Monday, July 12, 2010

Some postcards from The Delighted States

Adam Thirlwell, in his native habitat. Image found here.

A while back, I mentioned that I was reading 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. Also, "Mademoiselle O," a Story by Vladimir Nabokov, translated by Adam Thirlwell. and promised that I'd post a little something from/on it as I continued to read. Well, here I am, very nearly at its end, no posts in the meantime . . . and what to say by way of summary about this book that does it justice?

I'm not sure I can. So, what follows isn't even a Fodor's Guide but more like a back-of-the-book-style blurb followed by some passages that I found to be especially compelling observations on novels and, more particularly, Thirlwell's book's elusive prey, that thing called "style." Thirlwell's method is not by any means straightforward; but, as I hope to show below, that is to purpose. He is nothing if not, um, thorough in his writing (some might less-charitably describe it as repetitious). But lovers of reading and literary anecdote, and anyone who has ever wondered about the question of literary influence and/or has ever thought about the art of translation, will find much to reward them in this book.

As I mentioned in that earlier post, The Delighted States' is among the odder literary histories you're ever likely to encounter. Most books of that genre use as their starting point a nation, a language or an intellectual period or movement; Thirlwell's book, in both its arguments and form, deliberately militates against those traditional frames and their chronological and spatial assumptions. It begins with Flaubert, via letters to his mistress, articulating what he is trying to achieve in the book that would become Madame Bovary, but it then jumps ahead to Joyce and then to Polish novelists trying to grasp what Joyce is up to via French translations of Ulysses; it moves back in time to Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, then forward to Nabokov; then back to the French, and Joyce . . . oh, and there's Proust and Tolstoy and some other folks I'm forgetting, along with the fact that the Nabokov translation begins at the book's back and is printed upside-down in relation to its front (it's kinda hard to explain) and . . . you get the idea. Imagine Sterne's Tristram writing a literary history of the novel and style and translation, and you'd get something like The Delighted States.

The rest is below the fold to spare the incurious. If you find that description more intriguing than off-putting, then read on--you'll get to learn how the book got its title, along with a few passages I think are worth thinking about.

Here's the origin of the title:

Bohumil Hrabal was a Czech novelist in the twentieth century. One of his last books was a collection of autobiographical letters to an American girl called April Gifford, christened Dubenka by the drinkers in the Golden Tiger pub, since April, in Czech, is duben, the oak month. And April herself came up with her own reciprocal pun in translation, when the drinkers in the Golden Tiger pub asked her where she was from--'Ze "spokojeneých" stáu . . . From the "Delighted" States . . .' Because normally the United of the United States, in Czech, would be spojené--without the extra spike of spokojeny--the Czech word for happy. (31)

A nice story--and, coincidentally, it's reminiscent of how I would explain to Mexicans I met in Mexico how to pronounce my unusual last name. It also introduces a basic fact of translations that we're all aware of: that due to the nature of language (and, for that matter, languages), the completely-transparent translation does not, can never exist. Thirlwell knows this as well, of course, but his book's subject isn't the futility of translation but what is it that survives translation (or, ideally, should survive it) that works its influence on the writers who are reading in translation. Here's his book's central thesis, as near as I can determine it:
[In an essay on Joyce's Finnegans Wake, Samuel Beckett] came up with this catchy conclusion: 'His writing is not about something; it is that something itself [Beckett's italics].

But Beckett's conclusion is not just catchy: it is also impossible.

A sign is not the same thing as the thing it represents. Because this is the case, it is possible to create more and more precise signs--since the gap between the sign and real life is infinite. And this is why there are values in literature--marking the moments when novelists working in the art of the novel invent more precise styles. Often, it is true, the more precise the style, the more form and content are inter-related. But this intertwining of form and content does not entail that a style is so precise in its relation to real life as to be the thing it is describing. All novels, after all, are smaller than real life. They are all miniaturisations. They are never real life itself. Real life is always elsewhere.

And this is why translation is always still possible. The style of a novel, and a novelist, is a set of instructions, a project: it is never able to create an entirely unique, irreplaceable object.

The novel--this art of the precise, the authorial, the deliberate--is also an art of repetition, of reproduction. (14-15)

Style is not merely form + content; in literature it is more accurately described as an author's way of paying attention: thus, Hemingway's reticence, Joyce's accretions of pure data, Kafka's slowing the passage of time down to a crawl in combination with the deliberate withholding of the word "dream" as a descriptor of what's going on in his narratives, etc. This is also why, for example, Nabokov Russian-izes his translation of Alice in Wonderland: whatever else it may be about, Nabokov realized that Carroll's novel is rooted in the sort of Englishness that only the English--not even, necessarily, English-speakers--would grasp. What matters in that novel is the quality of that novel's attention to Alice's (or Anya's) adventures. One doesn't have to be English to attend to the world in that way.

Hence Thirlwell's book's eschewing of the traditional forms that literary histories take. They may be orderly, but authors' readings are not nearly so scripted. It's all a bit like a juggling exercise for the reader--and for him as a writer; toward the end of his book he finds himself questioning some of his former claims, but surely that too is in keeping with The Delighted States' larger claim about the inevitable slippage between language and its subject.

Here are a few more passages worth thinking about. This book is so full of such moments, though, that I'll be saving a few for another set or two of postcards.

[Pastiche] is a way of testing out the limits of a style. It is a form of map-making.

And this becomes more acute in translation. Every question of style can also become a question of translation; every theory of the relation between form and content contains its corresponding theory of how these might be reproduced. And another description of an accurate translation, I think, can be a voluntary pastiche, a reproduction of the style.

But translations are often acts of fragile restoration. Because there is nothing style can do about time, nothing it can do about the possible comic and unpredictable betrayals.

In translation, for instance, a style is often an anachronism. It is in thrall to its ephemeral subject matter. (88-89)

The last two episodes of Ulysses are remarkable for two apparently contradictory things: they are comprehensive, and reticent. On the one hand, these episodes are huge, and full of detail. But these episodes refuse to make any form of selection among detail. And this is why they are also reticent: this mass of detail does not respect any detail's relative importance. Some of the most important things are therefore barely said. (108)

Everything conceals a potential narrative.

In this way, [French novelist Georges] Perec worked on the plan for his last and best novel, La Vie mode d'emploi (Life: A User's Manual), a title which in its vacuous pragmatism flaunts its refusal of the idea that literature should teach, should be a moral or everyday guide. Instead, it was an affirmation of real life, of the multiple novels contained in an apartment block. Which is why, as well as its title, Perec added a subtitle to his novel: Romans.

Not a novel: Novels.

For this was the discovery of James Joyce, with his multiple styles, structured on a network of detail. The everyday was infinite. (114)

More later.

1 comment:

R. Sherman said...

I need to ponder this, but I look forward to your second installment.