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

by Adam Thirlwell

Hardcover, 2008




New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.


'Thoughtful and frequently hilarious... It is also a work of art, a new form' - A.S. Byatt, Financial Times The secret history of novelists is often a history of exile and tourism - a history of language learning. Like the story of Gustave Flaubert and Juliet Herbert, it is a history of loss and mistakes. As Flaubert finished Madame Bovary, Miss Herbert, his niece's governess, translated the novel into English. But this translation has since been lost. Miss Herbert provides a map to the imaginary country shared between writers and readers. For translation, and emigration, is the way into a new history of the novel. We assume that we can read novels in translation. We also assume that style does not translate. But the history of the novel is the history of style. Miss Herbert explores the solutions to this conundrum. This book demonstrates a new way of reading internationally - complete with maps, illustrations, and helpful diagrams. And it includes a slim appendix- 'Mademoiselle O', a story by Vladimir Nabokov, which he worked on in three languages, over thirty years, and whose original French version is now translated into English by Adam Thirlwell. Adam Thirlwell was named as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists in 2003 and again in 2013.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Widsith
It's great to see someone addressing themselves at this kind of length to literary theory – although this is not really a book of ‘Theory’, but rather a long working-out of the author's feelings about style, what it is, and how well it can be translated. Thirlwell's survey takes in a fairly
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standard timeline of the European canon, tracing innovations in narrative voice more or less from Sterne to Nabokov, taking in Joyce and Kafka and Tolstoy and Gombrowicz on the way, and glorying in the random connections and coincidences which link them.

It's described by the author not as a long essay, but as a novel whose characters are works of literature. But it's not, it's definitely a long essay – although one of its central ideas is the notion that narrative coherence does not come from the plot, but rather by building up related themes.

Thirlwell has some good things to say about the universality of style, and he comes into his own when discussing translation – the impossibility of doing it perfectly, and yet the undeniable, perhaps troubling, fact that an author's style can come through even the most inept translation. A central thesis is this conviction that ‘an author's style is not identical to the language in which it takes form’, and the implications of this on the question of where, exactly this thing called ‘style’ resides, are fully explored.

In my view he's bang on in his dismantling of Nabokov's famously strict views on how translation should be done, and he's also sensitive to the dangers involved with modern translations of older works.

It is the problem that, oddly, many translations begin to sound like each other, consistently awkward, poised between the contemporary and the old-fashioned. And this creates the strange dialect in which many translations are written – a hybrid, impossible language.

And yet there is an irony here which got in the way of my enjoyment of the book. Simply, Thirlwell's own style resembles nothing more than the ‘translationese’ he mocks here. His prose can be admirably clear and lucid at its best – but at its worst, the careful explanations can start to seem a bit condescending. He has a habit of hopping to a new paragraph for each new thought explained in short, conjunction-led sentences:

But I am not so sure about this.

And I like this story.

But I am not so sure that Mallarmé was quite as clever as Joyce.

And so on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't – personally I began to find it a bit grating.

But that is probably just griping. It's great to see someone prepared to write a work of such personal enthusiasm, and even better, perhaps, to see that publishers are prepared to put it out. It's full of great literary anecdotes and thoughtful reflections on what makes a great writer great, on a sentence-by-sentence level.
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LibraryThing member Poquette
The Delighted States is a book about writers and writing — but not about just any writers. It concentrates on those innovative writers of fiction whose work put a mark on the art of imaginative writing, that overcame language barriers and impacted the ways in which novels and stories that
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followed were written, read and understood.

The "delighted states" is a metaphor for the place where all ground-breaking international writers meet — regardless of time and origination.

Adam Thirlwell explores the relationship between authorial style and translation, and what, if anything, is lost in the process of translation. This exploration becomes a history of the novel, "a history of an elaborate and intricate art form," as it unfolded through the works of Laurence Sterne, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov primarily, but also a number of others. What he gives us are biographies of the novelists' styles. And as it turns out, style is timeless and placeless. "The very term 'émigré author,'" wrote Nabokov, "sounds somewhat tautological. Any genuine writer emigrates into his art and abides there."

A style is not just a matter of technique. It develops as a function of the writer's choice of subject matter. Throughout the discussion of style is a thread weaving its way along that concerns translation. In the process of exploring the problems of translation, much is learned about how both style and content are handled in transmitting a work from one language to another.

We learn, for example, of how the digressive quirkiness of Sterne's Tristram Shandy was quickly understood and adapted by French writer Denise Diderot in Jacques the Fatalist, and then later by Brazilian writer Machado de Assis in Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas. But that is pretty much where the tradition of novels consisting merely of digression ended.

We see how Flaubert's creation of realism in Madame Bovary through the presentation of detail influenced Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and many others who followed.

We see how even through deeply flawed translations the essence of unprecedented works like Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Joyce's Ulysses overcame language barriers.

This is a book that will appeal to everyone who is interested in exploring what are the components of style and how they contribute to the greatness of a piece of writing. Thirlwell states at the outset that he likes to think of his book as a novel, but it is a work of imagination only in the clever way novelists and their individual styles are juxtaposed against each other. In the process, much is revealed about what "difficult" writers like Franz Kafka, Italo Svevo, Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz, Witold Gombrowicz and others were up to in attempting to create something new.

Thirwell has done something new and thought-provoking in the realm of stylistic analysis. I can only think of one other book that reveals as much about style, and that is Robert Alter's Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel. This book, The Delighted States, which is beautifully written, demands to be dipped into again and again.
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LibraryThing member mykl-s
Lit-crit pretending to be a novel. An extended, maybe too extended, essay on story and the novel. A discussion of style in literature. Not a linear book; any page is a good page to start on, and the "Index of Themes and Motifs" near the end of the book is a better guide than the table of contents
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at the beginning. Best taken in small doses, but a very interesting book.

Most revealing to me was Thirwell's theme of translation and all the ways it can be done. His two examples of different English translations of one paragraph from Gogol's story, "Coat," together with the original Roman text of the Russian, opened my eyes to many things about language, literary style, and translations.
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