Only Words To Play With

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BOOKS JUNE 25, 2008

Only Words To Play With

The Delighted States: 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

By Adam Thirlwell

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 559 pp., $30)

 Does style in the novel count for much? The evidence of the novelists themselves is somewhat mixed. A few prominent novelists, such as Dreiser, have been wretched stylists. Trollope's prose was no more than serviceable, yet with it he produced an abundance of genuinely engaging novels, a good many of which are fine representations of class and character in Victorian England. Balzac was not at all a brilliant stylist, and on occasion he could be bombastic, especially in his handling of figurative language, but The Human Comedy is among the most grand and enduring achievements of the genre. Stendhal famously announced that he wanted to fashion a factual, understated prose that would compete with the language of the civil registry, but style makes a real difference in his novels, and anyone who has read him in French is likely to sense a sad diminution of his lightness of touch and his worldly tone in the English translations. And at the other end of the field, many great novelists have been exquisite, and in some cases painstaking, stylists: Fielding (whom Stendhal greatly admired); Flaubert, the inaugurator of the modern idea of the novelist as fastidious artificer; Joyce, Kafka, and Nabokov, all of them varying heirs to the Flaubertian tradition; and, of course, Proust.

The question of style in the novel urgently needs to be addressed because it has been so widely neglected, especially in academic circles, since the 1970s. The principal reason for the neglect is quite evident: in departments of literary studies, the very term and concept of style--even of language itself-- have been widely displaced by something called discourse, a notion that principally derives from Foucault. Discourse in the sense that has generally been adopted is a manifestation, or perhaps rather a tool, of ideology. It flows through the circuits of society, manipulating individuals and groups in the interests of the powers that be, manifesting itself equally, or at least in related ways, in poetry and fiction, in political speeches, government directives, manuals of mental and physical hygiene, advertising, and much else. This orientation toward discourse was at the heart of the New Historicism (now a fading phenomenon), and it is instructive that one of its founders, Stephen Greenblatt, in the preface to his admirable Hamlet in Purgatory, should have felt constrained to say that there is no point in talking about Shakespeare if you do not respond to the magic of the language, thus implicitly repudiating many of his followers and perhaps some of his own earlier inclinations.

After the New Historicism, though sometimes drawing on it, literary scholars have been busy pursuing a spectrum of purportedly political agendas with illustrative reference to literary texts--race, gender identity, sexual practices, the critique of colonialism, the excoriation of consumerism and of the evils of late capitalism and globalization. There has scarcely been room in such considerations for any attention to style--for the recognition that it is literary style that might make available to us certain precious perceptions of reality and certain distinctive pleasures not to be found elsewhere. When one encounters intelligent appreciations of style these days, they tend to come from practicing novelists, or from a few critics who have no more than one foot in academic life.

 Against this background, Adam Thirlwell's book is a welcome engagement of unjustly marginalized issues. Thirlwell is a young British novelist who so far has published one work of fiction, Politics, a novel about a menage-a-trois. Although some of the intricate couplings and triplings reported in Politics might seem the stuff of pornography, everything in the book is mediated by a wry, reflective, and self-reflexive narrator who is vaguely reminiscent of the playful narrator Diderot deploys in Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, a book that, as becomes clear in The Delighted States, is a favorite of Thirlwell's. But in Politics the narrator eventually becomes a little tiresome, perhaps in part because the characters on whom he expatiates, and from whose experience he draws moral generalizations, are rather flat. Thirlwell uses much the same sort of narrator in The Delighted States, but on the whole it holds up better. The book, notwithstanding its limitations, is entertaining to read all the way through, and this is no small virtue in an age in which most works of criticism are about as much fun as a visit to the proctologist.

The tenor of The Delighted States is nicely conveyed by the descriptive rubric, a grand flourish in eighteenth-century style, that is set beneath the title: "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." The squiggles are mostly the ones that Sterne scatters through the pages of Tristram Shandy along with other typographical exuberances. The illustrations, which are part of the amusement of the book, consist mainly of photographs and portraits of the writers discussed, sometimes with friends and relations, and reproductions of the title pages of first editions of the novels. The conceit announced by Thirlwell for the presentation of these disparate materials is that this is not a work of criticism, but itself a kind of novel: "This book--which I sometimes think of as a novel, an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters--is about the art of the novel. It is also, therefore, about the art of translation."

Although this claim to the status of novel is certainly inaccurate, it works well enough as a rhetorical ploy, inviting the reader to imagine himself in the pleasant company of one of those chatty, urbane, witty narrators that presided over novels from Fielding (who is barely mentioned in the book) to Svevo and, still occasionally, beyond. I should say that Thirlwell's list of favorite novelists happily coincides to a large degree with my own, and most of the writers he discusses at length are ones I have been drawn to write about over the years: Cervantes, Sterne, Diderot, Stendhal, Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka, Nabokov, Bellow. It is clear from this list that he is especially interested in novelists who are playfully self-conscious about the art of the novel, who probe their relationship with their readers, flaunt the fictionality of their fictions, and call attention to the formal patterns of their artifice. He also assumes, as he makes explicit at one point, that the novel is essentially a comic form. (Flaubert would not quite fit, but perhaps Kafka might, as a writer who at least in Walter Benjamin's view produced theological comedy.) What Thirlwell has to say about these sundry writers is for the most part perfectly apt, though not much of it will seem new to anybody familiar with the novels and with the criticism on them.

It is worth considering why Thirlwell assumes that a book on the art of the novel is necessarily also a book on the art of translation, for this will bring us closer to the question of style with which he repeatedly tries to grapple. Novels, rather more than poetry, have enjoyed the most vigorous international circulation in translation. Few of us read Russian (Thirlwell does), but Tolstoy and Dostoevsky loom large in the imaginative landscape of most people seriously interested in literature, even if their early experience of these writers was through the Edwardian tonalities and inaccuracies of Constance Garnett's English versions. What is even more remarkable is that many writers have been inspired by novelists whom they could not read in the original: the Brazilian Machado de Assis by Sterne and Fielding; the Yiddish writer Mendele Moykher Sforim by Cervantes; Agnon by Knut Hamsun and Flaubert. Highly productive literary cross-fertilization has been consummated even when the translation used was seriously flawed, sometimes actually riddled with errors. "The history of translation," Thirlwell wisely observes, "is the history of mistakes." It is a declaration I can endorse from my own experience as a translator.

There is something scandalous about the manifest translatability of the novel, which might shed some light on the role of style in the novel. The principal purpose of The Delighted States is to make sense of this scandal. Thirlwell is finely sensitive to the way an assonance, an alliteration, a cadence, a subtle and surprising turn of syntax, shape our responses to what we read, and so he is led to puzzle over why so much of the translated novel seems to come through in the absence of most such refinements of style. Toward the end, he summarizes this central puzzlement: "All through this book, I have been arguing that style is the most important thing, and survives its mutilating translations--that although the history of translation is always a history of disillusion, somehow something survives. Yet this still shocks me, with my aesthetic prejudices, and preferences."

As an exemplary instance of the scandal of translatability, Thirlwell cites Isaac Bashevis Singer's spectacular success in American English, which was famously inaugurated in 1953 with Saul Bellow's translation of "Gimpel the Fool. " Bellow's English version is captivatingly robust, but, as Thirlwell notes, there is a small shift in meaning from the very first words: "I am Gimpel the fool. I don't think myself a fool." In the Yiddish, in the first sentence the word is tam and in the second sentence it is nar, with a nuance of difference between them. Nar (Germanic origin) is an out-and-out fool, whereas tam (Hebrew origin) suggests mental simplicity and perhaps innocence as well. As Singer then proceeded to collaborate with a variety of different translators, he himself was notoriously indifferent to such nuances, freely altering his Yiddish texts in the working sessions in the interest of making them more viable in English. "Singer's style," Thirlwell notes, "was able to accommodate quite a lot of loss and destruction. It was not the delicate thing that a style is meant to be." This is one of those cases where the extreme case teaches us something about the typical.

Flaubert's style was in fact a delicate thing, but still Madame Bovary in translation has been able to grip both general readers and other novelists, despite the fact that much of the delicacy is likely to have been effaced. This strong impact is less true of the translations of Flaubert's greatest novel, The Sentimental Education. My guess is that the difference lies in the compelling story of self-delusion and self-destruction that carries Madame Bovary forward even without the fine turns of style, whereas The Sentimental Education is purposefully a novel in which nothing happens, in which everything depends on the subtle representation of the protagonist's apprehension of society, the history that he witnesses, and the illusory realm of desire. Absent this stylistic finesse, what is beautifully shaded in the French may seem a little flat in translation.

Camus, in an essay called "Problèmes du roman" that Thirlwell cites, shrewdly remarked that "people imagine--wrongly--that novels do not require style. They do, in fact, demand style of the most difficult kind, the one which takes second place." Style in the novel is the most difficult kind because, even when the writer invests extravagant labor in it, ultimately it has to incorporate an element of self-abnegation: a novel in which style is the supreme end in itself runs the danger of devolving into preciosity or mannerism. But what is it to which style must take second place? I think one would have to say (this is not what Thirlwell says) that it is the representation of the social, historical, and political world, and of the thought, emotions, and moral experience of the characters.

Near the beginning of his book, Thirlwell proposes what looks like an antithetical view. All novels, he says, are "miniaturizations. They are never real life itself. Real life is always elsewhere." It is this very chasm between world and book, he goes on to argue, that makes translation possible: "The style of a novel, and a novelist, is a set of instructions, a project: it is never able to create an entirely unique, irreplaceable object." The question, of course, is what is the aim and nature of the project. Virtually all novels, whether they are as zany as Tristram Shandy or as obsessive as Crime and Punishment or as wittily self-conscious as Pale Fire, seek to create, I think, some imaginatively arresting simulacrum of the world that we more or less know, which is of course made up of things, events, people, relationships, and institutions, and not of words. Novelists have only language with which to construct their simulacra of the world. "Oh, my Lolita," Humbert Humbert says, expressing not only his own desperation in his prison cell but the ontological anxiety of every novelist, "I have only words to play with!"

"Miniaturization" is a clever way of designating this ontological gap between the novel and the world, but it is not quite right. A novel is always immeasurably smaller than its objects of representation--a life, a relationship, a city, a society, a historical moment; but its fundamental mimetic trick is precisely that it does not feel small. Through the artful deployment of a relatively limited number of words--say, one hundred thousand for a run-of-the-mill novel--the writer creates the illusion of the largeness of life. The novelistic use of language may legitimately be thought of as "a set of instructions, a project" that enables the reader to imagine a particular configuration of human experience, but such a characterization has one misleading implication. Sets of instructions are not dependent on the medium in which they are formulated.

The instructions for assembling a chair you have been imprudent enough to purchase from a catalogue may be expressed in words or entirely in a series of diagrams; but if you successfully follow the instructions, you will end up with the same chair whether you have been guided by words or by pictures. Novels are just a little bit like this, which may be why they lend themselves to translation. When Emma Bovary, after her first tryst with Rodolphe, deliriously tells herself, "I have a lover," the fact that "lover" sounds different from amant and might conceivably have slightly different cultural implications scarcely matters. Readers of the novel in translation get the essential idea that Flaubert meant to convey, including the social role referred to, the character's erotic excitement, and her romantic delusions, for which the words he chose serve as a set of instructions.

Yet something happens in the novel through the elaborately wrought medium of style that resists translation, even as the large represented world of the novel is conveyed well enough in another language. If you try to imagine Moby-Dick in French or Chinese or Hindi, you can readily conceive that the tale of Ahab's monstrous monomania and of the exotic crew of the Pequod, the tremendous evocations of the great white whale as a virtually mythological presence, the vivid descriptions of the chase in small boats for whales, would all still come across to far-flung readers. And that is what style takes second place to in the novel. Still, it is a second place that has electrifying importance. Consider even a brief sentence: "The sea was as a crucible of molten gold, that bubblingly leaps with light and heat." A translation could easily reproduce the simile of the crucible of molten gold and the vigor of the verb "leaps," but the deliberate oddness of the adverbial "bubblingly" that focuses the movement of the water and the alliteration and assonance of "leaps with light and heat" that lock the clause together are another matter. All these small stylistic effects help create the lyric intensity of this moment of the sea perceived from the moving ship, and they are bound to be diminished in translation.

A different operation of the force of style may be seen in these words from a dramatic dialogue spoken by the black cabin-boy Pip: "Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear!" The artful shaping of the language is less spectacular here, but it is no less decisive. The dense clustering of monosyllabic words generates a clenched power. Instead of any gesture toward African American dialect, Pip is made to speak a dignified poetic language that in its pronounced iambic cadences is reminiscent, like much else in this novel, of Shakespeare. The archaic "yon" is ancillary to this intention, and the use of "bowels" in the sense of "deep feelings" or "compassion," drawn directly from the King James Version of the Bible, equally harks back to the early seventeenth century. The high solemnity of Pip's address to God could presumably be conveyed in another language, but it is the specific biblical resonances (perhaps especially, of Psalms) and of Shakespeare (as usual in this novel, ultimately pointing to King Lear) that give these words their peculiar metaphysical and poetic dignity, resisting translation.

Style is immensely important in Adam Thirlwell's account of the art of novel and of the art of translation, but it is hard to make out what, finally, he means by style. The chatty, episodic, sometimes free-associative expository strategy he uses, abounding in engaging anecdotes about novelists and translators, makes The Delighted States a charming book, but not much of a vehicle for sustained thought. What we get is a scattering of pronouncements on style, often tending toward aphorism, and not obviously linked together in a single conceptual frame. "A style, in the end, is a list of methods by which a novelist achieves various effects." Well, yes, but what does this banality tell us that we didn't already know? Or: "No art work is ever the thing itself. It is always inflected by a style." Fair enough, though this is rather like reminding us that in a painting oils on canvas are used to represent a certain perception of a three-dimensional object in two dimensions and are not the thing itself. And finally: "A style is not just a prose style. Sometimes, it is not even a form of composition. Style is a quality of vision; a soul." One has to assent to this declaration, furlongs distant as it may be from the definition of style as a list of methods. A quality of vision is surely what defines the small specimens of Melville's style that I have just cited. But is there any way to speak cogently about this quality of vision and to consider to what degree it may be wedded to the original language in which it is cast?

Consider the case of Dickens, who is surely the most energetically original stylist among nineteenth-century British novelists (and who, weirdly, barely figures in The Delighted States). Now, the novels of Dickens have enjoyed the most prominent international currency in a variety of languages--Russian, German, Yiddish, Hebrew, and many others. One can see how the elaborate plots with their ingenious resolutions, the wild humor, the vivid caricatures, the brilliant metaphors, might all be conveyed in other languages. But Dickens is a master of mesmerizing cadences and subtle shifts in linguistic register, of sound play and allusive echoes--all of which constitute the quality of vision that is his ultimately untranslatable style. Here is a moment from his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, in which the young (and rather colorless) heroine steps outside the door of a ramshackle pub in a seedy neighborhood along the Thames:

The chaining of the door behind her, as she went forth, disenchanted Lizzie Hexam of that first relief she had felt. The night was black and shrill, the river-side wilderness was melancholy, and there was a sound of casting-out, in the rattling of iron links, and the grating of the bolts and staples under Miss Abbey's hand. As she came beneath the lowering sky, a sense of being involved in a murky shade of Murder dropped upon her; and, as the tidal swell of the river broke at her feet without her seeing how it gathered, so her thoughts startled her by rushing out of an unseen void and striking at her heart.

The only translations I have been able to locate are one in Russian and one done in 1954 in French by a team of three translators, to which I will refer. (The international canon has evidently embraced Oliver Twist and David Copperfield but not Our Mutual Friend.) One might characterize this representation of Lizzie stepping out into the menacing London night while the door is bolted behind her as a moment of high melodrama, though it is melodrama that, through the agency of Dickens's style, assumes the potency of myth. The metallic clanging and rattling of those chains and bolts that shut Lizzie out in the realm of darkness are what palpably pull the scene together, and these can be conveyed by a competent translation, as the French trio demonstrates.

But the sound of the language and the resonance of certain key terms are something else. Like Melville, though without the intention of invoking Shakespeare and Milton, Dickens gives his prose the enchantment of poetry by repeatedly gliding into iambic cadences: "The night was black and shrill"; "she came beneath the lowering sky"; "and striking at her heart." He beautifully counterpoints insistent monosyllabic words ("night," "black," "shrill") with polysyllabic ones ("wilderness," "melancholy"). The French turns all this into something that sounds vaguely like the flaccid Romantic poetry of Lamartine: La nuit était noire, la bise percante, la rive déserte et morne. The inspired choice of the term "casting-out" brings the entire passage into the eschatological orbit of the New Testament's "cast[ing] out into" a place of "wailing and gnashing of teeth." The phonetic assimilation of "murky" and "Murder" has the effect of coagulating the thickening sense of terror that informs the scene. (The French entirely throws in the towel here, dispensing with the expected ténébreux for "murky" and blandly saying that Lizzie felt above her une atmosphère de meurtre.) Against this whole ominous background, the "unseen void" at the end takes on cosmic amplitude--"void" is, after all, the word that the King James Version chose for the chaos before creation at the beginning of Genesis--while the parallel structure that locks "void" in with "heart" makes a grand climax to this experience of midnight dread.

There is no process more instructive about the subtle articulations and the intricate semantic layering of a literary text than the attempt to translate it. The process is a humbling one, as any honest translator will confess. The scandalous fact that so much of the original manages to get through, for all the reshapings and misshapings that a translator inevitably inflicts on the author's words, is a happy circumstance for anyone who loves literature: despite the linguistic ignorance we share, we may enjoy the literary riches of other cultures, imperfect as that enjoyment may often be. At the same time, the gap between even a very good translation--Thirlwell provides an excellent one of the initial French version of Nabokov's "Mademoiselle O" as an appendix to his book--and the original reminds us that style plays a determinative role in constituting the imaginative world of any work of fiction. In fact, one of the reasons for the sense of largeness in the represented world of a good novel is, as the few examples I have offered illustrate, that the sundry components of language are made to fit together in a way that creates the sense of an integrated world, not merely of bits and pieces of narrative and descriptive detail.

This stylistic integration, by and large, is performed intuitively and not by calculation, though there have been some fanatically calculating stylists, such as Flaubert and Joyce. Language comprises highly heterogeneous elements, so the constituents of style are themselves heterogeneous and their combinations and permutations intrinsically unpredictable. The sound and the length of the words, their syntactic ordering, the cadences in which they are arranged, the levels of diction they manifest, the antecedent texts they evoke explicitly or obliquely, their deployment of figurative language-- all combine in shifting patterns to put an indelible stamp on one moment after another and on the entire fictional world constituted from those moments. Reading the untranslatable text is ultimately what departments of literary studies ought to be about, but in the pseudo-political atmosphere that has dominated the academy for several decades, the reverse has taken place: the original text has been read as though it might as well have been a translation. Teachers of literature and their hapless students have tended to look right through style to the purported grounding of the text in one ideology or another.

The double lesson of translation is that style does not mean everything in a work of literature but that it means a great deal, and certainly more than translation can convey. Great literature, any sensitive reader will grant, is in some way a magical thing, and this magic is not only a process of inducing rapture but also of enabling thought, inviting the perception of complex associative links, seeing one frame of meaning in connection with another, or with several others. Attending to style is intensely pleasurable and, in the best cases, illuminating. It is an activity that deserves to be revived.

 Robert Alter is completing a book on the role of the King James Version in prose style in the American novel.

By Robert Alter

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