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Jhumpa Lahiri’s Roman Holiday

In her new memoir, the novelist abandons English for Italian.

Evan Agostini/Getty Images

When people say that learning a language is like falling in love, they only seem to remember the honeymoon period. But in her new memoir, In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri reminds us that the courtship of a new idiom entails the same jealousy, desire, and heartbreak as the courtship of a new lover.

“I’m in love,” Lahiri sighs, “but what I love remains indifferent. The language will never need me.” Her inamorato? Italian. Obsessed with the language since her graduate student days, Lahiri moves her family from the United States to Rome in 2012 in order to study it full-time. During her three years there she wrote this memoir of language and identity—in Italian. Translated by Ann Goldstein, best known as the translator into English of Elena Ferrante’s novels, In Other Words suggests that Lahiri may give up writing in English—the language of her previous four books, and the language in which she won a Pulitzer Prize—for good.

By way of explanation, she recalls the first time Italian bewitched her. Falling back on the language of romantic pursuit—a trope that recurs in other language-learning memoirs, such as Alice Kaplan’s French Lessons and Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation—Lahiri gushes, “What I feel is something physical, inexplicable. [Italian] stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight.”

This is not to mislead. Lahiri’s romance with Italian is often less steamy than yeoman. One chapter of In Other Words narrates how she jots down the new words she learns from Italian authors such as Ferrante and Giorgio Manganelli; in another she meditates on her struggles with the imperfect tense. And before heading to Italy, she describes her mixed success with a series of tutors. Maintaining a relationship with a new language turns out to be mostly unglamorous, repetitive work: “The pace is slow, hesitant, there are no shortcuts,” she writes.

So why does she do it? “Writing in another language,” she says, “represents an act of demolition, a new beginning.” Italian gives Lahiri the freedom to err. No longer encumbered by her mastery of English, she can experiment, revel in her new linguistic identity, play. In order to evolve as a writer, the freedom afforded by an alien tongue was necessary—even if, or precisely because, she will inevitably make mistakes. Newly drawn to imperfection, Lahiri trades English for Italian in order to inaugurate a new phase of her career, for “from a creative point of view there is nothing so dangerous as security.”

While Lahiri was never one to wax prolix in English, her relative unfamiliarity with Italian radically simplifies the flow and narration of In Other Words. She readily concedes this fact: “In Italian I write without style, in a primitive way. I’m always uncertain.” Italian acts as a productive constraint, reducing her language to its most rudimentary tools: simile and metaphor. Indeed, if there is a single organizational feature of this book, it is metaphor. For Lahiri, to learn Italian is to cross a lake or a bridge; it is to be like Matisse; it is to ask for permission.

Growing up in Rhode Island, Lahiri spoke Bengali at home and English at school, a division of language and self that instilled in her the very feelings of “in-betweenness” that her fictional characters so often describe. “Because of my divided identity,” Lahiri says, “or perhaps by disposition, I consider myself an incomplete person, in some way deficient.” And in a way, the form of the text dramatizes these tensions. In Other Words is a parallel text whose left-hand pages are in Italian and right-hand pages are in English. Two parts of her identity, set in opposition, riven down the center of the book.

This issue of identity, which gradually becomes the major focus of the book, also explains the celerity and enthusiasm with which Lahiri immerses herself in a third language, a desire that on second thought may have less to do with the incantatory charm of Italian and more to do with the freedom that any new language would promise her. “I think that studying Italian is a flight from the long clash in my life between English and Bengali,” Lahiri writes. “A rejection of both the mother and the stepmother. An independent path.”

Italian doesn’t necessarily liberate her from the weight of her previous two languages, however. In one of the book’s more memorable chapters, Lahiri conceptualizes the relationship between her three languages with a spatial metaphor: a triangle. English, Bengali, and Italian each represent a point on a triangle; in other words, they are all connected. No matter how Italian Lahiri becomes, then, she will never be able to escape the complex linguistic and cultural identities of her past.

Lahiri extends this triangle metaphor, saying that the triangle is in fact a mirror; when she looks into the mirror, she sees a self reflected, constructed, and constituted by her three languages. The tragedy for Lahiri lies in the fact that when she looks into this triangular mirror, it “does not reflect a precise, sharp image”; such lucid images are reserved for people with more straightforward relationships to their language, culture, and heritage. Instead Lahiri sees “only fluctuation, distortion, and dissimulation.” She feels condemned to a perpetual state of limbo and fragmentation, saying, “I think that not being able to see a specific image in the frame is the torment of my life.”

Identity is an idée fixe for most of us, as Wesley Morris wrote last fall, and Lahiri’s despair is an eminently reasonable, and indeed natural, reaction in which countless other “hyphenated Americans” or members of the diaspora share. It is nonetheless unfortunate that Lahiri regards her rootlessness as a lack, for this acute longing for a singular identity only magnifies her pain during moments of cultural rejection. (By contrast, Pico Iyer demonstrates in a well-known essay how this kind of perpetual dislocation is in fact a salutary feature of modern life.) In one of the memoir’s epiphanic moments, for example, a shop clerk compliments Lahiri’s husband’s inferior Italian, brands his non-Italian accent as authentic, and presumes that he must have taught the language to her—simply because he looks Italian. This is emblematic of Lahiri’s experiences with strangers in Rome, which suggests that for them, fluency in the language has more to do with race than grammar. “Here is the border that I will never manage to cross,” says Lahiri. “The wall that will remain forever between me and Italian, no matter how well I learn it. My physical appearance.”

Rebuffed in part by Italian and indifferent towards English and Bengali, Lahiri feels a form of estrangement that one imagines is responsible for her formation as a writer. Though best described as an expatriate, Lahiri styles herself in Italy as an exile in the metaphorical sense, a condition that provides her critical distance that is a sine qua non for writing this book.

The book’s musings on exile may appear indulgent—“Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk,” she says, melodramatically—but even the best-regarded essays on the subject, from Edward Said’s “Reflections on Exile” to Salman Rushdie’s “The Location of Brazil,” occasionally suffer from the same tendency. Lahiri’s above-quoted line on exile does, however, characterize her penchant for generalization in In Other Words. This is the flip side to writing in a new language: while it is often a productive constraint, sometimes it is just a constraint.

In Other Words is not Lahiri’s best book; it is, paradoxically, her most interesting one. The circumstances of the book’s publication—the conceit of a successful American author giving up English for Italian—will overshadow its actual text. This is understandable, for the details of her notebooks and tutors were always going to take a back seat to the grander project she had in mind: fashioning a new self out of words.

By the end of the book, Lahiri finds herself at a crossroads. She must decide whether she will continue writing in Italian or switch back to English once she returns to the United States, where she has since joined the Princeton faculty. I can’t say I have a firm recommendation for her. For if Lahiri continues to write in Italian, and enrich that language by virtue of her ability, conscious or not, to defamiliarize its common cadences and constructions, it will be a success. On the other hand, Lahiri acknowledges that her three-year immersion in Italian will render her next encounter with English equally alien; that upon her return to the U.S., she might feel as bewildered by English as she once was by Italian; and that, who knows, she might find it worthwhile to rekindle an old flame.