Miss Herbert

Adam Thirlwell, Miss Herbert (Jonathan Cape, £25.00)

In ‘On Style’, the essay that sought to overturn the conventional marketing of ‘style’ as merely decorative or accessory, Susan Sontag, uncharacteristically taciturn, introduces an indirection: ‘To speak of style is one way of speaking about the totality of a work of art.’ The statement is telling least of all for what it says explicitly. Style is a character in this essay, in Sontag’s presentation of the theme, fluctuating from reticence to overexposure. The effect is deliberate, even ironic; the conclusion only guessed at from afar: style is everything.

Adam Thirlwell, an enfant terrible in the tradition of Saul Bellow and Martin Amis, makes no secret of where his interest lies. In his debut novel, Politics, the Indian bisexual Anjali is the x-factor in the fate of Moshe, the protagonist and his girlfriend Nana’s relationship, Thirlwell brackets or overemphasizes style in his portrayal of Anjali, as seen through Nana’s eyes: ‘She had style. This was a whole new style.’ The initiation of Anjali into Nana and Moshe’s life has an effect that is close to cataclysmic.

Politics demonstrates the singular courage of a young author to write a novel, to see how much he could get away with it; to see if he could divulge the most personal insecurities in a voice of confidence. The readers were mistaken; the controversy or cause for Thirlwell was not in the sexual situations but in the style. It was in his style of narration that he could be most crunchy and annoying, talking back to the reader and commenting on every little come-on in the story. ‘I find this story moving because it is so tense with contradictions’, the narrator says at one point. Was this parody or sincerity? We have our answer in Miss Herbert, a novel of true ambition. Thirlwell seems to pattern himself after Flaubert, whose achievement, he explains in Miss Herbert, was to make it impossible to distinguish whether his writing is intended sincerely or parodically.

Miss Herbert is no joke. At some 500 pages it is a long novel. Yet the book is not a novel; it is a ‘non-fiction novel’. It may be that Thirlwell has yet to write a novel. Like Politics, Miss Herbert is best read as a handbook to writing that elusive first novel, an edifying, and thinking story that follows the careers of writers as diverse as Joyce, Gombrowicz or Sterne. It is a book that traces the history of stylistic invention, an appreciation of what that innovation is or may mean.

In this novel, a meta-work that weaves its style through the style of other great writers, Thirlwell/the narrator becomes indistinguishable from Svevo, Mallarmé or Austen. One might read this as evidence of the author’s desire to put himself on the shelf with these great writers, but Thirlwell’s position is more radical and more genuine; he locates himself instead, within the tradition of the little magazine. Here, he suggests, is the motor which powers the march of literature. (The source of this may have something to do with his editorial participation in the ‘small magazine’ Areté.)

Thirlwell may or may not be writing himself into the canon, but at the very least he is paving the way for other young writers. Amidst the paradox of his identity: the self-importance, the insecurity, the exhibitionism, the oversimplifications, the ‘overeducation’, the ‘illegitimacy’, is a Jewish writer with a free style like Saul Bellow, with the control and ambition to position himself at the forefront of avant-gardism. Thirlwell’s theme is literary heroism. In Miss Herbert, he penetrates the paradox that he formulates for himself: ‘The history of an art is based on paradox: a new work only makes sense if it is part of a tradition, and yet it only has a value in that tradition if it does something new.’

The development for Thirlwell is not in the sweep of translations, quotations and indirections that he somehow welds together into a ‘novel.’ Rather he structures his world and the progressive narrative around flukes, improvisations and coincidences. This gives the book the added weight of the providential.

The metaphor is ripe and the time, too, is ripe for a character like Juliet Herbert, English governess to Flaubert’s niece and the first English translator of Madame Bovary. Miss Herbert is a story of Israelite-like underdogs and how their story did or didn’t make it to the press. Thirlwell is at his best when he leaves the pontificating to the priests and priestesses of our literature; his greatest asset is the ‘escapism’ in the honesty and sincerity of this account. He has a lot to be proud of.    

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