The Delighted States A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes

Adam Thirlwell




Trade Paperback

592 Pages


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Having slept with a prostitute in Egypt, a young French novelist named Gustave Flaubert at last abandons sentimentality and begins to write. He influences the obscure French writer Édouard Dujardin, who is read by James Joyce on the train to Trieste, where he will teach English to the Italian novelist Italo Svevo. Back in Paris, Joyce asks Svevo to deliver a suitcase containing notes for Ulysses, a novel that will be viscerated by the expat Gertrude Stein, whose first published story is based on one by Flaubert. This carousel of influence shows how translation and emigration lead to a new and true history of the novel. We devour novels in translation while believing that style does not translate. But the history of the novel is the history of style. The Delighted States attempts to solve this conundrum while mapping an imaginary country, a country of readers: the Delighted States. This book is a provocation, a box of tricks; it is also an intelligent and original work from a young writer and translator.  Thirwell unravels the heredity of more than a dozen great works, showing what influenced literature that still influences today.


Praise for The Delighted States

"The Delighted States shoves its delirious way around and through four centuries of great novelists, tumbles them down one trapdoor and hauls them out of another; it provokes as much as evokes . . . As he swirls together his international troupe of writers, along with a fine prodigality of portraits, anecdotes and quotations, Thirlwell argues and sometimes goads at a universal mutual connection and influence. That leads to the question of translation. Though he gives many examples of what is lost, he insists that even a mediocre translation will convey a writer's essence; his style, in other words. Style, he writes, citing Proust, is a matter of vision, not language . . . And then, as a reward to us and to pre-quirk Nabokov, he gives us his own translation of the short story 'Mademoiselle O,' first published in French in 1936, translated into English in 1943, then to Russian, then back to English . . . and revised continually by Nabokov, as if art were not simply long but alive and still growing. Thirlwell's version translates the unaltered original, and it is a treasure."—Richard Eder, The New York Times

“Ostensibly devoted to the problem of literary translation, this provocative treatise rambles through the Western canon from Cervantes to Bellow, treating novelists less as subjects than as characters in a sprawling intercontinental epic. Thirlwell revels in the anecdotal (Italo Svevo studied English with James Joyce) and the serendipitous (the French word dada was invented as an equivalent for ‘hobby-horse,’ in ‘Tristram Shandy’); presents indexes whose entries include ‘hamburgers’ and ‘squiggles’; and lauds digression as the best means of capturing the ‘serious nothings’ of life. While acknowledging the difficulty of conveying the “perpetual giggle” of Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin’s name in any language other than Gogol’s Russian, Thirlwell insists that translation is possible and, to that end, offers his own version of Nabokov’s “Mademoiselle O,” evoking the story’s trilingual origins in fittingly verdant prose.”—The New Yorker

“That Mr. Thirlwell digresses from the standard university syllabus is another sign of his good sense: Overlooked worthies such as Witold Gombrowicz and Italo Svevo, who wrote mostly in obscurity, hear speak clearly, finally drawing level to their more recognized colleagues . . . The Delighted States truly raises questions that are vital to novelists and their readers; it will be hard for anyone with an interest in the subject to keep from defiling the margins with notes.”The Wall Street Journal

“Thirlwell has distilled the wisdom from what amounts to a lifetime of reading onto his pages . . . An expansive, unbound critic, Thirlwell makes a series of unexpected connections between writers of vastly divergent styles and eras.”The Boston Globe

“Thirlwell serves up a gumbo of choice gossip, boyish contradictions, and delicious quotes. So what if these novelists often had to read one another’s novels in translation? The gist came through clear enough to be appropriated.”—John Leonard, Harper’s Magazine

“However error-ridden and technically troubling a translation might be—the syntax clumsy, the vocabulary misleading, the dialogue wooden—translations have nonetheless managed, somehow, to convey their sources sufficiently for their originals survive, not to say thrive, far from home. That ‘somehow’—a compelling mystery—is explored in a fine new book by British writer Adam Thirlwell . . . What is most unusual about Thirlwell’s book—in addition to the quality of his bookshelf’s contents, for the writers he chooses to discuss are, as a group, as excellent as they are unfashionably canonical—is the lightness of his formal approach. Typically, treatises on translation, especially the better ones—given all the talk of ‘fidelity’ that the subject generates—have tended to the tendentious, while the worse ones—given the inherent wonkiness that the subject entails—tend to skew ponderous or pompous. Thirlwell manages to elude these expectations, while crafting a substantive and resolutely entertaining tour of the subject.”—Wyatt Mason, Sentences (Harper’s Magazine)

"A Thoughtful, and frequently hilarious, study of the nature of literary translation. It is also a work of art, a new form."—A.S. Byatt, Financial Times (UK)
“A scintillating figure-of-eight skate around, inter alia, Flaubert, Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Gombrowicz and Nabokov, on the theme of style and translation, a one-off like a novel with everything cut but the digressions, and an interesting fact on every page.”—Tom Stoppard, The Guardian

“A welcome engagement of unjustly marginalized issues . . . Entertaining to read all the way through, and this is no small virtue in an age in which most works of criticism are about as much fun as a visit to the proctologist.”—Robert Alter, The New Republic

“Thirlwell romps through European literature: Joyce, Gogol, Flaubert, Maupassant, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Hrabal, Kafka and others . . . The anecdotes he chooses are delightfully obscure. The photos and illustrations (squiggles and flourishes meant to show the irrational wanderings of the human mind) are playful and evocative . . . he has a good time, which is (ahem) always fun to watch.”—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

"At a time when literary criticism is getting the boot in print media, and factually challenged wags on countless book blogs seethe with score-settling enmity, 30-year-old Adam Thirlwell is a refreshing throwback to the thoughtful man of letters who hides is radical heard behind the worn lapels of a tweed jacket. Thirlwell's book The Delighted States is the most exciting literary criticism to be published here in some time. Structured like some promo experiment in Barthelme-esque narrative, or Laurence Sterne on a Benzedrine bender, British novelist Thirlwell (Politics, Miss Herbert) uses his taut epigrammatic style to delve into the superstructure of certain kinds of (mostly European) literature, gleaning how style, translation, brevity, even errors have created sublime works of art. Jumping between England, Spain, America, Poland and elsewhere, unearthing new traditions that connect Joyce to obscure 19th-century French novelists, Thirlwell has fashioned an intellectual thrill-ride packed with rhetorical fireworks."—Marc Weingarten, LA Weekly 

The Delighted States is founded on the liberating observation that although translation is always imperfect, it frequently is good enough. Great authors have read each other in translations, and productively. As a corollary, suggests Mr. Thirlwell, who admits to only ‘fluent English, quixotic French, and hobbyhorsical Russian,’ he can confidently write about all of them, and in the course of his book he organizes a glowing constellation of great names. He makes his argument by way of anecdote, beginning with Flaubert, whose formative trip to Egypt illustrates the subtle thesis of The Delighted States, that healthy experience begets irony, that worldliness is the natural successor to romanticism. His book is not merely a celebration of translation, warts and all, then, but also of the warts-and-all worldview . . . The problems and opportunities of translation open onto related questions of style. Is style more than the sentence? Is it not the author's worldview itself? And can't that be translated? Sure, says the reader, and The Delighted States begins with an air of common sense and a gracious will to entertain . . . The author's gifts are as obvious as his ambition.”—Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

“Much of the pleasure in Mr. Thirlwell’s book comes from the writers he quotes from and comments on—among them Laurence Sterne, Diderot, Flaubert, Chekhov, Joyce, Kafka, Witold Gombrowicz and Nabokov, who declared that masterpieces are made of 'dazzling combinations of drab parts.' Combine that dazzling crew in your playground, and you’re unlikely to have a drab time.”—Adam Begley, The New York Observer

"Imagine instead a single, coherent critical study as breezy and casual as an open house, with other people wandering the rooms, speaking other languages, the broker a B-level translator (slightly) misinforming buyers about the rooms’ functions, so that everyone leaves with a different view of the dwelling’s configuration. But everybody wants the place. This describes both Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States and its central thesis, which is that (slight) mistranslations are the key to the novel’s evolving majesties . . . Armed with all this anti-structural structure, Thirlwell himself takes on the queasy, quantum exercise of a difficult, unexplored translation. When you turn the book over you see a different cover: Nabokov’s short story 'Mademoiselle O,' rendered into English by one Adam Thirlwell. (The translator sets no small task for himself, as 'O' later became the fifth chapter of Speak, Memory, one of the greatest memoirs, in any language, written in the last century) . . . And though Nabokov’s English version brings across indispensable richness, Thirlwell’s is more than adequate; it possesses its own vibrant, thriving life.”—Richard Wirick, Bookslut 

“[A] teemingly erudite and unfailingly delightful epic about the glories and accidents of translation and the novel as an art form dependent on internationalism . . . It’s high on this year’s list of literary delights.”—The Buffalo News

“A quirky history of the novel, a story of the textual travels of a particular mind, and I need to add that if novelists are characters here, their own fictional characters are just as important.”—Michael Wood, Bookforum

“A novel approach to the novel, a stylish consideration of style, literary criticism as creative nonfiction, and delectable brain candy . . . Thirlwell established himself as something of an engant terrible with his first novel, Politics, and this book should enhance his reputation.”Library Journal

“In this labyrinthine, and surprisingly engrossing epic of literary influence and translation, Thirlwell (Politics) provides an idiosyncratic perspective on a wide range of authors and books, from Don Quixote to Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal. A leading young British novelist, Thirlwell creates narrative enthusiasm and vividly draws characters in a welcome departure from the academic approach to this kind of project. His technique is generally conversational rather than thesis driven, and his dips into notoriously stick works like Ulysses and Tristram Shandy are characterized by impressively observed but plainly written close readings in the vein of the popular literary scholar Harold Bloom. One of Thirlwell’s most basic conceits is that style is inherently translatable, “even if its translation is not perfect,” and he argues this earnestly and convincingly across eras and borders . . . Thirlwell writes more as a reader than as an academic, and his passionate explications of writers from Flaubert to Nabokov is an absolute pleasure.”Publishers Weekly, (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



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ADAM THIRWELL’s first novel, Politics, was translated into thirty languages. In 2003, he appeared on Granta’s list of the Best British Novelists under forty.

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  • Adam Thirlwell

  • Adam Thirlwell was born in 1978. His first novel, Politics, was translated into thirty languages. In 2003, he appeared on Granta’s list of the best British novelists under forty. His second novel, The Misprint, will be published next year. He lives in London.
  • Adam Thirlwell Eamon McCabe