This piece originally appeared in Tablet Magazine.
Adam Thirlwell, who was born in London in 1978, is one of the most lavishly praised British writers to emerge in the last decade. His first novel, Politics, was published in 2003 to wide acclaim, and he followed it with an idiosyncratic work of criticism, The Delighted States. Even if you did not know about Thirlwell’s dual identity as creator and critic, you could probably guess it from his new novel.
For one thing, The Escape is a carnival of allusions, silently incorporating phrases and situations from a whole roster of other writers and challenging the reader to pick up on them. (Thirlwell offers a list of his sources in a postscript, as a kind of scorecard—it runs from Auden to Virgil and includes opera, jazz, and rap music as well as works of history, fiction, and poetry.) This is the technique of a writer who is not merely well-read—though Thirlwell is that, ostentatiously so—but who also takes pleasure in the fictionality, the madeness, of fiction and wants the reader to share that pleasure.
It is not just its allusions that give The Escape this sense of being an experiment or essay in fiction. More important is the way that Thirlwell seems to be performing an inquest into a once-vital genre that is now rapidly passing into literary history: the Jewish American novel, Bellow-Roth division. Raphael Haffner, Thirlwell’s protagonist, is a cousin to Moses Herzog and Charlie Citrine, Nathan Zuckerman and David Kepesh—the sublime, foolish, voracious alter egos that populate Roth’s and Bellow’s books. Haffner, like his predecessors, is not just an inveterate womanizer—he is a philosophical sensualist, who thinks about sex even more than he has it, which is really saying something. The novel’s very first sentence—“And so the century ended: with Haffner watching a man caress a woman’s breasts”—serves almost as a bow of acknowledgment to Bellow and Roth, to their habit of always situating the comedy of sex within the tragedy of history.
Yet Thirlwell, inevitably, stands at a critical distance from his great predecessors. He is not American but British, and he is two generations younger—biographical facts that necessarily mean different ways of thinking about both history and sex. What this means is that, in creating the 78-year-old Haffner, the 32-year-old Thirlwell is not simply imagining an alter ego, as Roth and Bellow so transparently do in their novels. Indeed, to underscore his distance from his hero, Thirlwell occasionally drops an “I” into the narrative, though we learn next to nothing about this “I”: “And me? I was born sixty years after Haffner. I was just a friend.”
The result is that Haffner does not engross the reader’s experience of The Escape the way that, say, Zuckerman monopolizes our attention in The Anatomy Lesson. We are not asked to submit to his egotism, but to observe it and if possible to sympathize with it. “So, ladies and gentleman, maybe Haffner was grand, in a way,” Thirlwell writes very early in the novel. “Maybe Haffner was an epic hero.” It is a thesis, a proposition, and the novel is a kind of experiment designed to prove or disprove it.
Certainly the predicaments Haffner finds himself in do not appear especially epic or heroic. On the first page, we find him hiding in a wardrobe in a hotel room, watching a much younger woman, Zinka, have sex with her boyfriend, Niko. Zinka knows that Haffner is there, though Niko does not: this voyeurism is part of the escalating erotic game that she is playing with her aging and submissive admirer. It is hardly to Haffner’s credit, moreover, that he has gotten involved with Zinka when he is supposedly on a mission on behalf of his late wife, Livia. Her family once owned a villa in the Central European spa town—unnamed, it seems to be located in the former Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia—that Haffner is visiting. The house was confiscated by the Nazis, then taken over by the Communists, and finally sold off to a corporation, its history an index to the history of Eastern Europe since World War II. In trying to reclaim it, Haffner is paying homage to his wife’s memory—and offering a kind a reparation to his children and grandchildren, who resent him for his infidelity and selfishness.
As the novel progresses, we learn only a few sketchy details about Haffner’s past. Born in Britain, he served in the British Army during the Second World War, had a successful career as a banker, lived for a while in New York, and went through a succession of mistresses before Livia finally left him. Thirlwell is more interested in Haffner’s present, which shows how incorrigible he remains: in addition to Zinka, he is sleeping with a married middle-aged woman, Frau Tummler, who believes that Haffner truly loves her. Meanwhile, he is unable to make headway with the post-Communist bureaucrats in charge of his villa and decides to try the black market instead—using Niko, of all people, as an intermediary. Thirlwell skillfully heightens the farce elements of the book, placing Haffner in a series of unlikely situations—skinny dipping, getting an all-too-personal massage, engaging in serious S&M—that leave the reader uncertain whether to laugh or wince.
But the comic plot is only a screen, or accompaniment, to the real action of the novel, which is located in Haffner’s mind and in the narrator’s attempts to make sense of that mind. For Haffner, like his predecessors in Bellow and Roth, insists that there is a metaphysical dimension to his passions and his foibles. He is fond of comparing himself to the Roman emperors, especially the bad ones—Tiberius and Caligula, with their insatiable wills and depraved appetites. “No one understood the emperors. No one saw how humble they were—free from the deeper vanity of concealing one’s own vanity—like Haffner before his family, refusing the illusion of maturity.” In this self-flattering view, Haffner is to be admired for his committed refusal of commitment, for acknowledging the eternal incorrigibility of desire.
In one of the most interesting and ambiguous developments in The Escape, Thirlwell explores this transgressive logic as it plays out in the sphere of Jewishness. The real estate that Haffner is trying to reclaim can be seen as a symbol of his and Livia’s Jewish inheritance, and their lives are determined in many ways by the conflicting imperatives of their Jewish identities. Livia, we learn, was raised in Italy by a proudly Fascist father, who thought that supporting Mussolini was an expression of Jewish-Italian patriotism—until Mussolini passed anti-Semitic laws modeled on Hitler’s. Haffner too, in a less fraught way, always placed Britishness above Jewishness. (“What is the definition of a British Jew?” goes one of Haffner’s jokes. “A person who instead of no longer going to church, no longer goes to synagogue.”) Stationed in Palestine during World War II, he was outraged when Jews in the British Army were ordered out of the country, for fear that they would have dual loyalties.
In Thirlwell’s hands, Haffner’s refusal to be determined by his Jewishness becomes the central test case for his refusal of any limits on his autonomy. “He was just a Haffner, not a Jewish Haffner,” he protests at one point—just as he would protest that he is not a married Haffner or an aging Haffner, but simply himself, with all that self’s unassuageable needs and desires. “Let me be my own author! This was Haffner’s cry,” Thirlwell sums up, knowing that no man can be his own author—least of all a character in a novel, whose author is always looking over his shoulder, determining his next move. By the end of The Escape, Jewishness, sexuality, and fictionality, the book’s three great subjects, have converged in a single pattern. Thirlwell skillfully leaves it to the reader to decide whether Haffner’s pursuit of total freedom, in all these realms, is glorious or abject—or maybe both.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.