Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Kafka, Flaubert and Nabokov Come Out to Play

The word "dazzle" appears often and in many forms in Adam Thirlwell’s boldly self-indulgent The Delighted States (FSG, $30), which turns the history of the novel, from Cervantes to Nabokov, into an enchanted, borderless, timeless playground for the amusement of Mr. Thirlwell and any reader who succumbs to his charms (which I did, mostly). 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.

Mr. Thirlwell writes that he sometimes thinks of The Delighted States as "an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters … about the art of the novel." It’s about style and translation and "a system of interlinked revisions and inspirations"—any cute connection between any avant-garde novel or novelist from the last 400 years that happens to have caught the eye of young Adam Thirwell, who was born in 1978; is the author of one novel, Politics (2003); and is a Fellow of All Souls College and Oxford (in other words, he’s clever). If you flip the book over, you get his translation of a Nabokov story called "Mademoiselle O," an item Nabokov wrote in French and rewrote in English (several times) and in Russian. (In one version, "Mademoiselle O" is chapter five of Speak, Memory.)

A trivial error troubled me, a paragraph that began, "Nearly thirty years after Flaubert’s death in 1880, on 14 August 1919. …" No literary critic needs to be good at math, but you want to be extra careful when the exact M. Flaubert is in your sentence—and sloppiness has a way of spreading. Luckily, Mr. Thirlwell, who has a habit of referring to his own book as though it were a force of nature somehow beyond his control, is a forgiving kind of guy: "The Delighted States, let’s remember, is written with a full acceptance of the mistake, the anachronism, the side effect."

And yet he’s plenty harsh on Samuel Beckett, who appears for an instant, has his wrist slapped for his "impossible" opinions about Joyce, then disappears entirely. How can a book about translation and international avant-garde style utterly disregard the work of a great Irish modernist who wrote in French and then translated himself back into English? I guess it’s Mr. Thirlwell’s playground, and he can invite who he likes.

I have my doubts, too, about Mr. Thirlwell’s talents as a translator. When he quotes Nabokov on the crucial topic of exile—"Je suis dépaysé partout et toujours"—he offers this translation: "I am adrift everywhere and always." I can’t say that "adrift" is entirely wrong, but it’s not what Nabokov meant.

Most of the critical commentary is sound, some of it ingenious, but when he gets around to Kafka, Mr. Thirlwell allows himself this howler: "The missing word in Kafka’s famous story ‘Metamorphosis’—where the travelling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up to discover he has been transformed into a beetle—is ‘dream’: if Gregor could only find his way to the word ‘dream,’ then he would be calmed." Surely, the horror of "Metamorphosis" is that it cannot be dismissed as a dream. There, there, Gregor, it’s all just in your head.

In the British press, a few of the reviews of The Delighted States were scorching, suffused with sadistic glee—the caning of a smarty-pants schoolboy. But A.S. Byatt, writing in the Financial Times, liked it a lot. I read it eagerly, with admiration for Adam Thirlwell’s daring; I was more often dazzled than dismayed. Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Kafka, Flaubert and Nabokov Come Out to Play