Adam Thirlwell: Miss Herbert

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.


  1. This sounds great. Always good to find a new way to lead me to books and authors that for one reason or another I’ve avoided. One to slip onto my Christmas list I think!

    I know what you mean about the age thing! So many authors are so young, and I feel a little sickened each time I see their smiling youthful faces and late 70’s early 80’s birth years.

  2. Quite. And Thirlwell looks about twelve, apart from the strangely full bags under his eyes for one so young. Presumably those are the product of talking long into the night with Craig Raine about Stendhal’s influence on Machado de Assis. Or something.

  3. I loved Politics too, a very fine, very funny debut. This one, at face value, looks like the product of an Oxford academic closeted among books and far removed from the flux and flow of ‘real life’. Should someone so young be writing about writing already? Novelists usually take a few decades before they get round to that subject, and it’s often a sign of diminishing powers. Your review, though, makes me think I’d rather enjoy it, as I do think it can be a fascinating subject in the hands of, say, Philip Roth. The fact he is four years younger than me is rather irritating too, and I must admit to a certain twinge of schadenfreude at Adam Mars-Jones’ review of the book below.,,2204762,00.html

  4. Yes I read the Adam Mars-Jones review with interest yesterday. He’s a fussy so-and-so, isn’t he? Oddly, I can’t really disagree with anything he says in it, and some of the points he makes did occur to me as I was reading. In the end though I took great pleasure not necessarily from Thirlwell’s pronouncements and opinions, which often seemed wilfully contrarian, but from his infectious enthusiasm and interest in these neglected writers (and let’s face it, even for keen book bloggers like us, even the big boys like Tolstoy and Joyce are neglected), and his ability to make me think about their works in a different way.

    As for Thirlwell’s fiction, I’m reading a collection of stories now including one by him, apparently from a novel in progress, so we’ll see how he’s come on since Politics.

  5. Thirlwell’s first novel, Politics, was translated into 30 languages (by the author, probably)

    Made me laugh into my cereal. That was Hugo Barnacle in the Sunday Times (very negative review overall, but a wonderful closing paragraph). Also the below from Sarah Churchwell in the Guardian made me laugh as well (pretty positive review overall).

    Thirlwell informs us that Haffner (“Canine, Bacchic”) is “undisgustable”. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for me; I continue, no doubt prissily, to believe that candles should remain outside the body. If Thirlwell wants to give his protagonist a blow-up doll to play with, that’s his business. But in trying to get inside Zinka’s head, and give her interest in Haffner a plausible motivation, he overreaches: blow-up dolls rarely have plausible motivations – tending, as they do, to lack a certain interiority.

    (Lionel Shriver’s ‘take-down’ review in the Telegraph was also hilarious, but my laughter was more aimed at Shriver and her seeming determination to prove herself as bad a reviewer as she is a novelist (I say this having read nothing of her novels. But, yanno, I just know.)

  6. Thanks for these, Sam. I did see Shriver’s review and glanced at the Guardian one today – though I am still undecided about whether I will read The Escape (which I think Shriver referred to as his third novel, when it’s actually his second).

    If Thirlwell really is as ‘Bacchic’ as his characters – the leads in Politics were forever at it as well – the long nights such a temperament would entail might explain why he has such distinguished bags under his eyes at so tender an age.

    (I tend to agree on Shriver too, Sam, on similar lack of evidence. I first came across her via an old novel pre-Kevin titled Ordinary Decent Criminals, which appeared to suggest to me that her time spent living in Belfast had led her to conclude, as with so many romantic Americans before her, that the IRA were simply doing a difficult job under trying circumstances.)

  7. Shriver was present at the Milltown Cemetery shootings which I imagine would have coloured her viewpoint somewhat. Agree that her fiction has never seemed that interesting, and as for her taste in leather jackets.

    Oops, saucer of milk for gav. 😀

    As for Thirlwell I loved ‘Politics’ but these other two seem like the work of a self-consciously ‘gifted’ young man which I can live without. I also get the feeling that Thirlwell himself will be dismissing them as slavish and immature in a few years time.

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