A brash, well-read British novelist contemplates the history of his craft, the nature of artistic influence, the complexities of translation and the literary lint caught in the convolutions of his own (figurative) navel.
In a work that has nearly as many chapters as pages (not to mention its numerous “volumes,” “books,” illustrations, indexes and other flotsam), Thirlwell (Politics, 2003) expands an interesting essay into a tedious tome. He rounds up many of the usual suspects here: Cervantes, Joyce, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Hemingway, Kafka, Diderot, Pushkin, Bellow and Proust. Also appearing are some unusual suspects: the French Édouard Dujardin, Italian Italo Svevo, Czech Bohumil Hrabal and Polish Witold Grombrowicz. The author challenges conventional wisdom throughout. Translations do work, he declares, even bad ones; the style can emerge despite inaccuracies and infelicities. Thirlwell can turn an effective phrase of his own now and then. The novel, he avers, is an “international mongrel”; he calls his own effort “a description of a milky way, an aurora borealis.” His scholarship is impressive. He appears to have read about everything worth reading (and lots not-so-worth reading) and to be aware of the various coincidences that make literary history both appealing and puzzling. He shows us Joyce sitting in a Paris lecture by Nabokov; we see the volumes of Diderot on Pushkin’s bookshelves. If Thirlwell finds enormous relevance in small essays published in tiny periodicals, he also has the wisdom not to mistake the ripple on the river for the river itself. He climbs to a high vantage point, shows us the river’s twisting course, the places where it’s overflowed its banks and the distant horizon where it disappears into the unknown.
Often overwrought and ostentatious—like a love letter, which of course it is.