March 2016

Noted

‘In Other Words’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

By Helen Elliott
Bloomsbury; $29.99

Four years ago Jhumpa Lahiri left New York to live in Rome. Or rather, to live in Italian. She read only Italian, she spoke only Italian, and she began writing in Italian. The public result of this profound and stubborn immersion is a restrained and delicate memoir, Lahiri’s first work of non-fiction. Ann Goldstein, translator of Elena Ferrante, has translated it into English; the Italian appears on the left-hand pages, the English translation on the right. Lahiri’s Italian seduction forecasts the reader’s seduction; it becomes impossible not to compare languages, trying to track what is happening in translation.

In 2000, aged 32, Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her first work, a collection of stories titled Interpreter of Maladies. She says that she could not believe her book was worth the distinction, because she did not believe her writing was that good. English was not her mother tongue. Her parents spoke Bengali, and until she was four, starting school in the US, Lahiri did too. English became her stepmother: loved, adored, revelled in but not “mother”.

In 1994 she went on a brief trip to Florence and, as she heard the Italian language in the air around her, something shifted: “What I feel is something physical, inexplicable. It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight.”

She returned home, bought Teach Yourself Italian and began Italian lessons. “As in many passionate relationships, my infatuation will become a devotion, an obsession.” She wrote her doctoral thesis on how Italian architecture influenced English playwrights in the 17th century. By 2000 she could follow the Italian at a literary festival in Mantua, yet was still awkward with the language that had become her great love.

Lahiri credits Ferrante’s work, work that is obsessed with connecting inner reality with modes of expression, as a factor in her move to Rome. In Other Words says little about the effect on Lahiri’s family – husband, daughter, son – but goes steadily to the heart of what a writer seeks in language. This is a memoir of someone searching for a way of explaining who, and how, she might be. The sincerity of her search is a current through every line. This elegant and nervous writer, one who writes “to feel alone”, uncovers a different creative self in an appropriated language. In Other Words, describing Lahiri’s point of arrival (hope) and of departure (mastery), is gripping and brilliant.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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