DISCUSSED: Émigrés, History’s Trajectory, Difficult Hebrew, The Romanticism of Reality, Fascist Spies, Pushkin, Kafka, Dickens, Lolita, Nineteenth-Century Schmaltz, Borges, Circuses


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.



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.

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.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Adam Thirlwell was born in London in 1978. He is the author of one novel, Politics, and one essay about novels, The Delighted States.

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