In Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, Italian is a lake, then an ocean, a lover and then a child, a bridge and a subterranean maze. The process of learning it is like a basket that fills and empties, a triangle, a scaffold, a tide. Her relationship with the language began in 1994, on a trip to Florence with her sister. She describes her first encounter:
“What do I recognize? It’s beautiful, certainly, but beauty doesn’t enter into it. It seems like a language with which I have to have a relationship. It’s like a person met one day by chance, with whom I immediately feel a connection, of whom I feel fond.”
But those words are not Lahiri’s, not exactly. They are also Ann Goldstein’s, a translator most famous for bringing the novels of Elena Ferrante into English. In Other Words is a translation, of a sort—the English edition is technically bilingual, with facing pages in English and Italian. Lahiri composed the book in Italian, her third language and one acquired in adulthood.
Many writers chose to write in a language not of their birth, languages acquired later, languages of exile or languages of choice. Lahiri compares her work to Beckett, who lived in French for two decades before writing in it, and Nabokov, who acquired English as a young student in Russia. But while Lahiri began to study Italian many years ago, her serious pursuit of it only really became possible once she moved to Rome in 2012. (She returned to the United States this fall to teach at Princeton.) Italian, therefore, is a language she has only recently begun to intimately know.
“I know that my writing in Italian is something premature, reckless, always approximate,” she writes. “I’d like to apologize. I’d like to explain this impulse of mine.”
And explain she does. This slim book, split down the middle by language, makes explanation its central aim. Why is she doing this? What does it mean to her? What is it like? These are interesting questions, but they are the only questions asked (and answered) over the book’s 23 chapters. Each essay considers and reconsiders these concerns, an obsessive act of rewriting. This process is not necessarily unusual or wrong—this cycling through of metaphors (lake, ocean, lover, child) until the right one is found is work every writer has done—but I wonder why it has been made public to us. Repetition does not made this experience more clear. Readers do not get many impressions of one subject, but many versions of the one impression.
The book is never unpleasant, per se, just wearing. Lahiri’s first chapter, “The Crossing,” in which Italian is a lake across which she must swim, is simple, evocative, lovely in its own flat way. I especially liked two short stories, “The Exchange” and “Half Light,” which are tucked in among the essays. The book opens up when Lahiri turns her attention back to fiction. Her themes are still there—alienation, transformation—but they are lived, not chewed over.
I try to imagine who this book could be for. It clearly served a purpose for Lahiri in its composition, but now that it has been brought before both an Italian and an English-speaking readership—how, if at all, can it be used? I have to decide it is for Italians, who like members of any country, love themselves and so also any foreigner (straniero) who reinforces that love.
Once on a train to Pisa I shared a compartment with an Italian family. I traveled a lot by myself the semester I lived in Rome, and when I was alone I could slip into a fumbling, badly mangled Italian that thrilled me. (With my fellow American students we were stuck by habit, or by sheer mass, in English.) On this train ride I remember principally the pot-bellied and animated patriarch, who was accompanied by his children, asleep, and his wife, who listened with various parts amusement and impatience. “Tell me,” he does, “does not Italy have the best food? The best landscapes? The best art? The best language.”
I answered yes to all. “Sì sì sì, il più delizioso, il più bello, il migliore.”
He was delighted, clapping his hands and laughing. Of course all of this was true, of course Italy was the best. I can’t say I didn’t agree with him at the time. (Or still don’t, in part.)
“The best men?” he asked. “I migliori ragazzi?”
I answered no—I had a boyfriend back in the US—and the man deflated.
I don’t mean to characterize Italians as different from anybody else in this regard—I can imagine this conversation taking place literally anywhere else in the world. I do mean to say that, if you are from a place, it can be deeply pleasurable to hear how that place is wonderful, especially if the person voicing the praise holds no native allegiance to it. It might explain the market—a specifically Italian market—for Lahiri’s book.
A short notice in Il Corriere della Sera, Italy’s largest-circulation newspaper, congratulates Lahiri for debut “in the language of Dante” (“nella lingua di Dante”). (I would similarly like to congratulate myself for writing this review in “the language of Shakespeare.”) A headline from La Repubblica, Italy’s second largest newspaper, reproduces a quote from Lahiri: “Italian has been a salvation” (“L’italiano è stato una salvezza”). And in a review appearing in La Repubblia, critic Francesca Caferri praises Lahiri’s depiction of Italy for being “light years away from the stereotypes that lull so many foreigners who come to live here.” Each reflects that Lahiri’s very presence in Italy, and her decision to write in Italian, is a flattering one.
Caferri is right to point out that Lahiri avoids the olive-oil drenched clichés that animate Italy-porn books like Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun. (Though Lahiri’s book avoids almost everything else too.) Caferri also notices an evolution in Lahiri’s language across the course of the book, one that was harder for me to see in English, where my ease in reading everything makes everything feel the same amount of easy. (My Italian, poor as it is, picks up on complexity fast—it forces me to slow down.) Caferri writes: “The reader discovers Italian along with the writer, sees the evolution of passion and vocabulary.” She goes on to compare the “timorous” swim of “The Crossing” at the book’s beginning, to the “multifaceted and subtle language” at the book’s end. “The Crossing” is written in the present tense, in first person, and narrates a simple series of events. It’s true, the last chapter, “The Scaffolding,” is alive with tenses—present, past, subjunctive, imperfect. But this is the praise a language student would earn from a teacher. (And perhaps Caferri, all of Italy, sees Lahiri in these terms.) For the rest of us readers, I’m not sure that is enough.