When I received this book for review, I thought, "I didn't order this!" because the book I was holding was entitled
Mademoiselle O by Vladimir Nabokov. I have no objection to Nabokov, like his work in fact, but I was still puzzling over the book's inclusion in my book box until I turned it over, and upside down, and saw another title, The Delighted States. That was the book I had asked for,
written by one of the highly acclaimed young lions of English fiction, Adam Thirwell, an Oxford Fellow.
Thirwell loves language. He uses The Delighted States as a vast playing field on which to bounce, hurl and head-butt the orb of literary fancy. Never mind that he has to play all by himself; he seems to prefer that. He is, as one might say, in a field all his own, self-created, and he is outstanding in it.
If this book makes one central point, it would be that there are no central points when it comes to the analysis of prose. Selecting from the greatest purveyors of that medium – Cervantes, Joyce, Singer, Joyce, Hemingway to name a few of the giants, with many lesser lights besides – Thirwell simply romps. I would call his method, if there was one, "cherry picking." Because he is an expert on cherries, the book is rich with "delighted states" induced by reading, aloud when possible, the succulent offerings he has put on the table. He tells us, for example, that Tristam Shandy is "a character who is stricken by a mania for comprehensiveness…Tristam takes his life so seriously that his Life becomes impossible. " Tristam's obsessive need to describe each event in relentless detail causes him to tell us that his mother is eavesdropping on his father, and then, six chapters later, "Tristam remembers that he has left her still bent over the door."
Thirwell states that "there is no need to be prescriptive when it comes to form, or style. There is no reason for there to be any limiting terms to the novel. Everything is up for grabs." Yet the bulk of the novelists in whose work he glories were writing in a highly "prescriptive" – one could say restrictive – style, with a view to pointing something out, and often enough as a signpost to ultimate moral upliftment. Even a novel's simple amusement value was once deemed to be a proper pastime which would guide its practitioners to some higher ground, relax them from their labors, perhaps, long enough to refresh them to return to said labors with a happier attitude. Thirwell, who is a brilliant person no doubt and far better suited to his task than I, would like to believe, and to make us believe, that even Tolstoy was a bit of a hippie when it came to style. Thirwell also has much to say about translations, and offers his own (the translation of Nabokov's
Mademoiselle O) by way of example. You won't get far with it if you don't read French.
Perhaps this odd mélange – subtitled "A Book of Novels, Romances & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations & a Variety of Helpful Indexes" – can best be encapsulated, if it is fair to undertake such an exercise, in this short paragraph:
"Even a description of death is still gorgeous, if it is described with art. Nothing is purely grandiose. Instead, the novel is an art of miniaturization and complication, of restoring objects to the true and small size. And this is an entertaining project. For all art is delighted."
If you liked the above, and you want an erudite trip read, this book will be your mind's pet for a summer season. It's a handsome thing, too, and rather heavy, doubtless a comment-magnet if read in a public place. Recommended for those who enjoy literate stew.