Adam Thirlwell came to prominence in 2003 by being, at 25 years old, the most disgustingly youthful of the third batch of Granta Best of Young British Novelists (all I want from life is that nobody younger than me should ever achieve anything: is that so wrong?). At the time his first novel, Politics, had not even been published. When it was, later that year, it received mixed reviews, but I rather liked its Kundera-lite take on sexuality and relationships, and the precociously chummy voice Thirlwell adopted as narrator. So I was tremendously interested when his new project Miss Herbert turned out not to be a novel at all, but what he calls “an anti-novel, with novelists as characters.” A less chummy and youthful voice would call it a sort of literary criticism – a sort of 600 pages of literary criticism – but let’s not be too put off.
Thirlwell’s concern in Miss Herbert is literary style – “I had always believed that style was the most important thing in a novel” – and what precisely this is, and just as importantly, how this can be translated from one language to another. He starts us off with Gustave Flaubert, whose commitment to style was such that “I would rather die like a dog than try to rush through even one sentence before it is perfectly ripe.” (The Miss Herbert of the title was the governess to Flaubert’s niece, who helped create the first, lost, translation of Madame Bovary into English.) But Thirlwell warns that style is not just “the way of constructing a sentence”:
In fact, it can become something which is finally not linguistic at all. For the way in which a novelist represents a life depends on what a novelist thinks is there in a life to be represented. A style is therefore as much a quirk of emotion, or of theological belief, as it is a quirk of language.
This seems uncontroversial, if we accept that the style and subject matter of a novel (or of a good novel anyway) are not separate parts tacked on to one another, but conjoined and interdependent elements of the whole. Vladimir Nabokov agreed that subject matter on its own is irrelevant: “There can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art.”
This in turn tells us that great fictional art cannot date, and sure enough Thirlwell’s choices for his examples are all those which were avant garde not only then but now – Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, James Joyce’s Ulysses – or which were scandalous when first published – such as Madame Bovary – and which in all cases are therefore as fresh today as they were one hundred or three hundred years ago.
As well as charting the progress of style and influences through time, Thirlwell takes us on a whirlwind tour around the world – describing his book as “an atlas” – and covers figures from the legendary to the I’m-sure-I’ve-heard-of-him. He gives us Chekhov on Tolstoy:
When literature possesses a Tolstoy, it is easy and pleasant to be a writer; even when you know you have achieved nothing yourself and are still achieving nothing, this is not as terrible as it might otherwise be, because Tolstoy achieves for everyone. What he does is serve to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature.
This greatness talking to greatness, presented next to an extraordinary photograph of Chekhov and Tolstoy posing alongside one another like uncomfortable relatives, must be one of the most delightful things I have seen in a book in years. Thirlwell even gives us a primer in War & Peace – I feel now as though I would be forearmed if I ever braved to take it up – and some thoughts on the lucid translations by Constance Garnett, who first brought Tolstoy into English (who herself said that Tolstoy “makes no attempt to write good Russian” and that her translation of Anna Karenina, which I read and enjoyed a couple of years ago, “is clearer and more free from glaring defects of style than the Russian original”). Thirlwell suggests that Tolstoy’s “impure” form for War & Peace in fact reflects the theme of “the human capacity for misinterpretation, the ability to see a meaning in an event which is merely accidental.”
Thirlwell’s own style – the form of his sentences – can sometimes be too chummy (“I like this story,” “Sterne admired celebrity. Sterne could stand a lot of celebrity,” or even “A cafe where everyone’s playing ping-pong: that’s my new definition of literary history. Zany, yes, and competitive, but with espresso”), but these Bill Bryson moments are not too intrusive and mostly the approach is more like the informed accessibility of Alain de Botton.
Thirlwell is certainly informed – there’s a frisson in being talked down to by a 28-year-old – and Miss Herbert‘s luxurious expansiveness not only brings us back to writers we thought we knew, but also demands we revisit the tricky ones we’ve never been able to get along with, and finally introduces us to those who now, to me, seem urgently necessary. We get generous stretches on Joyce and Tolstoy and Flaubert, on Andre Gide and Denis Diderot and Witold Gombrowicz, on Saul Bellow and Franz Kafka and Bohumil Hrabal. I’ve read and liked a couple of these, read and struggled with others, and never bothered with the rest, but Thirlwell has fired me with enthusiasm; and not only that, he has given me a new way into these writers, even the Flauberts and Tolstoys whom I already thought I loved.
There are two additional pleasures in Miss Herbert, apart from the erudition and the welcoming inclusiveness. The first is that the book is a deep bran tub of writers talking about their art, like Chekhov on Tolstoy above, or Nabokov’s entertaining assault on the notion (put forward by E.M. Forster among others) that when writing a novel, sometimes the characters take over:
What a preposterous experience! Writers who have had it must be very minor or insane. … My knowledge of Mr Forster’s works is limited to one novel which I dislike; and anyway it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.
Secondly, and not incidentally, Miss Herbert is the most beautifully produced book I have seen this year. From its properly stitched pages, well-chosen photographs and sewn-in ribbon bookmark, to its multiple illustrated endpapers, reversible design and under-the-dustjacket delights, everything about it indicates attention to detail and a true labour of love. If I hadn’t liked the book I would still have wanted to keep it on my shelves. Fortunately though, the dilemma does not arise.