In Other Words

As I went through the show [of Matisse cut-outs], I recognized an artist who at a certain point felt the need to charge course, to express himself differently. Who had the mad impulse to abandon one type of vision for another. Jhumpa Lahiri

The blank page. The blank canvas. Day after day they remain blank. I suppose every writer or artist reaches a point in their life when they stare at a blank page or canvas hopelessly paralyzed.

This might have been what happened to Jhumpa Lahiri when she stopped writing in English and sought a new direction to her work. During her first visit to Florence as a 20-year-old student, she fell in love with the Italian language. I recall a similar experience after one of my early visits to Florence. In an essay describing Italian, I wrote:

It is not surprising that Italians are so musical. It comes with the language. When Italians speak to one another, they virtually sing, with a rhythm and lyric that is slightly operatic. Soon the words echo in your mind, although you don't have the vaguest idea what they mean. …It was not long before I found myself quite unexpectedly speaking an Italian word or phrase that from all I could tell must have been appropriate. When most Italians talk, they also gesture vigorously with their hands, as if they were conducting an orchestra. I suspect that if you tied a rope around their hands, they would not be able to utter a single word.

Over the years that followed Lahiri took Italian lessons but she never really mastered the language that way. So in 2012, she took the leap and moved to Rome with her husband and two children.

Lahiri says she was never comfortable in the language of her family (Bengali) or the language in which she had been educated (English). She said: “In the months before coming to Italy, I was looking for another direction for my writing. I wanted a new approach. I didn’t know that the language I had studied slowly for many years in America would, finally, give me the direction.”

In her memoir, In Other Words, Lahiri describes her efforts to learn the language well enough to speak easily with Italians and write in their language. She stopped reading English and wrote exclusively in Italian, both in her diary and the pieces that compose the book. In Other Words is printed in a dual-language format with the English translation by Ann Goldstein on one page and Lahiri’s Italian on the other. (I found reading both pages of the book a good way to learn a little more Italian.)

There is a simplicity to Lahiri’s short Italian sentences that is beguiling, but after awhile rather limited, especially when she’s writing about complicated issues. They also become somewhat repetitious, as she tries to explain the difficulties she’s experiencing in writing Italian.

When I read in Italian, I feel like a guest. A traveler…When I write in Italian, I feel like an intruder, an imposter. The work seems counterfeit, unnatural. I realize that I’ve crossed over a boundary, that I feel lost, in flight. I’m a complete foreigner.

Yet, In Other Words is a pleasure to read as Lahiri struggles to express herself in Italian and strike out in a new direction. Throughout the book I kept wondering why she tried to distance herself from English, her dominant language, the one in which she was so successful.

I can appreciate her desire to try a new direction to her work. But why in a foreign language, one she scarcely knew before she moved to Rome? In Other Words was a best seller in Italy and at the time of this writing has moved into the top fifteen on the New York Times Hardcover best seller list.

Last September Lahiri returned to this country as a professor of creative writing at Princeton. She was reluctant to leave Rome and worries now that she won’t be able to maintain her fluency in Italian and newfound identity. One wonders if In Other Words is the first or the last of her work in Italian? While in Italy she wrote,

“I’ve uprooted myself not only from a physical place but also from a linguistic place. This double uprooting is artistic freedom, and it’s dizzying. Once you taste that you can’t give it up.”