In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri review – a Pulitzer prize winner gives up writing and speaking in English

The author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Lowland has written a book about learning Italian – in Italian. She wanted to start over again with language

There really are problems with winning the Pulitzer prize for your first book: as Jhumpa Lahiri, pictured, did, for Interpreter of Maladies. You are a shy, self-doubting young woman, daughter of Bengali immigrants to America. Your father is a university librarian on the east coast. You have always been anxious that you can’t deliver a satisfactory account of yourself, either in your Bengali-speaking home or in anglophone America outside it. In your childhood, making up stories seemed innocent and free, an escape; but as you grew up you learned that fiction was fraught with the same old doubt. Whose stories; and for what audience?

Writing seems to you from the beginning “a private form of consolation”; yet in 2000 you are precipitated into the public eye, winning the prize for a book of short stories whose primary characteristic is their tentativeness, their withholding of judgment, their subdued emotional weather. Nonetheless, everything you write from now on will come under a new, intensive, invasive level of scrutiny. And because, inevitably, your material is drawn from the immigrant experience of your family, you will find an Indian audience too – naturally suspicious of those diaspora-Indian writers praised to the skies in the west. You become answerable to so many different and competing interested parties, on a scale disproportionate to any truth claims you have actually made inside your work. And yet, because your sensibility is fine-tuned, you appreciate conscientiously that all writing does make some kind of truth claim, and is always answerable.

Ideally, a delicate writing talent such as Lahiri’s should have been grown more slowly, putting up its shoots in a quiet half-light of reasonable encouragement. But there we are, there are probably worse things than winning the Pulitzer prize – and her talent has, in the event, developed robustly, even in the glare of an excess of attention (and, who knows, perhaps because of it). Her last novel, The Lowland, a mournful Turgenevian take on the politics of her parents’ generation in Bengal, was beautiful and subtly intelligent, and with a new bold reach. I suspect, however, that the particular difficulty Lahiri had finding her path as a writer has taken its toll, and that her new book is partly a consequence of that.

She first went to Italy on holiday with her sister in her 20s, before she had published anything, and instead of a guidebook she bought a dictionary with a green plastic cover – “light, smaller than my hand”, with “more or less the dimensions of a bar of soap”. The Italian language entranced her, long before she could understand it. Over the years that followed she took Italian lessons and immersed herself ever deeper in the language, then in 2012 moved with her husband and children to live in Rome. She gave up reading any books in English, gave up writing and even speaking in English. This new book is about her struggles with learning Italian, and it is written in Italian; the translation into English, by Ann Goldstein, is given on a facing page.

Lahiri has always written in rather short, abrupt sentences, packed with exact detail. Sometimes her English almost has the feel of being itself a translation: for instance, in The Lowland, “He was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colours.” There is an attractive faint oddity in that Latinate word choice, condensed syntax, cool distance – musical and precise at once, full of personality. But I’m not so sure about the style in In Other Words, at least as it is rendered in translation (I can just about read the Italian, but can’t judge it). Sometimes its abruptness just feels blunt, like a writer bumping up against her limits, short of breath. “Yet it’s not sufficient, or even satisfying, merely to collect words in my notebook. I want to use them. I want to draw on them when I need them. I want to be in contact with them. I want them to become part of me.”

Lahiri is too intelligent not to see through her repudiation of her fluency in English to its psychic roots. “Because of my divided identity, or perhaps by disposition,” she writes, ‘I consider myself an incomplete person, in some way deficient. Maybe there is a linguistic reason – the lack of a language to identify with.” She grew up with Bengali as her mother tongue, although she has never been able to properly read or write it. “I was ashamed of speaking Bengali and at the same time I was ashamed of feeling ashamed.” Shame and disgust are mixed up in her mastery of English: if her Italian is a tender newborn baby, English is a “hairy, smelly teenager”. The fierce self-punishing discipline of her days in Italy – making endless lists of words and learning them, writing with painful effort and then correcting – are described with a zeal that is monastic, or revolutionary (and at moments, tedious). She wants to start over again, wipe her writing clean of its old, imperfect involvements, “moving toward abstraction”. “It’s this new detachment,” she writes, “that helps me show my face.”

But Italian isn’t really abstract, or a new beginning: it bristles with its own history and particular cultural meanings. Lahiri’s book feels starved of actual experiences of Italy, or reflections on how that language gives form to its different world. Monkishly, all her contemplation is turned inwards on to her own processes of learning, not outwards on the messy imperfect matter the language works to express. Very likely this period of withdrawal and purgation will turn out to have been necessary to finding her next step as a writer. But if we want our babies to live, we need to reconcile ourselves to their hairy adolescence, and then their necessarily fraught and compromised maturity. I was relieved when at the end of the book Lahiri was packing to return to America – and, presumably, however reluctantly, to English, which is her language, because she uses it with grownup mastery.

• To order In Other Words for £13.59 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only.

Contributor

Tessa Hadley

The GuardianTramp

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