Émigrés, History’s Trajectory, Difficult Hebrew, The Romanticism of Reality, Fascist Spies, Pushkin, Kafka, Dickens, Lolita, Nineteenth-Century Schmaltz, Borges, Circuses
by Adam Thirlwell
“‘I’ve lost my way,’ said Karl,‘I never noticed it during the voyage, but this is a terribly big ship.’” —Franz Kafka, Amerika. Photograph by Jan Lukas, from America According to Kafka.


Adam Thirlwell
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The Apologetic Preface

This text was initially written as a lecture, delivered on May 1, 2008, to the translation program at Princeton University. At that time, my essay on novels and translation, The Delighted States, had not yet been published—by Farrar, Straus and Giroux—in America. (It was published in June.) Shamelessly, therefore, I self-plagiarized, to a mildly lavish extent. I also rewrote what I had plagiarized, and sometimes contradicted it. The rare reader who has literally just read The Delighted States must therefore content themselves with the exasperated pleasure of grumbling.


The Essay that was once a Lecture


In 1947 Theodor Adorno, a German and Jewish émigré living in Los Angeles, published a book called Philosophy of Modern Music. The philosophy of this book could be reduced to a simple thesis. Adorno didn’t like the music of Igor Stravinsky—a Russian émigré, also living in Los Angeles. He did like the music of his friend Arnold Schoenberg, a Jewish-Austrian refugee. Who also lived in Los Angeles, and was Adorno’s neighbor.

This story about America—which is, therefore, a story about European exile—can function as a kind of allegory: an overture.

In his book, Adorno wanted to define what gave a musical work a value. This was a test case for what gave any aesthetic object a value. Adorno loved the music of Schoenberg because, he argued, it was both entirely new and entirely authentic. This was why it represented a value in the history of music. Whereas Stravinsky, whose art explicitly reworked the history of music, was a historical irrelevance. He lacked heart. In a century riven by terror, the only solution was music as original and dissonant as Schoenberg’s. “What radical music perceives,” wrote Adorno, “is the untransfigured suffering of man.” Stravinsky, argued Adorno, was only flippant. He was too concerned with the history of his art to be aware of the history of his century. He only wrote “music about music”—having “succumbed to the temptation of imagining that the responsible essence of music could be restored through stylistic procedures.” According to Adorno, Schoen­berg was great not because of the quality of his technique but because of the quality of his despair. His art was more authentic.

“The bridge connecting New York with Brooklyn hung delicately over the East River, and if one half-shut ones’s eyes it seemed to tremble…” —Franz Kafka, Amerika. Photograph by Jan Lukas.

A year after Adorno publish­ed his Philosophy of Modern Music, Schoenberg’s oratorio A Survivor from Warsaw received its first performance—in America, by the Albu­querque Civic Symphony Orchestra. The initial rendition left the audience speechless. When the conductor asked them if they wanted to hear it again—the piece only lasts around nine minutes—they agreed. And so the piece was first performed twice.

“Everybody whom I told about this success,” wrote Schoenberg, in his bad English,

and that an audience in Albuquerque demanded a repetition of a work of mine played for the first time is very astonished and thrilled by it, almost as much as I am.

It seems to me that this fact should be known by many ­people. Because it’s a wonderful attitude toward a new work.

This should become a model to many, many other places.

Schoenberg’s oratorio was a memorial to the Jews who had died in Europe in the Holocaust. But it wasn’t this subject that gave the music its value. The text—­a dramatic monologue written by Schoenberg himself, sung by the survivor—­contains an intricate mixture of languages, as it modulates from the survivor’s broken English, to the remembered German of the Nazi officers’ commands, and then to the remembered chorus of voices that represent the Jewish dead, singing the Shema in Hebrew.

Schoenberg’s oratorio is a uni­que linguistic object. But it is also a unique stylistic object. Schoenberg was famous for patenting the twelve-tone system—in 1923 he unveiled his “method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another.” While it’s true that this system dominates the survivor’s description of his experience, the piece then modulates away from Schoenberg’s trademark—into the more hieratic, ritualistic mode of the Hebrew chorus.

In what way can Schoenberg’s oratorio be considered authentic? None of the experiences it describes were his. And yet it is one of the greatest descriptions in music of the Jewish anguish in the twentieth century. This monument to the Holocaust was made by a man who had not been through it.

What else is imagination but a form of pastiche: the creation of inauthentic originals? Interviewed for that most American of magazines, Playboy, Vladimir Nabokov—­another Russian émigré then living in America, but not in Los An­geles—admitted to the difficulty of writing his novel Lolita: “I had to invent America and Lolita. It had taken me some forty years to invent Russia and Western Europe, and now I was faced by a similar task, with a lesser amount of time at my disposal.” The aesthetic value of Schoenberg’s piece is not its historical relevance but the astonishing juxtapositions which make up its form: the transition from the Sprechgesang style of the opening to the chorale of the finale. And this system of juxtaposition is the essence of Schoenberg’s style throughout his work. Schoen­berg is the great musical exponent of minute montage. (While it was Stravinsky, in fact, who was the great investigator of dissonance.) It didn’t matter where—whether in America or Vienna: Schoenberg’s style was a single entity.

Style is complicated. It can mean at least two things. (It might mean more.) There is its deep meaning—a writer’s quality of vision; and then it can also mean the particular way in which an artist articulates that vision in their chosen medium; the way the artist organizes the form and that form’s content.

And so the problem of style becomes most interesting to me when the style is the style of a novel—an art form that drenches its experiments in subject matter. And I am a novelist, after all. But one problem the novel has is that it is a very young art form. What’s four hundred years for an art form? No wonder its history has been so hap­hazard; why the descriptions of it have been so imprecise. The novel has always been international and experimental. Novelists’ attempts to be more precise to real life have always proceeded through personal histories of haphazard reading in translation. With modernism, this international experimentation accelerated, exaggerated. But I am still not sure if a precise vocabulary has ever been invented to describe the novel—true to both the depth of its experiments and the breadth of its international scope. So many of its terms have been borrowed from the older art of poetry. As if the style of a novel were embedded in its minutest elements: its phonetics. The religion of the sentence! As if the novel as an art form could only be taken seriously if it seemed, like lyric ­poetry, to be obsessed with rhythm and sound.

(Even the word history is inadequate! It’s true that in the era of modernism, the novel’s international experimentation accelerated partly because the twentieth century was an era of war and displacement: a century whose politics introduced two new concepts—the idea of the refuge, and the idea of the exile. But the word history is used differently when describing the history of art from when it is used to describe the history of politics. When used in the history of art, it means a conscious and personal development; when used in the history of politics, it means a chance conglomeration of only mildly controllable events.)

That, then, is what I want to use my Amerikas for—the in­ven­ted Amerikas of Vladimir Na­bokov, Franz Kafka, and Cesare Pavese: to understand style in the novel through its translations; to understand the possibilities of translation through a miniature history of the novel.



In America, having emigrated first from Russia to Berlin, then from Berlin to Paris, Vladimir Nabokov took on a series of teaching jobs in the 1940s and 1950s that culminated in his stay at Cornell University, leading a course on masterpieces of European literature. Quickly, Nabokov became tetchy at the translations he had to use. The versions of Pushkin, in particular, depressed him. So Nabokov decided to do his own version of Pushkin’s novel-in-verse: Eugene Onegin.

Immediately, he discovered a problem.

In Nabokov’s foreword to his translation he asked a simple question: “Can Pushkin’s poem, or any other poem with a definite rhyme scheme, be really translated?” And then he rephrased it: “Can a rhymed poem like Eugene Onegin be truly translated with the retention of its rhymes? The answer, of course, is no. To reproduce the rhymes and yet translate the poem entire is mathematically impossible.” And yet: “In losing its rhyme the poem loses its bloom, which neither marginal description nor the alchemy of a scholium can replace.” The only solution, thought Nabokov, which was not really a solution, was to give up on the style and explicate the content. This, argued Nabokov, was a literal translation; and only this method was acceptable. It was hardly a translation at all: rather than fulfilling the traditional function of replacing the original, it was now only useful as a crib, a prompt to the original, instead.

Every theory of translation is a theory of style. Each implies the other. Translation has to deal, minutely, with the relationships between form and content. The reason, I think, that Nabokov was having such trouble with Eugene Onegin was that it pointed to a central problem. His idea of style was problematic. He believed in the novel—the novel in prose—as a poetic entity. He thought it should value the form (the phonetics, the technical tricks) of a sentence as much as or more than it should value that sentence’s content. He believed the European avant-garde idea—most famously expressed in Flaubert’s letters to Louise Colet—that a novel had a value only insofar as its sentences were organized with as much care as possible. But Nabokov’s idea of how sentences might be organized placed too much emphasis on the sentences’ internal structure. And so he refused to admit that Eugene Onegin could be translated. He did not allow that a novel—even the most poetic novel of all, one written in poetry—has a style that goes beyond the sentences’ internal structures: It is there in the arrangement of paragraphs, of chapters, of voices and materials. It is there in the arrangements of the plot. Nabokov’s model of style was too much based on the advertised constricted tricks of the lyric poem.

All theories of translation depend on a genre—on whether a text is poetry, or prose, or an instruction manual. Maybe I can make this even more limited. All theories of translation will only be entirely true for a particular work.

The plot of Eugene Onegin is very simple: Tatiana loves Eugene, but Eugene does not love Tatiana. So Eugene rejects Tatiana. By the time Eugene realizes that he does, in fact, love her, Tatiana is married to another man. And so she, in turn, rejects Eugene. According to Tolstoy, who heard the story from Princess Meshchersky, Pushkin lamented: “Imagine what happened to my Tatiana? She up and rejected Onegin.… I never expected it of her!”

Pushkin’s theory of real life was that as soon as a character has more than one character—as soon as she can change her mind—she becomes realistic. The unexpected consequence is that as soon as a character can change her mind, she can also get free of a plot and the plot’s narrator—and, therefore, the book’s author.

This is the conceit of Pushkin’s novel. This game, with its set rules, is the basis for the novel’s form—where the narrator is a minor character in the story. And because it is a conceit, because it consists of ­simple rules, it is absolutely translatable. (Like those artworks by Duchamp, which were simply a list of instructions from Marcel—to be carried out by someone else.)

Pushkin once sketched a drawing, set on the embankment on the River Neva in Saint Petersburg (where Nabokov’s character Pnin would see his first fiancée, Mira, for the last time). It depicted Pushkin, who was trendy and handsome, with Onegin, who was slightly less dashing, without Pushkin’s romantic curls. The drawing showed an author who was a friend of one of his characters. It was a visual reminder of the fictional games in Eugene Onegin. Everyone, real or imagined, is on the same plane. For once Pushkin appears in the story, as a fictional character, then the fictional characters gain a new appearance of freedom. Freedom in Pushkin is discovered through freedom from the omniscient narrator. The characters become fugitive. And this is something which Pushkin developed via his model, the English novelist Laurence Sterne. A novelist whom Pushkin read in a French translation of Tristram Shandy—begun by Joseph Pierre Frénais, and finished by the Marquis de Bonnay. This, according to the catalog of Pushkin’s library, was the edition he owned: the 1818 Oeuvres Complètes.

It wasn’t, let’s be honest, a perfect translation. Sterne’s cool little diagrams were deleted. And Frénais seems to have found Sterne’s sense of humor just a little unsettling. Sterne’s trademark innuendo technique of missing out words, or pretending to miss out words, was returned to normality again. Where Sterne had written: “My sister, I dare say, added he, does not care to let a man come so near her * * * *. I will not say whether my uncle Toby had completed his sentence or not…” Frénais wrote: “Ma soeur ne veut apparemment pas qu’un homme l’approche de si près…” (“Apparently my sister doesn’t want a man to approach her so closely…”). Frénais’s three-dot ellipsis after a perfectly finished sentence and his cutting of Tristram’s extra nod to the reader are a tame substitution for Sterne’s winking asterisks.

And yet, and yet. The version of Sterne that Pushkin read was an entirely plausible one; it was still useful. Its central improvised form—where a narrator watched his plot run away from him—still remained.

Eugene Onegin is a novel, after all: it just happens to be written in verse. And one way of defining what a certain type of novel is (the type to which I feel an allegiance) is that it steals a poem’s care for verbal organization and playfulness, and enlarges it, while dispensing with a lyric poem’s romantic impulses and lyrical effusions.

“…and then said,‘Isn’t this the place where they are engaging people for theTheatre of Oklahoma?’‘I thought so too,’said the man,‘but we’ve been waiting here for an hour and heard nothing but these trumpets.There’s not a placard to be seen, no announcers, nobody anywhere to tell you what to do.’”—Franz Kafka, Amerika. Photograph by Jan Lukas.

But then, maybe Nabokov had an inkling of this, too. Maybe he’d also begun to think that his idea of style in a novel, and of its translation, was limited. At one point, in his commentary on Eugene Onegin, he wrote sadly that “to the ­artist whom practice within the limits of one language, his own, has convinced that matter and manner are one, it comes as a shock to discover that a work of art can present itself to the would-be translator as split into form and content, and that the question of rendering one but not the other may arise at all. Actually what happens is still a monist’s delight: shorn of its primary ­verbal existence, the original text will not be able to soar and to sing; but it can be very nicely dissected and mounted, and scientifically studied in all its organic details.”

In America, I think, Nabokov was troubled by the possibility that the European avant-garde tradition of the novel—epitomized by Flaubert, perfected in himself—might have been wrong.



few years before Na­bokov sailed from Europe, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a series of essays for a variety of small magazines in Buenos Aires. He was elsewhere in the Americas. In these essays, he staccatoed his way into an exploration of style through an exploration of translation.

In 1931, he wrote an essay for the eighth issue of Azul called “The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader.” Borges had a problem with readers. The worst readers, Borges wrote, were those who thought they were the best: the ones who cared about style. This obsession, wrote Borges, might have looked like a concern for aesthetics, but it was really a covert ethics: it represented “an irrefutable etiquette.” Gustave Flaubert, the absolute aesthetician, believed that “correction (in the highest senses of the word)” made thinking “invulnerable and indestructible.” But, argued Borges, he was wrong. “On the contrary, the page that becomes immortal can traverse the fire of typographical errors, approximate translations, and inattentive or erroneous readings without losing its soul in the process.”

Translation, then, was just one possible hazard among many. But soon translation became for Borges the central problem of defining the essence of a style.

A year later, Borges published a new essay called “The Homeric Versions.” Its subject was the translations into English of The Iliad. He began with his central argument: “No problem is as consubstantial to literature and its modest mystery as the one posed by translation.” For Borges, translation demonstrated a puzzling truth: that the form of a literary work must precede its incarnation in words. It was platonic. From this, he drew a mischievous conclusion—­arguing that a work’s verbal form was always only an approximation: this was proved on the one hand by the possibilities of more than one translation, and on the other by the fact that every work goes through a series of drafts. “To assume that every recombination of elements is necessarily inferior to its original form,” he famously wrote, “is to assume that a draft nine is necessarily inferior to draft H—for there can only be drafts. The concept of the ‘definitive text’ corresponds only to religion or exhaustion.”

But I’m not sure how true this conclusion is. I’m all for charm, I’m all for mischief. But maybe it’s possible to be more true. It seems too modish of Borges, too easily Parisian—too in love with the mystique of the draft. Unlike, say, Nabokov’s fictional novelist Sebastian Knight, who “belonged to that rare type of writer who knows that nothing ought to remain except the perfect achievement: the printed book; that its actual existence is inconsistent with that of its spectre, the uncouth manuscript flaunting its imperfections like a revengeful ghost carrying its own head under its arm.…” The novelist as stylist believes in achievements. Whereas for the translator this creative certainty suddenly disappears. With translation, so often, the translator is in the desert of the synonym. There seems no perfect word. An original work, therefore, and a translation, are not essentially the same. They cannot be compared in the way that Borges compares them. A translation is not the same, in its essence, as a ­novel’s draft. And this is why I want to disagree with Borges’s conclusion. This is why I want to propose a less grand version of what a novel’s style might be.

That summer, Borges wrote another essay, this time on “Narrative Art and Magic,” for the fifth number of Sur. He opened this ­essay with a point that I think must be related to his talk of platonic forms in his earlier essay: “The techniques of the novel have not, I believe, been analyzed exhaustively. A historical reason for this continued neglect may be the greater antiquity of other genres, but a more fundamental reason is that the ­novel’s many complexities are not easily disentangled from the techniques of plot.” If only Borges had continued on this path! If only he had followed up on this intuition!

Translation wasn’t consubstantial to literature and its modest mystery because it revealed literature to be a continuous history of drafts. Instead translation was so important because it revealed, like a Polaroid, the true nature of style in the novel.

In his essay The Curtain, the Czech-French émigré novelist Milan Kundera describes how the “exceptional importance of composition is one of the genetic markers of the art of the novel.… the beauty of a novel is inseparable from its architecture; I say ‘beauty’ because the composition is not merely a technical skill; it carries within it an author’s originality of style (all Dostoyevsky’s novels are based on the same compositional principle); and it is the identifying mark of each particular novel (inside this common principle, each of Dostoyevsky’s novels has its own inimitable architecture).”

Now, at this point, the real problem with talking about novels becomes obvious: there is the word composition, and the word architecture, and the word style. All in one paragraph! And none of these are identical to each other, yet all of them require each other.

The composition of a novel has two aspects: There is the order of the plot itself (because the order of the telling does not need to follow the order of the event described). And there is the order of linguistic material used to tell it, which could be a first-person description, or a ­diary entry, or a newspaper report, or the omniscient third-person narrative. The composition of a novel is made up of both these aspects. The style of a novel, therefore, is not just the way in which the sentences are written: it encompasses the way a novelist wishes to vary the ways in which the sentences are written.

The problem is that, once again, one word has to do the work of two: a writer can have a style that is recognizable over the arc of an ­oeuvre, but within that oeuvre each individual work may have a dif­ferent style due to varying strategies of composition. So a novel’s style may fit into an overall style, while still differing in many ways from it. Think about Schoenberg! The Hebrew chorale was an entirely new sound in his oeuvre—but arranged as it was, according to his constant principle of unexpected juxtaposition, it is recognizably Schoenbergian. And yet it is only Schoenbergian in context.

No one, I think, has come up with a way to accurately describe the relationship of an individual work’s style to the novelist’s overall style.

But I want to ignore this anxiety for now.

Instead, it’s possible, I think, to go further—and say two things. The reason why style in a novel is translatable is because it is inextricable from composition. And it is through the composition itself, through a style, that a novel becomes true to life.

It used to be said that there were two truths—the correspondence theory of truth, by which a statement was true because it was accurate about the reality external to words, and the coherence theory of truth, by which a statement was true simply because it was internally consistent. But the art of the novel proves a further resolution: a novel will correspond to real life so long as it is internally consistent.

(Which is why, say, there is no one-to-one ratio in a novel between length and comprehensiveness, why tempo in a novel is so intricate.)

In his diary, Cesare Pavese, the Italian novelist, and one of the greatest translators from English into Italian of the twentieth century, excitedly wrote about his love of Stendhal. Stendhal, he argued, understood the deep art of the novel: to create “stylized situations.” A stylized situation: this is the closest, perhaps, one can get to describing the intimate connection between the form and content of a novel, which is subsumed by the difficult idea of a novel’s style.

In “The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader,” Borges had argued that “one cannot with impunity alter any line fabricated by Góngora (according to those who restore his texts), but Don Quixote wins posthumous battles against its translators and survives each and every careless version.” But Góngora’s poetry and Cervantes’s novel are completely different literary forms. The idea of style functions differently in both.

Every novelist tries to discover a stylized situation. The composition is the way of investigating the content. You cannot have one without the other. And a situation is universal. It doesn’t need the weight of personal experience. A novelist can describe America without ever having been to America. The literal location is never important—either to the novel or to the novel­ist. Which provides a clue to the deeper reason why the novel’s version of America should always be spelled with a k, not a c: as a symbol of the way its portrayal doesn’t need to be accurate in order to be convincing.

And this is why, I’m beginning to think, since the techniques of the novel are inextricable from composition, which is inextricable from plot, a different kind of criticism needs to be developed for the novel. A form of paraphrase. There is, for instance, a different art of the novel developed through the story of Franz Kafka’s Karl Rossmann. And another developed through the story of Pnin.

At this point, the characters, and their stories, need to take over from the novelists.



In the autumn of 1953, in Amerika, a Russian émigré, Professor Pnin, got off a train at a place called Whitchurch. Pnin, a professor at Waindell College, was on his way to Cremona, where he was due to give a lecture. The reason he had gotten off the train at Whitchurch and not Cremona was that in a feat of time-tabling ingenuity and vanity, he had managed to get himself on the wrong train. And so the conductor had told him to get off in Whitchurch, where he would be able to get a bus. In the unusual autumnal heat, “Pnin entered a ­waiting-room of sorts,” and entrusted his valise to “a perspiring young man who was filling out forms on the broad wooden counter before him.”

“Quittance?” queried Pnin, Englishing the Russian for “receipt” (kvit­antsiya).

“What’s that?”

“Number?” tried Pnin.

“You don’t need a number,” said the fellow, and resumed his writing.

And so Pnin left the station, had two ham sandwiches, and at exactly five minutes to four, went back for his bag.

A different man was now in charge. The first had been called home to drive his wife in all haste to the maternity hospital. He would be back in a few minutes.

“But I must obtain my valise!” cried Pnin.

The substitute was sorry but could not do a thing.

“It is there!” cried Pnin, leaning over and pointing.

This was unfortunate. He was still in the act of pointing when he realized that he was claiming the wrong bag. His index finger wavered. That hesitation was fatal.

“My bus to Cremona!” cried Pnin.

“There is another at eight,” said the man.

The four o’clock bus had just come. Pnin made a quick decision: to abandon his valise and pick it up on his way back. “He had lost, dumped, shed many more valuable things in his day. Energetically, almost lightheartedly, Pnin boarded the bus.”

But Pnin was not safe, not even here. Even in the refuge of the bus, a new tragedy occurred. As it moved off, he realized that the sheaf of papers in his pocket did not constitute his lecture but was in fact a term paper on Dostoyevsky and Gestalt theory, written by one of his few good students: “plump and earnest Betty Bliss.”

The lost suitcase, the repeated mistake: these are the proofs that Pnin’s story, as written by Vladimir Nabokov, is real. Real life, in this novel Pnin, is a series of repeated and miniature calamities. It is a stylized situation.

The following of this suitcase theme can then lead, in the novel’s history of Amerika, to another immigrant, also having trouble with his luggage.

As Karl Rossmann arrived on the boat to New York City, he admired the sky and its view of the Statue of Liberty, the infinite city. Just as he was about to get off the boat, prompted by an acquaintance, “in his exuberance and because he was a strong lad, he raised his suitcase onto his shoulder. But as he watched his acquaintance disappearing along with the others, swinging a cane, he realized that he had left his umbrella down in the ship. So he hurriedly asked his acquaintance, who seemed less than overjoyed about it, to be so good as to wait by his suitcase for a moment, took a quick look around for his subsequent orientation, and hurried off.” And so began the story of Karl Rossmann—a novel by Franz Kafka called Amerika.

Karl descended from his position on deck, high in the clouds, into chaos. “Below deck, he found to his annoyance that a passage that would have considerably shortened the way for him was for the first time barred, probably something to do with the fact that all the passengers were disembarking, and so he was forced instead to make his way through numerous little rooms, along continually curving passages and down tiny flights of stairs, one after the other, and then through an empty room with an abandoned desk in it until, eventually, only ever having gone this way once or twice previously, and then in the company of others, he found that he was totally and utterly lost.”

And Karl’s suitcase, also, was lost forever.

In Kundera’s earlier essay Testaments Betrayed, there is a section called “Improvisation in Homage to Stravinsky”—a homage to Stravinsky’s art of playful transcription, which is also a defense of Kafka as another playful anti-lyrical artist. Kundera’s example of this is Kafka’s novel Amerika. In his essay, Kundera points out the thematic importance to this novel of various crazily complicated objects—a series that begins with an intricate, many-­drawered, complexly engineered desk that Karl discovers in his uncle’s house. “Genetically speaking,” adds Kundera in a brilliant parenthetical, “the comical mechanism of his uncle’s desk is the ancestor of the terrifying ­castle administration.” But I think that, in pursuit of Kafka’s composition, one can follow this idea further. There, at the start of the novel, in the fleeting image of the abandoned desk in the ­bowels of the transatlantic liner, can be seen another layer of thematic meaning: Kafka figures bewilderment through the movement between upper and lower. Which is why the other crucial motif in this novel is the elevator.

The elevator is first seen in Karl’s uncle’s house, where there is a service lift and “an ordinary lift” next to it, standing empty. And when Karl has left his uncle’s house, and has reached the Hotel Occidental in a town called Ramses, he naturally finds a job as a lift boy—a job that allows him access to the upper floors, reserved for the less-wealthy guests. Yes, there Karl is: and Kafka ends the chapter “In the Hotel Occidental” with this image of Karl, resting, at four in the morning, looking down the lift-shaft, “which was surrounded by the large windows of the storerooms, behind which great bunches of bananas glimmered faint­ly in the dark.”

In 1913, the first chapter of Kafka’s novel was published as The Stoker. Kafka read the book aloud to his parents. And he noted (quoted by Michael Hofmann in the introduction to his recent translation of the novel) how “there is no better critic than myself, reading aloud to my most reluctantly listening father. Many shallows, in amongst obviously inaccessible depths.” This last sentence is a moment of authorial modesty, but it is also an accurate description of Kafka’s style in this novel. A seemingly charming and comedic surface is structured according to a network of themes that hint at a sadder, darker meaning to the story. A structure, therefore, which is visible in its English or French translations.



But there is a complication.

Since a novel’s style can still be visible in another language—because style is not just in a novel’s sentences—the novel has always proceeded internationally: novelists have always read other beloved novelists both in the original languages and also in translations that are mangled to varying degrees. As well as a ­theory of translation, therefore, the novel needs a theory of transcription. The most important source for the structure of Kafka’s novel was ­David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, a novel that he read in German translation.

In his diary, Kafka ­jotted down notes on his first novel, which he was calling at the time The Stoker: “Dickens’s ‘Copperfield.’ ‘The Stoker’ a sheer imitation of ­Dickens, the projected novel even more so. The story of the trunk, the boy who delights and charms every­one, the menial labor, his sweetheart in the country house, the dirty houses, et al, but above all the method. It was my intention, as I now see, to write a Dickens novel, but enhanced by the sharper lights I should have taken from the times and the duller ones I should have got from myself.… There is a heartlessness behind his sentimentally overflowing style.”

Kafka loved to parody the sad, vain density of our feelings—the nineteenth-century schmaltz. So the characters constantly envelop Rossmann in a trap of hyperbolic emotion. But in doing so, in this, his first novel, Kafka then enters into his own particular style.

One day, talking to Gustav Jan­ouch about an exhibition of constructivist pictures, Kafka said: “They are merely dreams of a marvelous America, of a wonderland of unlimited possibilities. That is perfectly understandable, because Europe is becoming more and more a land of impossible limitations.” It’s true that Janouch was rarely trustworthy in his recollections of Kafka—less like a diarist, more like a stalker. But I think that he was still accurate to the version of ­reality that Kafka’s style invents and investigates. For this freewheeling novel Amerika really enacts a series of entrapments. Karl thinks he is discovering a land of freedom. In fact, he is constantly assailed by nightmares that are partly of his own making. The novel represents a succession of unhappy homes. Every­where he goes, Karl is asked to leave.

That is one way of describing the meaning of this place that Kafka called Amerika. It allowed him to arrive at his private subject matter. It was all about the dream of an impossible refuge. In this novel begins Kafka’s great theme—that one is always responsible for every­thing, or, more precisely, that one can always be blamed for anything. That is the menacing way of the everyday, dreamlike world. Nowhere is safe.

We should remember that another title Kafka contemplated for his novel was The Man Who Disappeared. America, for Kafka, represented both the need for and the impossibility of freedom. And freedom would mean disappearing: escaping from the coercive feelings of others.

Every time Karl thinks he is ­going up, he is forced farther down. That is the novel’s thematic pattern. “It’s impossible to defend oneself where there is no goodwill,” thinks Karl, as he loses his job at the ­Hotel Occidental. And this accurately describes the moral mechanism of Kafka’s version of American farce (a farce that is different from the farce of Pnin): farce is a plot in which there is no more goodwill. Or, as Kafka is reported to have said in another conversation, this time with Max Brod—who was at least more trustworthy than Janouch: “There is hope. Infinite hope. Just not for us.”



Style has nothing to do with authenticity and everything to do with composition. And even if this might seem outlandish to Adorno, too airily aesthetic, perhaps it can be clarified through his own favorite art form: music. My further experiment on style involves comparing the free style of Franz Kafka to the ragtime of his contemporary, the composer Erik Satie.

At the end of Amerika, Karl Rossmann joins an American ­theater company, a hybrid of a troupe of traveling players, and a circus. And this same sort of troupe performs again a few years later: in Satie’s ballet Parade, which takes place outside a fairground.

One of the few pleasures afforded by history happens when you can watch it behave with such helpful thematic care.

Erik Satie was born in 1866, and became immersed in the world of the café-concert, the cabaret artistique. Then, in 1911, in his middle age, Satie became famous—when he was championed by Ravel and Debussy. He became part of the Pari­sian avant-garde. In 1916 he was invited by Jean Cocteau to write the music for a ballet called Parade, designed by Picasso, whose first performance was on May 18, 1917.

“‘Developments in this country are always rapid,’ said his uncle, breaking off the conversation.”—Franz Kafka, Amerika. Photograph by Jan Lukas.

The title Parade refers to the turns put on by acrobats to entice people to go into a fairground booth. In Cocteau’s eventual plot, people were so taken by the three sideshows that they never went in.

And the particular sideshow I am interested in is the second: La petite fille américaine: the little American girl. Cocteau’s notes to Satie, giving him an idea of America, ranged from “The Titanic” to “the sheriff’s daughter—Walt Whitman—the silence of stampedes—cowboys with leather and goatskin chaps—the telegraph operator from Los Angeles who marries the detective at the end…” Following this, Satie invented a piece which was—like Kafka’s Amerika—the playful transcription of a previous work. This time, however, the new value was not created by the transcription of a canonical work: instead, it was through Satie’s omnivorous inclusion of the popular and the everyday—as portrayed in newsreels and film scripts.

The little American girl in ­Parade danced to a piece called “Steamship Ragtime”—which included a ­parody, a playful transcription, of Irving Berlin’s 1911 hit “That Mysterious Rag.” Satie took Berlin’s tune apart: reversing the order of Berlin’s ragtime so that the introduction-verse-chorus became chorus-verse-introduction. And he added his own chromatics and harmonics, especially his trademark insertion of units fewer than four bars long.

“Do not forget what we owe to the Music-Hall, to the Circus,” wrote Satie. “It is from there that stem the newest creations, tendencies, and curiosities. The Music-Hall, the circus, possess the ‘esprit nouveau.’” His score employed ­sirens, the noise of airplane engines, and a manic typewriter. This was Satie’s Amerika.

Which is why it is no surprise that when Adorno attacked Stravinsky for his art of pastiche, he attacked Satie as well: “Out of this world of over-specialization he designs the specialty of music hall, vaudeville, and circus. This accomplishment is glorified in the Parade of Cocteau and Satie, but Petrouchka is already a preconception of it. The aesthetic accomplishment becomes a complete tour de force.…” It might seem strange to attack someone for producing a tour de force, but that was Adorno’s way. Poor Adorno didn’t understand lightness. Stranded in Los Angeles, believing in the myth of the authentic, the triumph of sincere feeling, he didn’t understand the uses to be made of America.



In 1993, the Italian composer Luciano Berio was in America to lecture at Harvard in a series that had been given a few years earlier by his friend Italo Calvino. Berio gave his lectures the title “Remembering the Future”—taken from the last lines of Un re in ascolto, an opera he had written with Calvino. Berio said that he wanted his lectures to concentrate on “musical experiences that invite us to revise or suspend our relation with the past, and to rediscover it as part of a future trajectory”—­detached from a linear view of historical time. So that his audience could “accept the idea of a history that is exploring us and we can give ourselves, again and again, the possibility of remembering the future.”

With this paradoxical reworking of history in mind, Berio went on to discuss Stravinsky, and his neo­classical score for the Balan­chine ballet Agon: “an admirable act of exorcism where the past is approached neither as antiquity nor as an object to be collected, and where each character speaks with the voice of another.” This was Berio’s improvised theory. “Agon,” wrote Berio, “is a work characterized by lightness. Lightness, because it communicates at every moment the sensation of having stripped and reduced to the bare essentials of their functions… some of the frequently cumbersome bodies of the musical legacy.”

Yes, Berio argued, Stravinsky’s conscious anachronism was a form of creativity. He made the heavy light.

And this reminds me again of Kundera’s “Improvisation in Homage to Stravinsky,” in which Kundera recounts Adorno’s attack on Stravinsky—and also, like Berio, defends Stravinsky. Where Adorno had objected to Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella, his homage to the eighteenth-­century composer Pergolesi, with its dissonances, its departures from its source, Kundera wrote how for Stravinsky “the playful transcription of an earlier work was for him a way of establishing a connection between the centuries.”

This is the truth revealed by transcription—the paradox that literary history is absolutely historical and absolutely timeless at the same time.

And it is a paradox also proved by the famous story Borges published in the fifty-sixth number of Sur, in May 1939: “Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote”—his final essay on the problem of style and translation. In his essay, Borges described the hypothetical life of a fictional early twentieth-century poet and philosopher, Pierre Menard. On his death, Menard had completed a version of “the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two.” And this wasn’t easy. “He did not want to compose another ­Quixote—which is easy,” wrote Borges “—but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.” The two completed fragments were therefore very strange objects. And their oddest effects, wrote Borges, were to content and form. Cer­vantes’s rhetorical praise of history as the mother of truth now seemed startlingly relativistic, while the prose, so sprightly in Cer­vantes, now suffered from “a certain affectation.”

No copy—this is Borges’s argument—is ever an accurate copy. However comprehensive an imitation might be, it will still reveal the writer who is imitating. Because style is inescapable, and singular. Every representation of the same subject will be inevitably, and charmingly, unique. And so Menard, with his rewrite of Cervantes, “has enriched, by means of a new technique, the halting and rudimentary art of reading: this new technique is that of the deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution.”

To be a little more contemporary for a moment, consider the most Stravinskian contemporary novelist today: Thomas Pynchon. In Pynchon’s spikily brilliant novel pretending to be a pastiche—Mason & Dixon, a novel about the American eighteenth century written in the mode of the English eighteenth-century novel—Pynchon includes his own dissonant contemporary American grace notes: like the moment when a sailor helps out with the translation of a difficult Hebrew passage: “That is, ‘I am that which I am,’ helpfully translates a somehow nautical-looking Indiv. with gigantick Fore-Arms, and one Eye ever a-Squint from the Smoke of his Pipe.”

This helpful sailor, obviously, is Popeye, the Sailor Man—who can therefore form another element to my improvisation’s naval theme—joining the Stoker who is the central character of the first chapter of Kafka’s­ novel The Man Who Disappeared: and now the Stoker in Cesare Pavese’s first published poem, “South Seas,” which describes the return of the narrator’s cousin, who had gone away from the Piedmont village of S. Stefano Belbo to become a sailor.

Only one dream

has stayed in his blood: once, when he worked

as a stoker on a Dutch fishing boat, the Cetacean,

he saw the heavy harpoons sail in the sun,

and saw the whales as they fled in a frothing of blood

and the chase and the flukes lifting, fighting the launches.

Sometimes he mentions it.



Calvino once described how when he began to write, in Turin, in the early 1940s, “there was an idea of a mor­ality which had to give shape to the style.” The reason for this fashion was a man called Cesare Pavese: the novelist, poet, editor, and translator.

Pavese was born in 1908, and lived his entire life in or near Turin. In 1950, he committed suicide. As Calvino recorded, “He was the ­author of a fresco of his time which is without equal and which was articulated throughout his nine brief novels, as though it were a tightly packed and complete comédie hum­aine.” (The real number of Pavese’s novels was in fact slightly more.) Before writing his novels, however, Pavese was a translator—responsible for the introduction of twentieth­-century American literature to Italy. In 1931, when he was twenty-three, he translated Sinclair Lewis’s Our Mr. Wrenn. A year later, he translated Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Dark Laughter by Sherwood Anderson. Between 1935 and 1942, there followed translations of John Dos Passos’s 42nd Parallel, Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, Benito Cereno by Melville, and Faulkner’s The Hamlet.

Although I should perhaps be honest about the quality of Pavese’s­ English. Writing to Anthony Chiuminatto, who had taught him American, Pavese wrote: “Perhaps you don’t even assume what usefulness had for me your little lessons of American spoken. Yet I keep these jottings carefully, and scanty as the expressions and words are I could put down, yet as I read modern American authors, I feel more assured….” I quote this not to be­little him but self-servingly to prove myself right. There is no need to be an expert in a language in order to translate a novel usefully. Its style will survive its misreadings in translation.”

“Periods of great productivity in literature are preceded by a generation of intensely active translators,” Pavese once wrote. But what did America mean for Pavese? ­Pavese, after all, like Kafka, like ­Satie, never visited America. He didn’t care about the real America, the geography. For Pavese, America was an imaginary place of political liberty. It allowed him to be new, by escaping the Italian past—and so to be true to an idea of the Italian present. As he wrote in 1947—the same year that Schoenberg was in Los An­geles, writing A Survivor from Warsaw—his translations were “the first little hole in the wall to freedom.” The Americans were useful to the Italians precisely because they were so American. Which is why they were disappointed to see American novelists desperately trying to re­semble them—with their chic angst, their elegant realismo. “I remember when Pavese began to read the new books that arrived here in the postwar period,” recalled Calvino: “—there was Saul Bellow with his first novel, Dangling Man—and I remember Vittorini too, who said: ‘This lot are like European writers, they’re more intellectual, we’re not so interested in them.’”

The crucial novelist for Pavese wasn’t a practitioner of American realism, writing that he eventually derided as “a particular kind of romanticism about ‘living reality.’ The fanciful idea that everything is ­realism (Dos Passos).” No, the crucial person was the least political novelist of all the Americans: the bourgeois aesthete F. Scott Fitzgerald.

“Do you remember my speaking to you about Fitzgerald?” Pavese wrote to his friend Davide Lajolo. “I myself didn’t want to translate this man’s books for the publisher because I was too fond of them and also because I was already intent on writing something on the same lines myself.”

Pavese wanted to write in a new way about Italy’s past. Pavese’s last and best novel, The Moon and the Bonfires—published the year he died, in 1950—features the same plot as his first poem: the return of a villager to the place where he grew up. The subject is not really politics: instead, it uses the repressed history of Italy’s recently fascist past to explore wider themes of repression. Through Fitzgerald, Pavese perfected his idea of the novel as a stylized situation. “The balance of a story lies in the coexistence of two things,” wrote Pavese, just before he wrote The Moon and the Bonfires: “the author, who knows how it will end, and the group of characters, who do not. If the author and a protagonist become merged, as with a story in the first person, it is essential to increase the stature of the other characters to restore the balance. Therefore the protagonist, if he relates the story himself, must be primarily a spectator.” His model was The Great Gatsby.

And so in The Moon and the Bonfires, Pavese describes the return of a narrator who is nameless, except for his childhood nickname, Anguilla, or Eel. Anguilla was illegitimate, initially looked after by a peasant family, and then adopted by a more well-off family, who owned a farm called La Mora. In this ­family were three sisters—all beautiful, elegant, out of reach. Before the Second World War, Anguilla left the village for America, where he became rich, and has now returned, for reasons that are obscure to him—­reasons to do with homesickness, a desire for roots. He meets up with Nuto, a few years older than him—the clarinetist in the local band. As a kid, Anguilla had looked up to Nuto as a hero. Now they are more equal. And so the novel traces both Anguilla’s backstory in this village and also the history of the village after he went away—riven by the politics of fascism and resistance. The ­novel’s final revelation, finally admitted to by Nuto, is An­guilla’s discovery that Santina, one of the longed-for sisters at La Mora, was shot by the partisans after discovering that she was a fascist spy. And then her body was burned, in a bonfire.

This novel is a careful arrangement of echoing themes. There is a congruence between the man who stays and the man who goes—­between Anguilla and Nuto: both want to ignore their past. But every­thing leaves its trace, like a bonfire. “Each one of Pavese’s novels revolves around a hidden theme,” wrote Calvino, “something unsaid which is the real thing he wants to say and which can be expressed only by not mentioning it.”

His novels are exercises in characters who are trying to disappear. Another way of putting this is that they are all about characters who cannot feel at home. And the symbol of this longing, according to ­Pavese’s style, is America.



When he looked out at New York from the boat, Karl looked at the city, which looked back at him “with the hundred thousand windows of its skyscrapers.” While in Pnin, Nabokov describes “the morning haze where, ready to be ignited by the sun, pale, spellbound buildings stood like those mysterious rectangles of unequal height that you see in bar graph representations of compared percentages (natural resources, the frequency of mirages in different deserts).” It is a metaphor that may have been inspired by a metaphorical image by Saul Steinberg, published in Flair magazine in 1950, where a skyscraper is conjured from a piece of graph paper, simply by doodling some antennae on its roof. It doesn’t really matter. The same thing, as Borges noted, is never the same thing: a Kafkaesque skyscraper is different from its Nabokovian twin.

But it moves me particularly because it is an example of a technique developed by Nabokov in his new brand of English, from the Russian of Nikolai Gogol: what Pnin himself calls the Rambling Comparison. In his book on Gogol, one of the first works he wrote originally in English, Nabokov had described Gogol’s ability to invent a new world through the over­extended simile. Like this, from Dead Souls: “Even the weather had obligingly accommodated itself to the setting: the day was neither bright nor gloomy but of a kind of bluey-grey tint such as is found only upon the worn-out uniforms of garrison soldiers, for the rest a peaceful class of warriors except for their being somewhat inebriate on Sundays.” In Nabokov’s own style, however, this technique acquires an extra poignancy. There, in the overextended similes, lurks a thematic of pain.

The meaning of Amerika, in Pnin, is a place that is always still Russia. There is nowhere else for Pnin to go. He cannot leave Russia behind.

Just as, in an idle moment, when Karl Rossmann was being interviewed at the Hotel Occidental by the Head Cook, he explained that he had only been in America for a short while. He came, he said, from Prague, in Bohemia. And the Head Cook exclaimed, “in German with a very strong English accent,” that they were therefore compatriots: her name was Grete Mitzelbach. She came from Vienna. For half a year, she told him, she had worked at the Golden Goose in Wenceslas Square. “‘When was that?’ asked Karl. ‘It’s many, many years ago now.’ ‘Because the old Golden Goose,’ said Karl, ‘was torn down two years ago.’ ‘Oh really,’ said the Head Cook, lost in memories of bygone times.”

There was a hint of this per­sistent pain in the mirages contained in the New York skyscrapers. But the sadness, really, is everywhere. And it surfaces in the similes. “During the eight years Pnin had taught at Waindell College he had changed his lodgings… about every sem­ester. The accumulation of consecutive rooms in his memory now resembled those displays of grouped elbow chairs on show, and beds, and lamps, and inglenooks which, ignoring all space-time distinctions, commingle in the soft light of a furniture store beyond which it snows, and the dusk deepens, and nobody really loves anybody.”

Nabokov once described himself as a writer of “clear, but weirdly misleading sentences.” And since he was actually describing the writer Sirin, which was Nabokov’s early pseudonym, without explaining who Sirin was, this was another example of his clearly misleading style. But in Pnin, I think, the clarity of the misleading is not just in the sentences; it is in the paragraphs.

In the summer of 1953, Pnin was staying at the country house in America of his friend Al Cook, also known as Alexandr Petrovich Kukolnikov. At one point, another guest—Madam Shpolyanski—­reminded him of a girl called Mira, whom Pnin had known in Russia. Mira died in the concentration camps. Their conversation was then interrupted by a call to tea. And “Pnin told Madam Shpolyanski he would follow her in a minute, and after she had gone he continued to sit in the first dusk of the arbor, his hands clasped on the croquet mallet he still held.” Then Nabokov begins a new paragraph: “Two kerosene lamps cosily illuminated the porch of the country house. Dr. Pavel Antonovich Pnin, Timofey’s father, an eye specialist, and Dr. Yakov Grigorievich Belo­chkin, Mira’s father, a pediatrician, could not be torn away from their chess game in a corner of the ver­anda, so Madam Belochkin had the maid serve them there.…” Yes, on the magic carpet of a paragraph break, Pnin has gone back in time, to his memories of Mira—whom he was separated from by the civil war in 1918, and who died at Buchenwald—a memory which Pnin has tried to forget, because “no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.”

It is the paragraph break, separating two worlds, two time frames, that is so moving. It is both a denial of a time and a sad confirmation of time, simultaneously. In the same way, having gotten off the wrong bus on his way to Cremona, Pnin found himself in a park—and while looking at the trees and the foliage found himself back again in his childhood bedroom, feverishly looking at the wallpaper, with its design of leaves and branches. For, according to Nabokov’s form in Pnin, the pain of being on the wrong train may be less grave than the pain of remembering those killed in the Holocaust—but it still shares a genetic marker: at each moment, Pnin retreats into memory. At both points, Pnin slips sentence by sentence, without any obvious note to the reader, into his own past. So that as he finally and triumphantly rises to give his lecture at Cremona, “murdered, forgotten, unrevenged, incorrupt, im­mortal, many old friends were scattered throughout the dim hall”—including, “in an inconspicuous situation Dr. Pavel Pnin and his anxious wife, both a little blurred but on the whole wonderfully recovered from their obscure dissolution.”

Constantly, always, Pnin is accosted by the inartistic failure of the world. America is no safer than ­Europe. For Pnin is also a survivor—but a survivor from Saint Peters­burg, not Warsaw. Just as everyone must survive the mistakes of their own lives. They have no choice.

Toward the end of The Curtain, in the translation by Linda Asher, Milan Kundera exclaims: “How many Fabrices, Aglaias, Nastasyas, Mishkins I see around me! They are all just beginning the journey into the unknown; no question, they are drifting, but theirs is a singular sort of drifting: they drift without knowing that’s what they are doing; for they are doubly inexperienced: they do not know the world and they do not know themselves; only when they look back on it from the distance of adulthood will they see their drifting as drifting; and besides: only with that distance will they be capable of understanding the very notion of drifting.”

But here, at the end, I want to contradict myself entirely. For no one can come up with a single theory­ of translation.

The word that Linda Asher translates as drift is the French verb errer: and errer is a problem. First, because it connotes an absolute aimlessness: a journey with no perceivable end. And second because it also connotes error: it means to make a mistake. They drift and they make mistakes, inevitably—these characters, these people. But there is no way of rendering this am­biguity in English. Its translation, at this minute moment, is impossible.

But then, what else should you expect? The history of translation, like the history of the novel, and like the history of the world, is the history of mistakes. It has to make do with imprecision, and imperfection. Even if the aim is always the perfect work: invulnerable, and incorruptible. 

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