Named after an English governess and friend of Flaubert's who supposedly produced a perfect translation of Madame Bovary (now lost), Miss Herbert is a personal history of certain aspects of the European novel, and of the ways in which international co-operation, translation and imitation have acted upon its lineage. There is "no plot, no fiction and no finale," writes Thirlwell. "It is the description of a milky way, an aurora borealis."
Miss Herbert is a sort of literary commonplace book, laden with assiduously researched stories about a very specific band of Euronovelists, whose writing, as Milan Kundera once observed, is imbued with "the soft gleam of the comic". Like Kundera, Thirlwell appears to believe that the art of the novel is the art of comedy, that its history marches in step with the development of ironic style, the manipulation of detail and cliché: that the best novels are "an attack on the sentimental, the romantic, the serious". In this version, the tradition belongs to the ironists, the fantasists, the free-indirect-style-merchants: so Dickens, Eliot, Melville, James, Scott, Hardy et al are out, while Cervantes, Fielding, Sterne, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Joyce, Kafka, Gombrowicz, Bellow and Nabokov are in. Arguing is half the fun.
The strangest thing about Miss Herbert is its presentation: Cape has done everything in its power to jazz up this series of musings on world lit, including repros of title pages, photographs and so on. Thirlwell refers to the book as a kind of "inside-out novel", in which novelists and their characters are characters, and he's worked up a bunch of kooky McSweeney's-type indexes ("Index of Real Life" etc), to sit at the back.
All this smoke makes it hard to see whom Miss Herbert is aimed at. The set of fans of Politics, Thirlwell's debut novel, doesn't necessarily overlap with the set of fans of Flaubert and Gombrowicz, and 500 pages of European literary modernism may prove taxing to the casual reader. Only enthusiasts will be equipped to appreciate the occasionally striking items of trivia that Thirlwell unearths and the sometimes dazzling parallels he draws – but they may likewise be baffled, not only by the book's woolly maximalism but by its evident indebtedness to the work of Milan Kundera. In books such as The Art of the Novel and The Curtain, Kundera proposed a similar pantheon of European novelism to the one Thirlwell argues for, and riffed on questions of translation and the principles of style in very similar terms.
Then there's Thirlwell's own style, or rather his tone. This owlish, self-referencing little voice is perpetually tugging at the reader's coat-tails: "I need to backtrack", "I need a small digression" – and it has an infuriatingly wide-eyed way of presenting self-evident truths. "Many novels which are also comic masterpieces do not look like comic masterpieces. Often, they look quite sad. They do not make the reader laugh out loud."
Discussing Saul Bellow, Thirlwell justly comments that "once a novelist has a style, the only style left to imitate is itself", but it's hard to see the virtue in a method so calibrated towards the exasperating. Occasionally Thirlwell appears to forget about his obligations to authorial simpering and starts writing an altogether more muscular critical prose. Sunk deep in the morass of Miss Herbert's self-indulgence is a deft and thought-provoking piece of work. Whether the reader will stick around long enough to get it out is another matter.Cape, £25 Reuse content