Zadie Smith on Style
Avoiding Style (Graham Harman on Lovecraft)

The Erasure of Style (Adam Thirlwell)

Most of the reviews of Adam Thirlwell's The Delighted States (including the British reviews of the book under its original title of Miss Herbert) concentrated on its idiosyncratic structure and unceremonious tone (idiosyncratic and unceremonious for a work of literary criticism, at any rate). Reviewers seemed to find both annoying distractions from the occasional critical insight Thirlwell offers, and their reservations about Thirlwell as a critic were generally confined to these admittedly unorthodox features of his book.

While it is true that the central argument Thirlwell wants to make in The Delighted States could probably have been made in a much shorter book, perhaps even in a critical essay, I can't say I found either Thirlwell's circuitous method of analysis, which proceeds both back and forth across time and national literatures and sideways from author to author (at times providing unusual and surprising juxtapositions), or his conversational style particularly bothersome. I take the travelogue approach to be Thirlwell's attempt to reinforce the book's overriding point—that fiction in effect speaks an international language that manages to survive its migration through translation from one literary tradition to another—in the form his book assumes, and it is an effective enough device. It might not be the sort of method one expects from a work of serious literary criticism, but there is no inherent reason criticism can't accommodate such an alternative strategy.

Further, both the looser, more informal structure and the reader-friendly critical language Thirlwell employs seem to me to work to accomplish one of criticism's legitimate tasks, which is to explicate features of literary works that are not necessarily obvious to all readers, that require the critic to call attention to them as evocatively as possible. In The Delighted States, Thirlwell is making a case for the efficacy of translation that calls for numerous and at times subtle comparisons and analogies, and his manner of leading the reader along his route of unexpected congruences, pointing out the connections more as an enthusiastic guide than as a source of critical pronouncements, is a perfectly sound way to proceed. If the test of a worthwhile critic is whether his reader is able to regard an author. a text, or literary history with enhanced understanding, then Thirlwell passes this test readily enough.

Something that may have contributed to reviewers' lack of enthusiasm for The Delighted States is Thirlwell's emphasis on innovation in fiction, a preference that consistently informs his survey of literary influence and the role of translation in the evolution of fiction as a form. Along with his related emphasis on form (which he often conflates with "style"), Thirwell's focus on aesthetic innovation must have grated on the sensibilities of mainstream reviewers, who generally look askance at innovation as manifested in contemporary fiction and mostly ignore form in favor of what a work of fiction has "to say" (when they're not simply judging it for its superficial entertainment value, its success or failure at being a "good read"). For me, that Thirlwell's book illustrates the extent to which the history of fiction is the history of inspired change is its greatest virtue, but for some of its reviewers its own unconventional form as literary criticism may have only reminded them of Thirwell's implicit defense of the role of the unconventional in literary history.

None of the book's reviewers, however, chose to examine what to me is its most problematic claim--or, as it turns out, series of claims. In his commitment to the idea that all works of fiction are translatable, even down to a particular writer's distinctive "style," Thirlwell makes the following observations:

. . .A style may be as large as the length of a book. Its units may well be more massive, and more vague, than I would often like.

A style, in the end, is a list of the methods by which a novelist achieves various effects. As such, it can seem endless.

In fact, it can become something which is finally not linguistic at all. For the way in which a novelist represents life depends on what a novelist thinks is there in a life to be represented. A style is therefore as much a quirk of emotion, or of theological belief, as it is a quirk of language.

A style does not entirely coincide with prose style, or formal construction, or technique. (20)

In order to maintain his position that fiction can be translated without appreciable diminution in the integrity of the translated text, Thirlwell needs to minimize the obstacles posed by "style" understood as a writer's characteristic exploration of the resources of his/her native language. One way to do that would be simply to dismiss the importance of style in comparison to all of the other elements of fiction that could well come through in a good translation without loss of effect. To his credit, Thirlwell does not do this; instead, he radically expands the meaning of "style" so that it includes. . .well, just about everything: It is "a list of the methods by which a novelist achieves various effects. As such, it can seem endless."

But, of course, if style is everything, so "various" as to be "endless" in its features, it is really nothing. Thirlwell in fact deprives it of its one materially definable quality when he asserts that it might be "something which is not linguistic at all." This notion, that style is not fundamentally a phenomenon of language, recurs throughout Thirlwell's discussions of his international (although primarily British and European) cast of writers, even of those writers, such as Flaubert or Chekhov, known for their attention to "linguistic" style. He picks up on Marcel Proust's comment about style as "quality of vision" and uses this phrase as a kind of summary concept encapsulating his definition of style in its most "massive" incarnation. What persists in a translation, then, is this quality of vision, which in its grand scope dwarfs mere facility with language.

I confess I don't finally understand the need for this erasure of style in its tangible, most coherent form. However much it grasps metaphorically at a less tangible if still apprehensible object of our experience of fiction, to speak of "quality of vision" does not adequately account for the concrete achievements of writers as stylists. However much I value Flaubert's "quality of vision" (which is a lot), it just seems to me manifestly obvious that reading Flaubert in English is not the same experience as reading him in French. Reading Virginia Woolf in French cannot be more than a necessary if barely sufficient substitute for those French speakers without English who want to read her work. While I am reasonably sure that the comic vision of Stanley Elkin would still be preserved for those reading his fiction in a translation, how in the world could this writer's style survive the crossing-over?

Near the end of The Delighted States, Thirlwell scales back the grandiosity of his claims about translation:

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, something survives. . . . (429)

Yes, of course something survives. What serious reader sadly restricted to one language (or even two or three) would claim otherwise? Certainly I wouldn't. But I'm comfortable with accepting that this "something" includes inspired storytelling or formal inventiveness or compelling characters, but not style except in a more or less successful approximation. To stretch "style" into "vision" or "theological belief" is way too misty and metaphysical for me. I'm willing to settle for style as irretrievably "linguistic," a writer's artful way with words.


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