The erotics of reading by Michael Hofmann

”Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert is a whizzbang tour of books and authors across continents and cultures”, says Michael Hofmann

It is a tempting thing to imagine: young Adam Thirlwell, st vunned by the success of his debut, Politics, translated into 30 languages (the author himself has maybe one and a half), sets himself to write a sort of thank-you book to his reading and education, a work that will feature many of his favourite books and authors, and ingeniously link them together, in a narrative or web of narratives in which the heroes and characters are translations and foreign readers and writers – a sort of erotics of reading.

Miss Herbert is about the globalisation of the novel. Starting around 1600 with Don Quixote, pirated versions of which appeared everywhere, and going on to Sterne, who wrote a book about going to France – A Sentimental Journey – and was read and admired and copied by Diderot, then taking in Flaubert and Joyce (among many, many others) as his other major international jumping-off points, Thirlwell traces the novel as a sort of eccentric call-and-echo game. Novelist X in country A thinks that novelist Y in country B is up to something interesting that he would like in some way to learn or profit from.

The historical Miss Herbert (Juliet) was governess to Flaubert’s niece; she also gave the novelist lessons in English, and worked with him on an English translation of Madame Bovary, which, he said, „fully satisfies me”, and which he tried to have published. I’m not sure whether one is supposed to share Flaubert’s estimate of its qualities or not; Flaubert was romantically interested in the translator; the translation was never published, and has disappeared; Miss Herbert lived on in obscurity, and died in 1909 in Shepherd’s Bush. The episode, a little shy, a little haunting, a little tawdry, is one of several suggested models for international relations, most of them, I have to say, rather discouraging.

There is for instance the case of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, cast adrift in Argentina during the second world war; after a while, a gang of Argentinian colleagues got together to translate him: they knew no Polish, his Spanish was in short supply and no Polish-Spanish dictionary then existed. „Witold’s observations were always pertinent,” one of the other writers remarked; it sounds a little ominous. An early French translator – Frenais – of Laurence Sterne disapproved of his original’s sense of humour, and took it upon himself to omit or replace his jokes.

These moments of literary anecdotage, vivid, partisan, often eccentric, give Thirlwell his materials. He picks them up again in unexpected ways: the straitlaced Sterne translator was responsible for the name given to the riotous Dada movement. The Czech typewriter on which Hrabal first wrote prose had no accents. And so on.

These stories and analyses are propelled in short, sometimes whimsically titled sections of brisk, bouncy sentences. Reading Thirlwell is like pounding along an unpredictable, slightly over-reactive boardwalk. It’s a spoken style, sometimes the chummy side of spoken, sometimes the ear-bending side of chummy. Still, every page has good things. You will find Joyce’s list of tired phrases to be set in the mouth of a tiring Bloom; Nabokov’s wonderful formulation for the novel, „the dazzling combination of drab parts”; the story of Flaubert setting Maupassant (his nephew) to find one epithet to describe – effectively, to nail – each Parisian coachman; a brilliant analysis of what the American demotic „free style” of Saul Bellow owes to the 18th-century French court diarist, the Duc de Saint-Simon. Thirlwell himself is no slouch with a mot, either, though some readers will be irritated by the generalising ambition of his pronouncements, the number on „style” or „truth” or „cliché” or „real life”.

From someone who quotes the anecdote of Flaubert and the coachmen, some of the descriptive criticism in the book is not as good as it should be. Having just told us about Chekhov’s notion that one should cross out the beginning and ending of a story once written, as they’re the places one is most likely to be lying, to commend Chekhov for his „charming insouciance” is idiotic. The man cares so much. If it has to be „charming” anything, „charming souciance” would be closer to the mark.

A description of Kafka is especially shoddy: „The technique of Franz Kafka, who only wrote short things, is massive detail.” Every word of this strikes me as wrong, but especially „massive” – as though we were talking about Victorian triple-deckers or Bret Easton Ellis – which has no place in Kafka.

Miss Herbert is not always original, not always sensible, and not always true, but it remains its own thing, and there is far more good in it than bad. The books and authors Thirlwell includes in his whizzbang tour are almost all worth reading, many of them – Machado de Assis, Bohumil Hrabal, Robert Walser, Witold Gombrowicz, Italo Svevo – while far from unknown, have not had their due in English, and he writes about them with alertness, affection and no little inwardness.

I’m not quite sure where it goes or what Miss Herbert’s conclusions are in relation to style and translation, but maybe that doesn’t matter. His writers – Kafka with his „massive detail”, Tolstoy „the miniaturist” – have a disappointing tendency to turn into a single writer, and one perversely described at that. Differences are not respected, pursued, or understood.

A serious book about style and translation (probably unthinkable at this time) of course would make its points about more than a title here, an odd word there, a string of asterisks in one place, a character’s name somewhere else; and I also can’t help thinking that Thirlwell must have learned much more about Nabokov from the translation of 20 pages of his rather glutinous prose that ends this book (and which goes uncommented upon) than what he has chosen to share with us to that point. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that a translation can bring with it a style of its own, or that the „hybrid, impossible language” in which he claims – probably rightly – that many translations are written, might actually in certain circumstances be a virtue. Certainly it would be, had it been in an original work. Thus, Joyce, Chekhov and Svevo are all commended for having „discovered styles which were not styles at all”. Whatever that might be. Thirlwell – and it’s true of the whole book – has not yet decided whether to be austerely chilly or polymorphously permissive.

· Michael Hofmann’s translation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories is published by Penguin. To order Miss Herbert for £23 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875 or go to



Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert


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