A Language of Affection
I'm not sure what attracted me to In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, what made me take it off the shelf in the bookstore. I've never read any of the Pulitzer prize winner's books, and I'd not seen any reviews of this one. But as soon as I opened it and saw the dual language format, and then read that she, an English speaker, had written the Italian text and someone else had translated her text into English, I was hooked.
As background, you might like to know that I studied Italian as part of my undergraduate degree for two years. I loved the language, I agonized over the language, I was too shy to speak Italian well. For a while, Italian was my minor before I switched to the Honours English program, a small regret. Two years before I graduated, I got married and we went for a five week honeymoon to Italy where I did most of the talking: I ordered drinks and train tickets and checked us into our modest hotels. And I'm sure I said some ridiculous things, though everyone was very kind and polite. When university ended, I tried to read books in Italian and even for a while worked through a grammar textbook. After that, life intervened. When I go to the Italian store, I still feel pangs every single time, a longing, for the language. And you know, I've always thought that was a little odd of me. So this book was a way of living that life not lived, even if only for a short time, while reading it. I loved every second of this book. Every sentence. I would read some of the Italian on every page, understanding about every 20th word.
So there is my bias. I have always had an affection for the Italian language, and was taken with the book from the first page on which there is the epigraph:
Lahiri's love affair with Italian begins in Florence. She goes with her sister for a week in 1994 to study architecture. She says, "I don't have a real need to know this language. I don't live in Italy, I don't have Italian friends. I have only the desire." In between publishing books, and having a daughter, she studies the language. In 2009 she begins studying with a Venetian woman who lives in Brooklyn. She says, "At a certain point the lessons with the Venetian teacher become my favourite activity." And, "At a certain point, I decide to move to Italy." She chooses Rome, saying, "I have no friends yet in Rome. But I'm not going there to visit someone. I'm going in order to change course, and to reach the Italian language."
This book is not a travelogue. You won't find descriptions of fabulous meals, or tourist sites, and you won't learn much about the author's family or their daily activities. The focus is quite wonderfully entirely on Lahiri's relationship to language, especially Italian. Only a week after arriving, she begins to write in her diary in Italian. She says, "I write in a terrible, embarrassing Italian, full of mistakes. Without correcting, without a dictionary, by instinct alone." She goes on, "It's as if I were writing with my left hand, my weak hand, the one I'm not supposed to write with."
In Italian, she meets with her imperfections continually. And yet she persists:
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."
Although I retain very little of the Italian I studied so long ago, the experience of falling in love with a language, and knowing how impossible it would be to become fluent, or even close to fluent in it, has been one of the most valuable parts of my education. Working in a library I meet people everyday whose first language isn't English, but I have an understanding of how much courage it takes to speak in another language, how much effort it takes. I remember sometimes needing to see a word written out before I could properly hear it. I remember the embarrassment of knowing I'd said something incorrectly but only being able to say things with the words I had.
As much as I savoured all of Lahiri's thoughts on learning Italian, I also deeply appreciated her discussion about her parents and their language. She says,
In America, when I was young, my parents always seemed to be in mourning for something. Now I understand: it must have been the language. Forty years ago it wasn't easy for them to talk to their families on the phone. They looked forward to the mail. They couldn't wait for a letter to arrive from Calcutta, written in Bengali. They read it a hundred times, they saved it. Those letters evoked their language and conjured a life that had disappeared. When the language one identifies with is far away, one does everything possible to keep it alive. Because words bring back everything: the place, the people, the life , the streets, the light, the sky, the flowers, the sounds. When you live without your own language you feel weightless and, at the same time, overloaded. You breathe another type of air, at a different altitude. You are always aware of the difference.
I can't imagine how much courage it would have taken, not to mention effort, to write a book in a second (or for Lahiri, a third) language. I can't, obviously, remark on the original Italian version, but the English translation is in turns moving, poetic, thought-provoking. I found myself rooting for her, as one might root for the protagonist of any quest plot.