style "exists prior to language." Does it really? Are we still talking about prose?
His overuse of "to be" lends itself to a hybrid tone, which might be termed the conversational oracular. After a few hundred pages of reading pronouncements like "a style is aesthetic only" and "everyone is sentimental," one gets the impression that Thirlwell could alter any given argument into its opposite, and it would fit in just as well. He could assert that "each description is irreplaceable" or that "no description is irreplaceable" with equal conviction, and even the reader who is trying to pay close attention would scarcely notice the difference. He asserts, for example, that because real life "is the opposite of utopia, it is also utopian," (pg. 321). You have to wade through streams of such banality to find the nuggets of insight. But they can be found: "The first great Russian novel [Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin"] was a rewrite of a French travesty of an English avant-garde novel ["Tristram Shandy"]" (pg. 375). "For Nabokov, pattern conferred permanence on art: just as it was the perception of pattern in real life which hinted at an invisible, mystical stage manager" (pg. 412).
To conclude, I offer a summary of our author as he himself might have written it: As a stylist, our author is not particularly distinguished, at least when it comes to composing sentences. At this level nothing would be easier than to mock him for indulging in a stream-of-self-consciousness. Though the line between mockery and homage is often exceeding fine. Just ask Bohumil Hrabal in Prague, who knew a thing or two about style. And this word is important. Because the truest style is also the most elliptical, a style which is almost not a style at all. Whereas the opposite is so often also true. But not always. Which leads to the question: what, after all, is so funny about digression? It is funny because it is the inversion of seriousness. Thus restoring the idea of passion to its adolescent grandeur. But passion is not permanent – an ironic collage cannot last. The great authors play ping-pong with each other across the centuries. Just like it is possible to translate a story whose language you do not speak, presuming you can find a version of it in French. But I digress.