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In altre parole (In Other Words)inotherwords
By Jhumpa Lahiri, Translated by Ann Goldstein
Knopf 2016

I learned all my Italian from opera, which means I know little that’s useful in day-to-day contexts—happily, I suppose, there aren’t many occasions for which lines from either Turandot’s riddles or the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor are really suitable. Probably it’s because for me Italian has always been inextricably linked with music, though, that I have always thought of it as one of the world’s most beautiful and enticing languages and wished I could speak it fluently instead of just singing it badly.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s attraction to Italian has less specific roots, although it too, as she explains, began with her “auditory” relationship with the language. On a trip to Florence in 1994, she was drawn to the sound of Italian all around her:

It seems strangely familiar. I recognize something, in spite of the fact that I understand almost nothing. . . . I feel a connection and at the same time a detachment. A closeness and at the same time a distance. What I feel is something physical, inexplicable. It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight.

She had no need to learn Italian: “I have only the desire. . . . I ask of Italian, with a slight impatience, Permesso? May I?” The meditative essays collected in In Other Words trace the realization of this desire, from Lahiri’s years of lessons through her decision to move to Rome to the achievement of In Other Words itself, which she wrote in Italian. They also follow a less literal journey of discovery, as her efforts to learn Italian prompt reflections on identity and exile, writing and creativity.

From her first efforts to master Italian, Lahiri’s persistence reflected the strength of her inexplicable yearning. Indeed, her commitment is the more extraordinary because the task she set herself is so arbitrary, arising from no necessity in her personal or professional life. She studies first with “a likable, energetic woman” from Milan:

At the end of every lesson, the teacher gives me a long list of words that I lacked during the conversation. I review it diligently. I put it in a folder. I can’t remember them.

Discouraged but undaunted, she tries another teacher, who is “very encouraging, she says I speak the language well, she says I’ll do fine in Italy. But it’s not true.” With her third teacher, she starts again “from the beginning”:

conditional clauses, indirect discourse, the use of the passive. With her my project seems more possible than impossible. With her my strange devotion to the language seems more a vocation than a folly.

Still, her progress is stumbling: “the teacher corrects me constantly.” For all that she loves the experience—“After saying goodbye, after closing the gate behind me, I can’t wait to return”—she can’t quite cross the threshold of fluency. Eventually she realizes “the next, inevitable step in this strange linguistic journey”: “I decide to move to Italy.”

VaticanCityOne of the delicate mysteries of In Other Words is how logical—how “inevitable”—that decision seems when Lahiri announces it. However intrinsically appealing such a step might be, is it inevitable, really? Most people can’t just pack up and leave their homes, jobs, and obligations, and Lahiri never does explain what makes such dramatic upheaval possible for her and her family: what are the material conditions, the professional circumstances, the logistical steps, that enable it? Do they have savings? Does she have a fellowship? Perhaps she got an advance for a book she promised to write about the experience. We aren’t told, and it seems almost coarse to wonder about these practicalities, given the elevated terms in which Lahiri casts her venture: “I’m about to become a linguistic pilgrim to Rome.”

A pilgrimage, of course, is a religious journey, and for Lahiri, though it takes her time to understand and articulate it this way, learning Italian is in fact a spiritual quest. Dedicating herself to it so completely requires her to divest herself of authority in the one realm, writing, where (as a Pulitzer-prize winning author) she had unequivocally earned it; in abandoning the supportive scaffolding of English altogether, Lahiri forces herself to embrace risk, uncertainty, and imperfection:

For twenty years I studied Italian as if I were swimming along the edge of that lake. Always next to my dominant language, English. Always hugging that shore. It was good exercise. Beneficial for the muscles, for the brain, but not very exciting. If you study a foreign language that way, you won’t drown. The other language is always there to support you, to save you. But you can’t float without the possibility of drowning, of sinking. To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore. Without a life vest. Without depending on solid ground.

What began as a desire to speak in different words becomes an experiment in redefining herself. Soon after arriving in Rome, she begins keeping a diary in Italian. “I write,” she says, “in a terrible, embarrassing Italian, full of mistakes. . . . I grope my way like a child. . . . I don’t recognize the person who is writing this diary, in this new, approximate language.” But she persists, filling up one notebook after another, feeling, as she writes, at once deprived and “free, light.” She feels she has rediscovered the fundamental reason for writing: “My sole intention . . . is to be understood, and to understand myself.”

thelowlandLahiri’s pleasure in not knowing, in not being sure, in not getting it right, is particularly interesting from a writer who, as she acknowledges, is conspicuously meticulous when she’s working in English. “I can stop every sentence,” she says, “to look for the right words, to reorder them, change my mind a thousand times. My knowledge of English is both an advantage and a hindrance.” As readers of her fiction know, Lahiri’s English prose is precise and assured: it seems paradoxical that she wants to disrupt it, to replace its proven success with her admittedly ungainly Italian. But “from the creative point of view,” she argues, “there is nothing so dangerous as security.” Pushing away from the linguistic shore puts her in danger of failure, but there’s something potentially more dangerous about safety:

I think that an awareness of impossibility is central to the creative impulse. In the face of everything that seems to me unattainable, I marvel. Without a sense of marvel at things, without wonder, one can’t create anything.

Visiting Venice, with its “fragmented, disorienting topography,” she finds another memorable metaphor for her fraught new relationship with language:

In Venice I can’t go anywhere without crossing countless pedestrian bridges. At first, having to cross a bridge every few minutes is exhausting. Each journey seems abnormal and somewhat difficult. In a short time, though, I get used to it, and slowly this journey becomes habitual, enticing. I ascend, cross the canal, then descend on the other side. Walking through Venice means repeating this act an incalculable number of times. In the middle of every bridge I find myself suspended, neither here nor there. Writing in another language resembles a journey of this sort. . . .

Like her struggle to navigate the intricacies of Italian syntax and idiom, the challenge of negotiating the city’s complex landscape pushes her to broader reflections on life and meaning: “both in Venice and on the page, bridges are the only way to move into a new dimension, to get past English to arrive somewhere else.”

canalbridgeAll of In Other Words is, like these passages, exploratory and evocative. Its chapters are short, each taking up a phase or an idea in Lahiri’s own gradually unfolding understanding of what Italian means to her—an escape, for instance, from “the long clash in my life between English and Bengali,” or a metamorphosis, like Daphne fleeing Apollo and turning into a tree, only to be, for a magical moment, both tree and nymph, “the fusion of two elements, of both beings.” The essays are impressionistic, rather than analytical, tentative rather than conclusive. One chapter touches on prepositions and articles, and on “when to use the imperfect and when the simple past” (“I don’t understand the difference instinctively”), but there’s no systematic discussion of what, exactly, is so different about English and Italian, or about what makes Italian in particular the language Lahiri needs. “When I discover a different way to express something,” she says, “I feel a kind of ecstasy”—but what is it exactly, for instance, that Italian lets her say that French or Urdu or Arabic wouldn’t? Is it just chance that Italian caught her ear all those years ago, or is there more to the connection than she says, or perhaps even understands?

Both the form and the tone of the book militate against demands for more particulars, for more analysis, even for more continuity between its brief, often provisional sections. Who, after all, can explain desire? Why should we want to, or should she have to? In her “Afterword” she describes Matisse’s move, late in his life, away from painting towards “a sort of synthesis of collage and mosaic”: complex arrangements that at the same time were more abstract than his paintings. She recognizes the artistic need “to change courses”; for her writing in Italian is also a creative experiment, and her use of many small individual pieces also creates a form that is attractive in its very formlessness.

lahirirmaladies But, like her decision to move to Italy, Lahiri’s creative declarations seem more natural, more inevitable, when first encountered on the page then they do on further reflection. What really is at stake, for instance, in her embrace of imperfection? She wonders herself:

Why, as an adult, as a writer, am I interested in this new relationship with imperfection? What does it offer me? I would say a stunning clarity, a more profound self-awareness. Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity. It stimulates. The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive.

But if, as she also says, the “heart of the craft” of writing lies in “trying to find the right word, to choose, finally, the one that is most exact, most incisive,” what can it mean for her as an artist to give up, deliberately, on just that aspiration? “I can only do it in English,” she acknowledges:

I can’t dive into Italian to the same depths. I can hope to write correctly, choose an alternative word. But I don’t have a vocabulary that has been experienced, seasoned from childhood. I can’t examine Italian with the same precision. I can’t evaluate an Italian text, not even one written by me, from the same perspective.

However well served she is personally by abandoning English, how well served is her art, or at any rate her “craft”? “What I lack in Italian,” she says,

is a sharp vision, and so I can’t hone a specific style. Furthermore, I can’t grasp it. If I happen to formulate a good sentence in Italian, I can’t understand exactly why it is good.

In Other Words includes two short stories Lahiri wrote in Italian. One of them, “The Exchange” (“Lo Scambio”) enters her mind “in a flash” and she writes it urgently, so as not to lose it. “I don’t know if it works,” she says; “I don’t have the critical skills to judge it.”

thenamesake I too am unable to judge her Italian stories, at least at the level of language, of style. I can read them (like the whole of In Other Words) only in Ann Goldstein’s English translations, in which they strike me as fine but not exceptional, interesting primarily as pieces of what Lahiri calls her “linguistic autobiography.” If her goal as a writer really is aesthetic excellence, though, and not just self-expression, shouldn’t it matter if, in Italian, she can write well, not just that she can write at all? When the essays that make up In Other Words were first published in the magazine Internazionale, Lahiri’s editors “respected the oddness of my Italian; they accepted the experimental, somewhat halting nature of the writing.” That’s generous, but it’s also peculiar, as it puts more value in the process than the product, more weight on the author’s desire to write than on the writing that results.

Perhaps these considerations, in their turn, risk being ungenerous, or committing a kind of category error. After all, In Other Words is explicitly about writing as self-discovery, and about the links between creativity and risk. The process is the point, and the payoff is primarily personal: the essays are not about Lahiri’s writing as much as about how she thinks and feels about writing. There’s no doubting the sincerity of her feelings, or the intrinsic value, to her, of what she calls “one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.” And yet it’s also hard not to find it all, by the end, just a bit self-indulgent. Another writer famously wrote a memoir about a transformative personal journey, one that also began with an unreasonable longing to learn Italian:

But why must everything always have a practical application? . . . Did I need any justification for learning Italian other than it was the only thing I could imagine bringing me any pleasure right now? . . . I loved it. Every word was like a singing sparrow, a magic trick, a truffle for me.

. . . . Maybe I would move to Italy after all.

In Other Words is certainly more artful, subtle, and abstract than Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love; its highbrow preoccupations also make it less transparently commercial, and as its action is almost entirely intellectual, it is unlikely ever to be adapted into a film. But In Other Words is just as much an exercise in privilege, and it too sells the promise of personal transformation through travel. Gilbert is frank about her financial circumstances: “I can actually eatprayloveafford to do this,” she tells us, “because . . . in advance, my publisher has purchased the book I shall write about my travels.” Lahiri’s reticence makes Gilbert seem almost crass, but Lahiri too writes to live. Eat, Pray, Love made Gilbert famous—but it’s only because Lahiri is already famous that it seems reasonable to buy a book she herself isn’t sure is—in the original Italian, at least—very good.

Gilbert’s memoir was hugely popular—I enjoyed it very much myself —but it was also widely derided (“Eat, pray, merch: you can buy happiness after all,” read one typically snide headline in the Huffington Post). It’s interesting to reflect on what insulates Lahiri’s memoir from similar attacks. Is it just elitism, just intellectual snobbery? I think it is, in part—but there’s more to it than that. “I fear that it’s a false book,” Lahiri herself says of In Other Words; “I’m afraid it’s frivolous, even presumptuous.” Yet at the same time she’s proud because it is “an authentic book, because it’s sincere, honest.” Authenticity is no guarantee of quality—but in those counterbalancing statements we see both the humility and the vulnerability that make In Other Words inviting, rather than off-putting. Lahiri makes no claim to have achieved enlightenment, and she offers no precepts or platitudes. She’s just “happy to have written and published a book in Italian.” She doesn’t know what’s next, but at this point, for her, that’s enough. “Permesso?” she asked, years ago. Now, at last, she has her answer: “Sì.

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Rohan Maitzen teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.