Home » England » Adam Thirlwell » Miss Herbert (US: The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, and a Variety of Helpful Indexes)

Adam Thirlwell: Miss Herbert (US: The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, and a Variety of Helpful Indexes)

This is not even vaguely a novel but a work of criticism, a tribute to (mainly) modernist/post-modernist novels (and their precursors) and their writers. It is here for here reasons. Firstly, Thirlwell himself calls it a novel or, rather, an inside-out novel. Secondly, though it is about the novel, it reads like a novel and not a book of criticism, with the novelists as characters. A chatty, non-academic work of criticism, if you will. Thirdly, I thought it quite fun, if not particularly original, so here it is.

The title of the English edition comes from the name of the governess of Caroline Hamard, Flaubert’s niece. (For some reason, US readers are given a much more complicated title, presumably because it will be assumed US readers have not heard of Miss Herbert. They should not have worried. Nor will most English readers, as she is very much a footnote even in Flaubert’s life, though does merit a mention in Julian BarnesFlaubert’s Parrot.) Miss Herbert is interesting because, though little is known of her, Flaubert clearly maintained relations with her long after she had ceased to be his niece’s governess, as he visited her in London in 1865. Caroline censored most of the references to her in Flaubert’s correspondence and he himself probably did not say too much. Thirlwell points out that she and Flaubert translated Madame Bovary together, though this translation is now lost. In a letter to Michel Lévy, his publisher, Flaubert states that he is completely satisfied with the translation. Flaubert is key for Thirlwell as, he rightly maintains, the novel changed after Flaubert. He becomes interesting when he shows Flaubert’s love of detail (which is known to any student of Flaubert) was passed on to Guy de Maupassant and thence to Perec. But while detail and ephemera are massively important in the novel (he does not mention, for example, Nicholson Baker but perhaps should have done), they may not be as key as he seems to think they are..

He comments here and there on translation, a subject naturally dear to my heart. If you don’t know at the beginning, you certainly will by the end that Thirlwell can read French pretty well. He tells us this several times and points out that he has read some Eastern European novels in French translation, as they are not available in English. He can read a bit of Russian, which enables him to play around with Gogol’s use of sounds. But he is more interesting when he discusses translations of Flaubert and the translations of other writers into other languages, for example Joyce, explaining the role of the translator is not just to translate the words and sense but also the sound. (Not an original idea but worth repeating.) He tries his hand at translating a sentence of Flaubert to illustrate, maintaining that his translation is an improvement on the standard English one. It isn’t. He does dip into the cultural specificity of translation, citing Samuel Johnson’s translation/reworking of Juvenal’s poem on Rome, as London. Is everywhere everywhere else? Is, as he says, London universal and if it is it Buenos Aires? Well, as he does not read Spanish, he clearly has not read Adán Buenosayres, where he would learn that London is not Buenos Aires. Nor is it, pace Johnson, Rome.

His other guru, after Flaubert, is James Joyce, about whom he has a lot of interesting things to say, even if many of them have been already discussed endlessly. His comments on Joyce’s advertising slogan for Plumtree’s Potted Meat, while interesting, fails to take into account what the Situationists had realised fifty years ago and Joyce well before that, namely that capitalism can and will recuperate (i.e. commodify) anything and everything including, of course, poetry. In particular, he shows the influence on Joyce of Edouard Dujardin. While this is no secret – Joyce himself paid tribute to Dujardin – it is interesting to read about him again. Indeed, his reference to some lesser-known writers such as Hrabal, Gombrowicz and Svevo helps make this book so interesting. His idea of a tradition – Flaubert>Maupassant>Joyce and Sterne>Diderot>(Machado de Assis>Svevo)>Hrabal – is also well explained, if not entirely original.

Thirlwell is clearly well read and has given a lot of thought to his subject. The fact that he did so well at Oxford shows that he has a very keen mind. That he approaches an essentially academic subject in a chatty, novelistic manner, making what could be turgid fascinating, makes the book that much more readable. While most readers will want to challenge some of his ideas and many of the ideas, as I am sure he will admit, are not particularly original, this book is certainly very well worth reading for an understanding of the modern novel.

Publishing history

First published 2007 by Jonathan Cape