The Traveling Novel
“In any language, everything is possible.”
—The Delighted States
Years ago, somebody eager to slag off on Bret Easton Ellis—whom you may remember as the once-upon-a-time poster child for obnoxiously overexposed young authors, a previous generation’s Jonathan Safran Foer—thought it would be a good idea to publish raw excerpts from one of his drafts (for The Informers, if memory serves, possibly American Psycho?) alongside the final, edited text. The initial draft was, to put it mildly, barely intelligible.
While the point of the piece (to show that Ellis was an untalented schmo whose work could only make its way to the public after much heavy-lifting by an editor who should have been given a co-author’s credit) may have been proven, it seemed an unfair attack. One has to imagine there are mountains of manuscripts buried in the desk drawers of acclaimed novelists which they would never allow to see the light of day, and why? Some because the writer just isn’t happy with them, but with others it would very simply be because they haven’t been edited.
There’s a reason they call early attempts at writing a draft, it’s like a practice swing, and one that the public doesn’t need to see. Of course, not all editors have as much impact as say, Gordon Lish did on Raymond Carver’s stories, but to be shocked that an editor could have such a drastic impact on a writer’s work is to be fundamentally naïve about the writing process.
For that reason, but also many, many more, Adam Thirlwell’s beautiful circus of a book, The Delighted States, serves as a welcome guide to the idea of literature as not just something that springs fully formed from the mind of a genius (or hack), but is instead a process with a historical lineage that must be taken into consideration; literature does not emerge from a vacuum. For those concerned that Thirlwell is one of those theorists unable to contemplate literature outside of its context (that dreaded word which littered late-20th century classrooms), rest assured, he’s hardly immune to the gut-level attractions of great literature. Thirlwell admiringly quotes Nabakov, who told an interviewer that “what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art.”
While what exactly Thirlwell’s book is would be difficult to describe, what it resolutely is not is a call for literature to be considered on its social merits alone. At the same time, Thirlwell wants to investigate the novelistic process, how it is that Western literature got from Gustave Flaubert to James Joyce, with plenty of side-trips along the way to consider Kafka, Egypt, Nabakov, Sterne, Tolstoy, Bellow, and Hrabalovština; the last of which (since you asked) is a Czech word for (as Thirlwell describes it) “a comic display of vocabulary, of headlong words and invented syntax—it is a system which is forever trying to put off its own demise.”
The Delighted States is its own kind of extended Hrabalovština, the sort of book that would never simply go from point A to B and then C when it’s more fun to leap from point H back to C and then wander over by T. There’s so much for Thirlwell to talk about in his open-bordered rumination on literature, whether it’s considering what the world missed when Chekov never finished his planned novel (it showed up instead as the three stories “A Man in a Case”, “Gooseberries”, and “On Love”); or wondering how exactly Constance Garnett’s classic English translations of Tolstoy may have changed the author’s intent (she made his long and repetitive sentences not so); or imagining the scene when Joyce sat smoking in a Paris apartment while supervising the French translation of Ulysses that had been begun by his fellow Irishman, Samuel Beckett; or pondering that, since Flaubert could be the father of the modern novel, and Madame Bovary is at least partially a parody, does that mean that all modern literature is parody? The result is a gamboling yet elegantly managed attempt to link the chain of influences on influences, and in the process to chart “the art of the novel … the dazzling combination of drab parts.”
The 30-year-old Thirlwell, one of those bright young things who comes scampering out of London every now and again to blaze new trails in adventurous fiction (his first novel, 2003’s Politics, was an international phenomenon that got him included on Granta’s current list of 20 best young British novelists), has created here one of those thrilling books that makes you eager to read more. There’s nothing more that many will want to do after finishing The Delighted States than to call in sick for a month and burrow into a teetering tower of modernist works.
What purpose exists for The Delighted States and all its confetti-like streams of insights and research, scattered about with archival photographs and the occasional squiggle or map? The author would describe it so:
“This book is my version of Nabakov’s ideal novel—which is not really a novel. It has recurring characters; with a theme, and variations; and this theme has its recurring motifs. It just has no plot, no fiction, and no finale. It is a description of a milky way, an aurora borealis.”
To bring it all back to poor abused Brett Easton Ellis, as one occasionally must, consider Thirlwell’s take on the famous opening to Saul Bellow’s 1953 masterpiece The Adventurous of Augie March (“I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style…”—that one). He discusses how the book’s opening is famous for, among other things, not having been written in English but in American. Bellow’s novel does indeed read like a steam train, full of hiss and energy and American brio. But Thirlwell knows that Bellow’s “free-style” can’t just come exploding out of a writer’s head onto the page. It has to be coaxed, needled, edited: “A free-style has to be invented …. Only through revising can a novel look like it is improvised. The free-style version is a consciously edited style …. All literary values are founded on hard work.”
In order to prove his point, Thirlwell includes the opening of the first chapter of a prospective novel of Bellow’s that had been published in the Partisan Review in 1949, entitled Life Among the Machiavellians. It was the same but different: wordier, stuffier, quite impressed with its own erudition (even spelling “somber” in the English manner: “sombre”) and altogether not nearly as good. Just like Ellis, Bellow needed an editor (even if that editor was himself), just as Tolstoy and Flaubert needed good translators.