Miss Herbert by Adam Thirlwell (Cape, Pounds 25)
"N'ENTENDS pas cause les ondes de. Le bebe babil des ondes de. Souris chance, toilette cause pause. Hein?"
Recognise it? It's a bit of Joyce's Finnegans Wake, translated into French, dumdum and considerably more of it is quoted as early as the seventh page of Miss Herbert, Adam Thirlwell's 531-page treatise on literature in translation. By the standards of popular lit-crit, relaying the English language's least penetrable novel in a foreign language is about as cocky as, say, opening a novel with a description of a man sodomising his girlfriend, peppered with quotes from Kundera.
Thirwell, 29, Fellow of All Souls, Oxford and Esquire sex columnist, did this too, in his naughty debut, Politics (2003). So he's bold, Thirlwell, light in tone but not in learning, and plays around with the reader in a way that will strike many as un peu pretentieux. Miss Herbert so named after Gustave Flaubert's buxom English maid, responsible for the first translation of Madame Bovary (sadly lost) is not a literary essay, but "a novel, an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters". Happily, this "inside-out novel" has a theme interesting enough to override Thirlwell's affectations. Leaping back and forth across 10 languages and many time zones, he presents a non-chronological, international history of the novel that is based on translation and emigration, contingency and compromise, happy accidents and amusing mistakes.
Thirlwell's opening example is Flaubert and his agonised sentences; how, if Flaubert stated he would rather "die like a dog" than compromise a …