Critical failures

<strong>Miss Herbert</strong>

Adam Thirlwell <em>Jonathan Cape, 592pp, £25</em>

Following his hugely successful debut with Politics (2003), Adam Thirlwell has circumvented the potential pitfall of the tricky second novel by subverting genres. Miss Herbert is billed as "an inside-out novel", or, for Thirlwell, "my version of Nabokov's ideal novel - which is not really a novel. It has recurring characters; with a theme, and variations . . . It just has no plot, no fiction, and no finale." In other words, it is a book of literary criticism, which makes us wonder why Thirlwell couldn't come right out and say it.

Thirlwell is quite right that Miss Herbert has no plot. His point is that the history of literature is as haphazard as life, which itself is "plotless" and "infinite" (Joyce understood this), a "chain of infinite causes" (Sterne, we are reminded, got there first.) It is "a history of errors, a history of waste," we are frequently told, "an invented and international art form" which can be read back-to-front and upside down: "Literary history is always subject to jet lag." Thus, through critics like Thirlwell, Chekhov and Diderot, for example, can become "friends".

Thirlwell lets his art imitate life, embracing proliferation with the same deadpan narrative interjections that characterised Politics ("It is, I reckon, socially awkward - bringing one of your friends to orgasm"). He can be repetitious, gratuitously arch and is not always funny ("like a football match, this story is in two halves").

His range is wider than his continence, and we sometimes wonder what his point is beyond the demonstration of his own acuity. This is a shame, because Thirlwell is clearly very clever. He favours bombast and can be disingenuous: "It depresses me," he says of the fact that the first English translation of Tolstoy confused the author's patronymic. Our impression is rather one of Thirlwell's glee at being able to point this out.

Miss Herbert takes us on a tour of novelistic developments across the centuries and continents (at one point, Thirlwell seems convinced that his "novel" is in fact an "atlas"). It is Eurocentric, eclectic and full of entertaining anecdotes (did the name "Humbert Humbert" come from an abandoned business card?). It is beautifully produced, replete with photographs and other literary distractions, including an "Index of Squiggles".

The book is named after Juliet Herbert, Flaubert's niece's governess, who taught the author English amid a frisson of flirtation. Juliet even produced a translation of Madame Bovary, which was later lost. As Madame Bovary "reinvented the idea of style" (a typical piece of Thirlwell hyperbole) and Miss Herbert "is a story about style and translation", Thirlwell's book is a "homage" to Juliet.

Thirlwell's literary criticism is often sharp. He provides an engaging reading of Flaubert and his device of distancing the reader, showing how "instead of stating, he quoted". He has interesting things to say about style, citing Proust: style is "a quality of vision, the revelation of the particular universe that each of us sees". Thirlwell concludes that style exists "prior to language", that it "is not identical to the language in which it takes its form". But he seems to tie himself up in knots through his insistence that "style, like life, is infinite", while maintaining that it is "bound up with subject matter . . . crammed with detail, which is helplessly historical". His airy distinctions between "style" and "substance" are not always helpful.

Thirlwell draws many provocative conclusions that could easily be turned on their heads. We are persuaded that Tolstoy is a "miniaturist" ("a writer of exquisite concision"), while Kafka is "grandiose", his fictions "internally elongated with proliferation". It is a neat summation, but hopelessly pleased with itself and could be argued the other way around. Thirlwell emphasises the "banality" of Kafka's detail, where he might have focused on its melodrama.

He wheels out his undergraduate semiotics lecture notes to tell us in hushed terms that "the gap between the sign and real life is infinite". Translations, he reminds us, only complicate things further: "Tolstoy in English is not always the same thing as Tolstoy in Russian."

His hauteur is all the more irritating for the many gems amid the verbiage. Thirlwell is good on the cultural connotations of rhyme, on the parts of language that most resist translation, and on Nabokov's competing models: having first argued for form over content, Nabokov performed a volte-face ("The best translations, on this theory, are not embarrassed to sound like translations"). Thirlwell prefers the first hypothesis, and provides some illuminating translations of his own (Miss Herbert ends with the author's English and French versions of Nabokov's "Madame O"). Particularly enjoyable is his rendering of a pun-laden paragraph of Gogol's "The Overcoat".

Reading Miss Herbert is inevitably enriching, but too often one is reminded of Kingsley Amis's hapless protagonist in Lucky Jim, wrestling with an academic essay and cringing at "the pseudo-light it threw on non-problems". It seems unfair to level this complaint at Thirlwell; but then he declares, after 419 pages, that: "A character can have no genuine freedom, since a character is not real."

Jim Dixon deems his own paper "worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance". This is Thirlwell's real crime: though Miss Herbert draws intelligently on a range of sources and its author is perspicacious and admirably well-read, he remains overweeningly certain of his own originality. Through the narrative shield of Politics, Thirlwell just about got away with it; but Miss Herbert isn't a novel - and here he does not.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New best friends?