The word on Jhumpa Lahiri was that she’d moved to Italy and now, after a few years of immersing herself in the language, was going to write in Italian. Had I heard this news about one of my fellow, white American, middle-class novelists, I would have shrugged and said, “Knock yourself out.”
Lahiri, on the other hand, has a trove of great original material at her fingertips: the challenges, conflicts, heartbreaks of the Indian immigrant experience in America. Her fiction has a lovely transparency, a deep compassion, a consummate comprehension of a culture transplanted. She doesn’t need the high-flying style of some of our celebrated contemporaries; to me she is in possession of something far better: original narratives.
This is not to say that, if Lahiri decides to write in Italian, she won’t continue mining her previous subject matter; however, judging on some of the early efforts described in her new book, In Other Words, she seems intent (at least for now) upon writing about the more shop-worn experience of being an American expatriate struggling with a foreign culture via a foreign language.
After telling us that she has never written autobiographically, Lahiri assures us that In Other Words is giving us a glimpse of her true self. Her self-portrayal put me in mind of a woman I knew in high school: beautiful and dutiful who sat in the front of the class quietly taking notes, ended up at an Ivy, got a PHD in psychology and now is an academic. Indeed, Lahiri’s account of her time in Italy feels somewhat academic. She gives us lists of SATish Italian words that fascinate her and her attempts at parsing their sometimes elusive, hard-to-translate meanings. She talks about meeting other writers and publishers in Italy and eventually delivering her talks and lectures in Italian — a rarefied life not exactly in the mainstream.
In Rome, Lahiri, her husband and children rent an apartment on the via Giulia — known to be one of the city’s most exclusive streets, not a place where you’ll easily get into conversation with somebody outside your front door. After all, wealth and privilege are as great equalizers as poverty and hard luck. The august Via Guilia is not like, say, the Campo dei Fiori, where you can go out the door and immediately hear the language of the people: cacophonous but alive and, most important, instructive on the fly.
Because I work in publishing as well as write, I cannot afford the luxury of spending two years in Rome. The best I can do is a month once a year at the house of an Italian novelist in Tuscany who is like a mother (mine is deceased) and who holds a typical northern Italian intellectual’s belief that you don’t praise your children. Rather, you berate them — as she does me — for not being smarter, for not being more prolific, for not studying Latin as a way of improving my Italian. When I go to Tuscany, I am left alone much of the time to sink or swim within the walled city of Lucca. I stroll through the streets, listening. I work out at the local gym where I try and learn phrases of the curious Lucchese dialect, only to bring them home to the novelist who insists I’ve gotten them wrong (she’s Genovese). Years ago, at a party I attended with this novelist, somebody asked her, “Why is Joe’s Italian so good?” She answered quickly, “He’s Russian. He’s a barbarian.”
My point: I was allowed to overhear this jibe only because I’m considered family. It’s the sort of put down you’ll rarely hear in mixed company in Italy; more often than not Italians will always be polite and then chortle about your failings later when you’re not around. Lahiri writes of the Italians, “They tolerate my mistakes. They correct me, they encourage me, they provide the words I lack. They speak clearly, patiently, just like parents with their children.” Of course a world-renowned writer would be encouraged to embrace a language that is really only spoken in one country. And yet if you know Italians at all, you read between the lines and suspect that these Italian writers and the publishers Lahiri refers to might be skeptical about her abandonment of English and are merely being kindly indulgent as Italians can be. Lahiri could read this (and she probably won’t because she says she never reads reviews of her work) and go back to these friends and publishers and they will assure her that I am mistaken, that I don’t know what I’m talking about; after all I’m an American who doesn’t live in Italy. But I’ve spent enough time in Italy to know they’ll never tell her the truth.
She does my homework for me. “When I think of authors who decided, for one reason or another, to work in a foreign language, I don’t feel I’m a legitimate member of that group, either. Beckett lived in France for decades before writing in French, Nabokov had learned English as a child, Conrad spent a long time at sea, absorbing English before becoming an Anglophone rather than a Polish writer.” It should be said that all these men were geniuses, and Nabokov in particular because, beyond being a great writer, he was a synesthesiac who had a photographic memory, which is why his memoir Speak Memory is probably the best literary memoir ever written. “What I’m doing — daring to write in Italian after living in Italy for barely a year — is different, out of the ordinary, and so I feel an even more intense solitude, almost another dimension of solitude. I wonder if there are others like me,” Lahiri says.
To her credit, Lahiri does seem to understand the odds are stacked against her for adopting Italian and having it serve her the way English does. But intense solitude? How intense can her solitude be when there is the buffer of a loving husband and children in a household on the Via Giulia? Are they all speaking Italian 24/7? And if so, how vast can the Italian conversation between one foreigner and another? Perhaps a slightly better definition of intense solitude might be two months I spent alone in a small town in Umbria, knowing not a soul, living and writing and reading sometimes with great loneliness while picking up ordinary phrases at the markets, on the street, at the gym, getting so tongue-tied with linguistic fatigue that I’d make phone calls to friends in the U.S. just to rest my brain. During that stay I learned so much more than I would if I’d had an English-speaking companion with me. But my immersion wasn’t just about the language, it was also an immersion into the Italian/Umbrian character, Umbrian attitudes, Umbrian political views. And after that two months, even though my conversation felt way more fluid, I realized how much farther away I was from intimately knowing the Italian language and concluded that it would require living in Italy for at least twenty years full time for me to even approach mastery, let alone write in Italian with any kind of distinction.
Lahiri’s experience is the polar opposite. The more she dives into Italian the more comfortably estranged she feels from English. On one hand I don’t get this; on the other, I wonder if her wish to abandon English is somehow a primal response to the fact that after moving to America, her mother resisted learning English and desperately clung to the Bengali language and culture.
For all that this thin volume focuses on the struggle of taking on a new language, beyond some lovely travel-log descriptions, it doesn’t give much depth of color to Italy or the Italian language, but rather seems like an amuse-bouche of Italian words and some phrases that don’t need much pondering. I kept wishing for a deeper cultural discussion (with context) about, say, a tantalizing untranslatable phrase, or idea, let alone some of the more obscure words that she uses.
Here’s an example of what I mean: the Italian phrase caso mai. I remember the first time I heard it. I was driving with my mother/ novelist and she explained the expression by telling me a story about a little boy who blurted it out inappropriately when he was ingenuously describing his aunt’s appearance. “E’ brutta, caso mai,” The English translation is “she’s ugly, in any case,” but that misses the sardonic mood of the phrase, which might be better translated as “she’s ugly if at all.” And sardonic is important here; what made the child’s exclamation funny was its biting nature, which is so Italian. I sent the above description of caso mai to the Italian novelist who wrote back to say that a better explanation of caso mai might be “If his aunt had been chosen to play Rita Hayworth in a movie, the little boy might have said, “E’ brutta, caso mai.”
Lahiri never goes this far into the linguistic and social context of the Italian language. Yes, she understands that specific yet common phrases in Italian can run aground when you try to find an equivalent in English, but then seems ignorant of the fact that you need to hear them in many different contexts to fully understand what they really mean. If, after all these years I’m still learning about caso mai, then from my point of view, mastering Italian in two years is as difficult as mastering classical piano with two years of prodigious, indefatigable study. It takes many years to assimilate Italian phrases and their various meanings and contexts and have them become as second nature as the words and phrases and ideas of English.
Lahiri admits to getting help with the Italian text in this bilingual volume, and I must say her writing feels very Italian in its construction (I assume she had a good editor), in a way more authentic than her English version which we can only assume was lovingly polished and translated by Ann Goldstein, who has brought the novels of Elena Ferrante into bestsellerdom. But what concerns me most of all about this very readable, mildly interesting book, is Lahiri’s misunderstanding of some very basic Italian social cues.
An example of this is her complaint that her American husband, who could be mistaken for an Italian, is spoken to in Italian consistently despite the fact that his Italian is not nearly as good as hers. When Lahiri speaks, the same people who address her husband in Italian speak to her in English and then ask how it is that her Italian is so good? “And I have to provide an explanation, I have to say why. The fact that I speak Italian seems to them unusual. No one asks my husband that question.”
Her husband isn’t asked simply because his looks don’t place him easily as a foreigner. Lahiri personalizes this, assumes it’s because of her appearance that she is addressed in English. In one way she is right. However, anyone (myself included) who doesn’t look Italian, experiences exactly the same thing. I can’t count the number of times I perfectly executed a phrase only to get a halting, ungrammatical English response. Why? In Italy it’s currency to speak English, and the Italians who have the language love to show they have it and will look for any opportunity to do so, particularly with someone who doesn’t look Italian.
Compounding this, a command of English, in Italy, is also an indication of class and breeding. For example, I have a friend from Venice who cannot speak English but claims to be the daughter of a prince. My Italian novelist met her and said to me, “She cannot be the daughter of a prince.” “How can you assume that?” I asked. She replied, “It’s very unusual that an educated Italian of high birth would not speak very good English. Not to mention that she says, Buon ‘appetito before a meal. A high-born person would never say that.” It also should be noted that, in Italy, English is the common language of the foreigner. I have listened to so many painful, halting rudimentary conversations between Japanese tourists and German tourists and Italian shopkeepers — it’s their only hope of communicating.
Ultimately, the relationship between Italian and English in Italy is much more complicated than it’s described by Lahiri, who sometimes seems as blinded to the vicissitudes of her adopted language as she might be to the vagaries of an extramarital lover. I say, “Keep Italian as your lover. But stay married to English. Unlike many of us, you have so much original material that arguably requires you to write in English. Don’t abandon it. Please.”