Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert

A review of Adam Thirlwell’s non-fiction book Miss Herbert, first published in Prospect, November 2007

Miss Herbert, Adam Thirlwell’s second book, announces itself as a very particular kind of non-fiction: “a collage of novels and romances in ten languages, on four continents, with maps, portraits, illustrations and a variety of helpful indexes.” If that’s no help, it adds that it is “an inside-out novel—with novelists as characters.” And if that’s no help, well, that’s partly the point. Because Miss Herbert is a wilfully, profoundly idiosyncratic book about the slippery edges of language, and what happens when someone tries to do something new with the novel.

As its self-presentations suggest, Miss Herbert is also chillingly whimsical. Like Thirlwell’s 2003 debut novel, Politics, its leaps of fancy are as precisely calibrated as party conference ovations, and its asides armour-plated by pre-emptive confession (“No, I should not be too lyrical”). Thirlwell is not an author to be bested, or second-guessed, by his readers. As he patiently explains, his title is itself an emblem, being the name of the English governess to Gustave Flaubert’s niece. While Flaubert was finishing writing Madame Bovary, Miss Herbert translated it into English, only for her translation to vanish for ever. Here, then, is Thirlwell’s rhapsody upon a Platonic examplar of “the vital art of translation: the art by which its twin art of the novel is preserved, but which itself is often lost, or ignored”—a three-course meal of unconsidered trifles.

In many ways, readers (and their spokespeople, critics) are overdue a book like Miss Herbert: one that puts us in our place. Among academics, authorial intentions have long been a second-rate concern. Their reading is all about readings: you put a text on the racks of Marxism, feminism, postmodernism, psychoanalysis and post-colonialism and see what confessions emerge. Within the jungles of the reading public, meanwhile, taste has become a comfortably personal matter, with authors welcome to take it or leave it so long as they don’t pretend it’s anything they control. Miss Herbert, however, embodies a very different attitude: one in which everything an author read, said or scribbled in a margin adds another piece to the puzzle of what, exactly, they hoped to achieve. It is a utopian book—an ode to the republic of letters.

Translation is crucial to this project because it is through translation, Thirlwell suggests, that we can prove there is more to style than just the question of whether a reader likes it or not. Style, Thirlwell argues, is best thought of as a machine: a machine that encodes an author’s vision of the world. And because it is applied to language rather than an incidental feature of words, it is also portable. Imperfectly, laboriously, it can be taken elsewhere. It can be borrowed, improved and, most importantly of all, judged—for Miss Herbert is also a book about discernment.

As in Politics, Thirlwell’s own stylistic tactic is to eschew the language of professional criticism—and its implicit appeal to a shared, rational standard—in favour of artless confession: “I am not sure I believe this,” “It seems unlikely,” “I am not sure how easy this is.” You cannot argue with statements like these except by calling their author a liar. Equally, you cannot argue with the massed textual and historical details Thirlwell deploys. We are confronted simultaneously by the unimpeachably personal and the unarguably general, from which Thirlwell weaves his paradoxical thesis that it is through specificity and idiosyncrasy that the best writing conjures universal truth.

Although catholic, Thirlwell’s taste is dominated by the avant garde. It is only, in his opinion, at its cutting edge that literature can move forward, and he’s anxious to be part of the process. Thus Miss Herbert meanders through a firmament of geniuses—Joyce, Sterne, Nabokov, Flaubert, Bellow, Diderot, Tolstoy, Kundera, Kafka, Pushkin—divided by time and tongues and geography but united by the international, serendipitous nature of the novel. Yet the lessons of translation cut deeper than this, and suggest to me a sombre counterpoint to Thirlwell’s freewheeling associations. No matter how good we are at reading, we are always working backwards from texts: meanings may be inexhaustible, but the “causes” of a text are in an important sense permanently opaque, even to its author.

Translation, Thirlwell proclaims, is possible because in novels a unique vision can be put into words and given to others, and even carried across languages and eras (so long as the author is good enough, and has the right translators). At least, this is what I think he’s proclaiming. It’s hard to tell, because much of the point of Miss Herbert is that its meanings are thematic and symbolic rather than explicit. Hence its “index of themes and motifs,” its “index of squiggles” (no, really) and its conclusion with the author’s translation into English of a short story written by Nabokov in French—printed upside-down.

Notwithstanding Adam Thirlwell’s accomplishment and erudition, I found much of this both tiresome and bewildering. All the play is in deadly earnest, and Miss Herbert buckles and strains with the effort of trying to embody its author’s standards. It holds substantial rewards for any reader prepared to disarm their hackles for long enough. But I can’t help wishing that Thirlwell would go easier on himself and us, and let the arguments get really serious.