The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS - MISS HER­BERT


IN 1937, VLADIMIR Nabokov, then liv­ing in ex­ile in Paris, was in­vited to give a lec­ture on Pushkin. In the au­di­ence were James Joyce — and the Hun­gar­ian foot­ball team. Miss Her­bert was the gov­erness of Flaubert’s niece and worked with Flaubert on trans­lat­ing Madame Bo­vary into English, but the trans­la­tion dis­ap­peared af­ter her re­turn to Eng­land.

Th­ese are the sorts of sto­ries 28-yearold Adam Thirl­well loves and, if they leave you cold, run a mile, be­cause Miss Her­bert is full of this kind of thing, more than 500 pages of it.

This kind of lit­er­ary his­tory — the Euro­pean novel from Don Quixote to Nabokov, full of quirky con­nec­tions and clever-clever graph­ics — is not every­one’s cup of tea.

Thirl­well’s first novel, Pol­i­tics, di­vided peo­ple in much the same way. You ei­ther loved it or you hated it. And in­deed, his sec­ond book, Miss Her­bert, has al­ready re­ceived some fe­ro­cious re­views (“mon­u­men­tally an­noy­ing”, The Ob­server).

On the other hand, there are some (though it may be just me) who think this is one of the most amus­ing, lively and en­joy­able books about lit­er­a­ture writ­ten in the past 30 years. Thirl­well writes su­perbly. He has a good turn of phrase and there is no jar­gon. The book is full of ter­rific anec­dotes and Cape de­serve an award for the su­perb de­sign and use of pho­to­graphs.

One of the first sur­prises is what is miss­ing. There are no lit­er­ary c r i t i c s . None. What you have is a very per­sonal (some will say t o o p e r s o nal ) ac­count of 30 or so of Thirl­well’s favourite writ­ers and what they made of each other, the way they in­flu­enced each other and what they learned about each other and about writ­ing from each other.

We for­get (though fine writer-crit­ics like Gabriel Josipovici know this) that writ­ers are the best read­ers. No one writes bet­ter about the novel than Nabokov or Proust. Thirl­well con­stantly looks out for what Tol­stoy and Bel­low learn from Stend­hal or what Hem­ing­way picks up from Joyce. Much of Miss Her­bert is like a first-class de­tec­tive story. Thirl­well keeps fol­low­ing the clues. Best of all, he is not just in­ter­ested in why they re­fer to each other, but what they learn.

Some of the names will be fa­mil­iar. Oth­ers are not. There are ob­scure writ­ers from South Amer­ica and East Europe, some of them Jewish. And this is part of the point. Thirl­well is in­ter­ested in the mar­gins and what hap­pens when Sterne or Joyce are read in trans­la­tion in Rio or Prague. Some­times the trans­la­tions go wrong and yet lit­er­a­ture moves for­ward in new and un­ex­pected ways.

What Thirl­well is re­ally in­ter­ested in is what mat­ters to writ­ers when they read each other. He has done a huge amount of read­ing him­self and bears it lightly. But he has the gift of be­ing able to move from the quirky, funny de­tail to the key crit­i­cal point. He is al­ways think­ing. This is a joy­ous kind of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, smart and fun, a plea­sure to read, all 500-plus pages. David Herman is the JC’s chief fic­tion re­viewer

Adam Thirl­well: a joy­ous kind of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism

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