Eamon McCabe

Adam Thirlwell, London, 2009

Just as the pearl is the oyster’s affliction, so style is perhaps the discharge from a deeper wound.
—Gustave Flaubert, quoted in Adam Thirlwell, The Delighted States

Though differing radically in subject matter, scope, and ambition, Adam Thirlwell’s first three books—the blithely narrated novels Politics (2003) and The Escape (2010) and the non- fiction miscellany The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes (2007)—so resemble one another in style, structure, vocabulary, and tone and so clearly share an identical narrative voice that it would be difficult to distinguish not only between the three books by this wittily observant young author but whether the genre of any given passage is fiction or nonfiction:

The person who coined the word “surrealism” was Guillaume Apollinaire. Guillaume was a French poet at the start of the twentieth century. He coined it in a programme note for the ballet Parade…. Six weeks later, he used the word again, in a programme note to his own play, The Breasts of Tiresias. This was his definition of a surrealist: “When a man wanted to imitate walking, he invented the wheel, which does not look like a leg. Without knowing it, he was a Surrealist.”

I am not sure this definition gets us very far.


The ephemeral is not the same thing as the irreducibly private, the comprehensively gnomic. It is, instead, a category which everyone can recognise as intrinsic to the everyday and universal. And therefore many details can still fulfil their basic function, even if they are not understood—like people’s names, or brand names….

The brand name is simply an accelerated example of a common phenomenon: that all details, eventually, will be out of date. But their substance is universal. Without them, no account of real life can hope to outlive rust and larvae—and become, precariously, immortal.

The Delighted States

The loves of the gods were various. The loves of Jupiter, for instance, were a festival of costume change, of metamorphosis. He mated with Aegina as a flame, Asteria as an eagle, Persephone as a snake; with Leda he took the form of a swan, with Olympias a snake. To Semele he appeared as a blazing fire, to Io as a fog, to Danae as a shower of gold. When he first slept with Juno, his wife, he became a cuckoo. Alcmena and Callisto were won by his impersonations of humans. Yes, the loves of Jupiter were famous. They had heft.

The Escape

The second passage is from a discussion in The Delighted States of a work of short fiction by Denis Diderot with a glancing allusion—“rust and larvae”—to a remark of Vladimir Nabokov (“what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art”). As Thirlwell’s conception of fiction is playfully postmodernist—that is, a “narrator” is always on the scene commenting on what we are seeing, thus casting his shadow across the antic figures of the “fictitious characters” and rendering them, if not entirely foolish, something less than heroic or dignified—so Thirlwell’s conception of literary criticism is similarly playful, conversational, funnily intrusive: “At this point, I could carry on in two directions”; “Nabokov, in the end, is saying something similar to me”; “A style is not linguistic [i.e., not dependent on a particular language]. That is why I disagree with Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was not an elegant stylist, whose style was visible in translation, and yet who believed that style was also inherently linguistic”; “Sometimes I agree with Eugenio Montale that Svevo’s style was a marvel of workmanship. Other times, I don’t.”

Recounting an anecdote involving Chekhov, Thirlwell remarks, with disarming naiveté, as if “Chekhov” were an unknown quantity whose worth is still being assessed by serious-minded literary people: “There are many anecdotes like this. And I like them—they make me warm to Chekhov more and more, with his charming insouciance.” So dependent is Thirlwell upon the pronoun “I” in both his fiction and nonfiction that its use comes to seem a kind of writerly addiction, or affliction, as if the author were hesitant to present material on its own, however serious or even, in the case of the doomed protagonist of The Escape, bordering on the tragic. Always there is the protective scrim of the intimate and personal that reduces all subjects to the narrator’s bright, personable, “charmingly insouciant” perspective, less Nabokovian arrogance than an endearing habit of modesty.

“Obscure Unpublished Novelist Joins the Elite” is the headline the Guardian published above its article of January 6, 2003, announcing the annual Granta list “Best of Young British Novelists,” which included such notable writers as Zadie Smith, Nicola Barker, and A.L. Kennedy, and, as its youngest writer, Adam Thirlwell, at the time but twenty-four. Much was made in the press of the fact that Thirlwell hadn’t yet published any work of fiction apart from an excerpt from the allegedly “dog-eared” manuscript of the novel Politics in an obscure literary magazine for which he was an editor—and this, a chapter titled “The Art of Fellatio.” And so much has been made of Thirlwell’s youth—“He’s twenty-five years old and his debut novel has been heralded as the finest since Martin Amis’s Rachel Papers“—that one can imagine the young author determining to bypass, in his second novel, his generation entirely and instead to delve into the interior life of an individual whose youth is long past.


Both Politics and The Escape are imagined, at least in their plots, as sex comedies, or farces; Politics is the more genuinely comic novel, as its young lovers Moshe and Nana are more genuinely sympathetic, naively enacting “sex scenes” without seeming to know how they are being exposed to all the world by an affably voyeuristic narrator:

“Pussy!” he said. “What’s wrong?”

He was crouching by her neck. She was lying on her stomach. Her arms were stretched, like a diver, above her head.

This is what was wrong. Nana’s hands were too slender for the handcuffs. That was why she was frowning. There was a logistical problem. And Nana was a girl who cared about logistics. She took her sex seriously….

I like this couple. They are a do-it-yourself couple, and I like that.

Nana had imagined it. She had sketched out a synopsis.

Nana would be tied up and then sodomised, ruthlessly. She wanted her powerful man to prove his potency….

This initial sex scene collapses in a kind of embarrassed failure:

[Moshe] relaxed on top of Nana and mused on Israel.

Now, this should have been the lowpoint of Moshe’s evening. But it was not. It got worse. He lay there, quiet, and started to think. As he thought, he became mildly hysterical….

This, thought Moshe, must be the most nervous sex scene…in the history of sex. He wondered in a general way about the other couples, the worldwide satiated couples…. They were ecstatic. He was sure of it.

The love affair of Moshe and Nana becomes needlessly complicated when, in an impulsive act of guilty generosity, Nana invites a girlfriend with whom she has had a single sexual encounter to come home with her, to make love with her and Moshe. Soon, there are three lovers, each trying very hard not to offend the others while anxious about his or her position in the ménage à trois, which quickly evolves into a seriocomic folie à trois in which no one is happy. Their story, the narrator suggests, is not profound—“This novel, for example, is one huge act of miniaturisation.”

Provocatively if misleadingly titled, Politics is very funny without being cruel or exploitive because its narrator—so intimate an observer of Moshe and Nana that he has got to be their friend and is certainly of their generation—is tenderly protective of his characters; though they are unwitting participants in a sex comedy, they are never humiliated—this is not savage satire. Anticipating readers’ objections, the disingenuous narrator protests:

I know you are not convinced by this. You are unpersuaded. Where is the realism? you say. Where is the accuracy of the European novel? Where is the truth to nature of Balzac or Tolstoy?

In fact we are convinced by Thirlwell’s morality tale precisely because it lacks the loftiness of the great “European novel”—it is of our time, and our time is “miniaturized.” It’s as if, in Politics, the comic sexual politics of Philip Roth and Milan Kundera were whipped together in a high-speed blender with the cheery frothiness of P.G. Wodehouse in the creation of something altogether fresh and new.

Considerably more ambitious than Politics, The Escape is most helpfully described as a risky experiment in literary/political allegory in which an Everyman with a specific, British-secular-Jewish background encounters the mysterious, obdurate, and finally treacherous opacities of an unnamed country in Central Europe where he realizes his mortality, and from which he is sent back home to die. And this allegory is conjoined with an antic Nabokovian sex farce as if to miniaturize or mock its significance—Kafka and W.G. Sebald whipped together with comical soft-core porn.

The year is 1999: “Everything was almost over.” Allegedly seventy-eight years old—the reader must suspend disbelief that this character is not a twenty-eight-year-old in disguise—Raphael Haffner is unknowingly in the final year of his life; he imagines himself in a kind of continuous present of incipient desire, even as his thoughts propel him into the past. Unlike the earnest young characters in their twenties of Politics, who try very hard to behave maturely in their (mostly sexual) relations with one another, in order to avoid wounding their lovers, Haffner is an aging and unapologetic womanizer, far less mature than his Orthodox grandson Benjamin and as heedless of the hurt he does to others as one afflicted with autism:


He always believed he was in love, when it was perhaps just another brief moment of desire. On the other hand, maybe the opposite was also possible. Every time he said he was in love, it was true. Every woman Haffner had loved had been unique. But he forgot so much, so lavishly….

But whatever. Haffner, in however baffling a mess he found himself, was sure of this: the desire was nothing to do with Haffner. It wasn’t a whim; it wasn’t capricious. How could it be capricious if it was a compulsion? So maybe nothing was an imbroglio of one’s own making. Maybe nothing was Haffner’s fault. A new goddess appeared—that was all. And he surrendered.


He was not a good man. He didn’t need to be told. The jury wasn’t out on Haffner’s ethics. The case was closed. As a businessman, he had tended to the risky; as a husband, to the unfaithful. He hadn’t really cared about his duties as a father or a grandfather. He cared about himself.

Drawing by Aubrey Beardsley

Where in life an aging roué like Raphael Haffner would be an object of revulsion and pathos, like his literary kinsman Aschenbach in the final, vertiginous days of Aschenbach’s fatal infatuation with an adolescent boy, in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, in Thirlwell’s fictional world Haffner is an object of sympathetic indulgence, a Bellovian “character” in whom the author has invested numerous cultural interests that fit uneasily together. As well as being a career womanizer Haffner is a Jewish Londoner, a retired banker, a cricket and jazz enthusiast, an amateur historian of Roman decadence:

He didn’t really admire Caligula for the purity of his cruelty: he might have wanted his audience to think this, but Haffner was rarely sincere to his audience. No, Caligula was to be admired for his publicity. Haffner loved him, if he loved him, for the lack of shame.

In the eyes of his admiring narrator, Haffner is even a kind of “folk hero”: “Those were the stories I grew up with—about Haffner. He was a man of legend: his anecdotes were endless.” Yes, Haffner is also “mediocre,” “unoriginal”—“but the looks were something else.” The unnamed young narrator, sixty years Haffner’s junior, takes upon himself, after Haffner’s death, “my project for his resurrection”—the novel we are reading.

Drawn by uncertain motives, in this waning phase of his seemingly aimless life, Haffner has journeyed to a once-fashionable spa town in the Alps to claim his deceased wife’s inherited property, a villa that had been appropriated first by invading Nazis, then by Communists, and finally by “nationalist capitalists.” The word “escape” recurs in Haffner’s thoughts frequently: the spa town with its dated luxury hotel and (one can assume) unspeakable history is a “mountain escape” where the natives, who are mostly comically observed, speak an incomprehensible language “which for ease of reference Haffner was calling Bohemian.”

Haffner moves very slowly in the effort of filing a claim to the local committee for the inherited villa as if, Hamlet-like, he were afflicted with a mysterious neurotic lethargy. He realizes belatedly that he’s expected to bribe local officials, as he realizes belatedly that through his long marriage of infidelities it was really his wife Livia whom he loved—for whom he wishes to feel now a “constant fidelity.”

At the novel’s end this seemingly transformed Haffner decides that he will remain in the “mountain escape” and live in his wife’s villa, though he knows no one there beyond a few locals whose object has been to exploit him. He recalls a friend accusing him of having not wanted to be Jewish and of refusing to acknowledge “how much the Jews were hated.” Unfortunately Haffner’s conversion comes too late—within a few deftly tossed-out sentences Haffner catches cold, develops pneumonia, suffers a stroke, and is flown back home to London—“successful, true, in his legal pursuit of the villa”—to die.

Where Politics is a serious comedy of manners grafted onto a gently satirical sex comedy, The Escape is something very different: a serious exploration of a certain sort of Jewish amnesia—or denial—in the face of twentieth- century European history, grafted onto a protracted and demeaning sex farce. We first meet Haffner in a wardrobe: he is “watching a woman be nakedly playful to her boyfriend.” Later, elsewhere in the luxury hotel, Haffner is the bemused seducer of a fattish, foolish, fifty-five-year-old married woman though he feels virtually nothing for her. As in Nabokov, characters have comic names—the unwanted woman is “Frau Tummel,” the wanted woman is “Zinka.” Haffner’s repugnance for the one, like his much-iterated “adoration” of the other, leads to inevitable farcical situations but to no profound illumination of Haffner except as a foolish womanizer.

The author uses these interruptions as a means of impeding the other, more weighty narrative of his claim for the villa, which is somewhat underimagined, and to allow for Haffner’s continual flood of disjointed memories. Scenes are very short, as in Politics, with the consequence that no scene seems very crucial, or even authentic: for Thirlwell’s all-knowing narrator is always telling us what to think, and diminishing the significance of what we have seen. In Politics, these short, jerky scenes worked well, for the most part; in The Escape, less well, like the narrator’s compulsively interpolated commentary:

Haffner was the generalissimo of hyperbole. Unlike a real generalissimo, however, he had to perform the hyperbole himself.

He had perspective. This was one reason to love him.

He was not who he was! Not an aged patriarch. No, Haffner was so much younger than he looked—and he looked younger than he was.

He was a desire that had outlived its usefulness.

He always saw himself in poses. And this series of receding Haffners could continue diminishing, into infinitely vanishing fractions.

Haffner, my hero, had outlived himself.

I wanted to preserve the real Haffner. I wanted to resurrect him. The Haffner I actually knew was a man of reticent privacy. I only had the stories to work with. I only had my inventions….

And this was, perhaps, how history worked.

It’s as if in the construction of his Everyman, Thirlwell accumulated a set of freestanding observations and “character traits” requiring only a substantial figure involved in a significant action, to whom they might accrue.

In postmodernist fashion, The Escape is an audacious amalgam of classic predecessors, inviting us to perceive its protagonist as a diminished heir of a once-great empire. In his sexual obsession and in his preoccupation with himself, Haffner is both a comic version of Aschenbach—unless one thinks of Aschenbach, in Mann’s gorgeously overwrought operatic prose, as comical himself—and an elderly descendant of the young Hans Castorp, of The Magic Mountain, who arrives at a tuberculosis sanitarium to visit a cousin and famously remains for seven years—an Everyman of another Europe.

Obviously, Haffner is akin to W.G. Sebald’s questing and amnesia-stricken Holocaust survivors, in such surpassingly powerful novels as Austerlitz, as he is akin to Kafka’s ever-questing and ever-defeated Joseph K. and K. of The Trial and The Castle, respectively—the villa is Haffner’s version of the castle that can be approached but never entered and never comprehended. (Haffner does in fact enter the villa in the most emotionally engaging scene in The Escape, near the end of the novel.) Hovering over The Escape are the benign father-ghosts of Bellow and Nabokov:

Haffner had no sympathy for the manias of the twentieth century. The grand era of decolonisation; the century of splinter groups. All the crazed ethnicity. Was this such a triumph for the human spirit? It seemed to Haffner that it was a distinct defeat. All Haffner wanted was the conservative; the inherited; the right.


Haffner’s moral code belonged to the previous century—to the tsarist world of his great-grandfathers.

As the novel progresses, The Escape gains considerably in depth. Haffner is no longer “laughable” but “quite happily his own mausoleum”; the final chapter is ominously titled “Haffner Mortal.” The ordinary acquires a Magritte-like surrealism as Haffner at last enters the coveted villa—to discover that “everything was missing.” These are moving passages that take The Escape to another plateau of accomplishment, quite at odds with the gratingly fatuous sex-farce scenes that so detract from the novel’s vision of a catastrophic European twentieth century too vast and too horrible to be comprehended.

At the heart of The Escape there is a baffling and frustrating lacuna—the utter absence of what would have been, for an actual Haffner for whom Jewishness has been a preoccupation, a meditation upon history dominated by the Holocaust. Perhaps because such vastness and horror don’t lend themselves to farcical miniaturization, The Escape is a Holocaust novel in which the Holocaust—“everything”—is missing.

This Issue

October 28, 2010