REVIEWED BY DAVID HERMAN
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