Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing Italian
Jhumpa Lahiri. Capri, Italy. June 2013. Photograph by Steve Bisgrove/Writer Pictures
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Conrad did it. Nabokov did it. As have, more recently, Milan Kundera, Andreï Makine, Agota Kristof, Jonathan Littell. Now the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri has turned her hand to writing a book in a language that is not her first: Italian.
But there’s a difference. Force of circumstance was decisive in the case of most of the previously mentioned authors; Kristof (whom Lahiri briefly discusses), for example, fled Hungary in 1956 for Switzerland when she was twenty-one. The Franco-American Littell, meanwhile, grew up in both France and the USA and is completely bilingual (he won the Goncourt prize for his novel Les Bienveillantes, The Kindly Ones, in 2006). Lahiri, on the other hand, has been conducting an extended experiment with a language she fell in love with on her first visit to Italy in the 1990s. As a consequence she decided to move to Rome with her family in 2012.
She writes in her Author’s Note to In Other Words (Bloomsbury, £16.99, to be published next week and reviewed in a forthcoming TLS): “Apart from obligatory correspondence, I have written exclusively in Italian for more than two years now”. In altre parole (2015) has been translated into English by Ann Goldstein, best known now for her fine versions of Elena Ferrante's novels. The result is a dual-language edition (in the style of translated poetry) in which, in order to address the fact that Italian tends to be more “wordy” than English, the Italian has been set in fractionally smaller type than the English.
Lahiri has many pertinent things to say about reading in a foreign language, such as the confession that, tackling a novel by Alberto Moravia early on in her learning process, she had to “underline almost every word on every page” (we’ve all been there). She goes on: “I find that reading in another language is more intimate, more intense than reading in English, because the language and I have been acquainted for only a short time”. She writes from a particular perspective: “In America, when I was young, my parents always seemed to be in mourning for something. Now I understand: it must have been the language . . . . They couldn’t wait for a letter to arrive from Calcutta, written in Bengali” (she has earlier revealed that she herself can’t read or write Bengali and speaks it imperfectly; her mother tongue, in other words, is “a foreign language” to her). Her mother, meanwhile, has continued to “behave . . . as if she had never left India”.
When Lahiri points out that “More than once [she’s] been confronted by a journalist or critic who maintains that I’ve written an autobiographical novel”, it prompts the thought: are writers who have been displaced from their original culture more likely to be the victims of such misapprehensions, as though they could somehow only write autobiographically? Maybe those journalists and critics were thrown by the frequent appearance of characters of Bengali origin in her wonderful fiction . . . .
Where will her Italian take Lahiri? She reveals at the end that she has “to leave Rome this year and return to America. I have no desire to. I wish there were a way of staying in this country, in this language”. Maybe she’ll return.