Adam Thirwell is known as a writer of short, punchy, narrator-led novels. Of the two I’ve read, one, Kapow!, I thought was excellent, one of the best novels I’ve read this year and the container of the most useful quotation I’ve come across in a long time. (“Everything can’t be about everything.”) The other, though, Politics, was less to my taste, though possibly just because I’m too sexually repressed. Miss Herbert, however, is neither short nor a novel, but I thoroughly enjoyed it all the same.
Miss Herbert was the name of Gustave Flaubert’s niece’s English tutor, a friend (and possible lover) of the famous novelist. She, with Flaubert, created the first English translation of Madame Bovary, a text which was never published and is now considered lost. But not lost to history is its creator, Miss Herbert, who, as a sadly mute translator of a novel prized and praised for its style, gets to be the eponymous character of Thirlwell’s non-fiction tome on style and translation.
This big book, which includes focus on writers such as Gertrude Stein, Saul Bellow, Pushkin, Cervantes, Gombrowicz, Nabokov, Austen and Sterne, questions (ultimately) whether “style” can be translated, and when one attempts to do so, how far can form and content be changed and the text still be considered the “same”?
There are many discussions about sound and rhyme and musicality – Madame Bovary is a particular focus as Flaubert prided himself on the sound of his prose. To render the same rhythms and notes into English would necessitate an alteration in content, often, so the choice becomes (for a translator) which to focus upon. This is considered in further detail when Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is discussed – a novel in verse, with a complex rhyming scheme which OBVIOUSLY cannot be kept in a “literal” translation in another language, for words with the same meaning do not rhyme in every tongue. (It would be nice if they did, perhaps.) Thirlwell looks at Vladimir Nabokov’s famous translation of the poem-novel, which did not attempt to replicate the form (the rhyme or the rhythm) and cannot quite decide if it is a failure or not for this.
And that, I suppose, is what is joyful about this book – Thirlwell (like the narrator in his novels) can be a little capricious, can be human. He can offer a stout conclusion in the first chapter that he returns to with a more cynical eye hundreds of pages later in order to refute. He is open to the development of his ideas and he is open to his own latter reading disproving statements he has already made.
For what most comes through, here, is a love of reading. Is a pleasure in the forms and the language of texts, the content and the history of novels. He talks a lot about – not talks, writes, but there is a chatty, conversational edge that makes it feel like- he talks a lot about novel-writing as an “international art”, and this, more than anything else, is what this book confirms.
Through tales of émigré novelists, novelists changing their opinions to court reviews in unfriendly states, movement, reading and travel, this is an affirming and warm book about books and the people who make them.
If you’re interested in literary fiction, books in translation and the idea of style, I’d highly recommend it. It’s the kind of book I really like, though I’m not certain how many other people would… Urgh.
(The book also includes as an appendix (upsidedown, at the back!) a freshly translated story written by Nabokov in French, ‘Mademoiselle O’, which is very enjoyable.)