Jhumpa Lahiri’s Modernist Turn

Urmila Seshagiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s In altre parole announces the birth of a modernist. Written in hard-won Italian and reverberating with the energy of early 20th-century literary experiment, In altre parole describes the transformation of a writer exchanging the patient, polished realism of her first four books for a disquieting abstraction. It is a pleasure to witness sudden artistic metamorphosis, and Lahiri’s “transizione radicale” from English to Italian—“a split, together with a birth”—creates a fragmented, urgent aesthetic tenor that contrasts sharply with the author’s hallmark restraint.

Lahiri’s account of her 20-year study of Italian takes the form of ecstatic encounters with the limits of expression. Every act of reading, speaking, and writing in her new language strengthens her devotion to what must remain unattainable: “If it were possible to bridge the distance between myself and Italian,” Lahiri realizes, “I would cease writing in this language.” The resulting prose hovers between word and meaning, a distance that tests Lahiri’s faith in language. Her newfound poetics rests on her conviction that “a foreign language can signify a total separation,” a chasm dividing one person from another even in a boundlessly connected contemporary world. It is In altre parole’s successful evocation of this “total separation” that elevates the book to the status of an immediate classic. Here is a portrait of the artist wrought from the raw material of exile, capturing rather than attempting to transcend a “state of total confusion.”

In altre parole is a memoir of linguistic renunciation and adoption. It begins in 1994, when a visit to Florence ignited an infatuation with the Italian language so compelling that Lahiri avowed, “I know that I would be unsatisfied, incomplete, if I did not learn it.” As her knowledge of Italian “develops in exile,” she alludes frequently to Ovid, “banished from Rome to a remote place,” and to Dante, waiting nine years to speak to Beatrice. More significantly, Lahiri also casts her linguistic awakening as “un colpo de fulmine,” a lightning-brilliant love that recalls not only Dante’s encounters with his madonna but also fabled moments of modernist revelation and reinvention: Gauguin’s arrival in Brittany, Picasso’s epiphany in the Musée du Trocadéro, Woolf’s discovery of Proust. Lahiri’s literary prowess in English long overshadowed her courtship of Italian. In graduate school, she learned Latin and completed a dissertation about the Italian palazzo in English Renaissance drama; she then published four increasingly successful works of fiction in English while studying Italian with tutors in the United States and making trips to Venice and Mantua, Milan and Rome.

Seeking the immersive experience of living in Italy, in 2012 Lahiri stopped reading in English and moved to Rome with her family. She conversed in Italian with friends and strangers, sometimes successfully, sometimes hitting a wall of incomprehension; she accumulated new words in a notebook like “a beggar who discovers a pile of gold, a sack of jewels.” And she began a diary whose earliest pages contained unskilled forays into Italian prose writing:


I write in a terrible, incorrect, embarrassing Italian. Without control, without a dictionary, only by instinct. I feel my way, like a child, like a semiliterate. I am ashamed to write like this. I do not understand this mysterious impulse that emerges from nothing. I cannot stop.


Such passages emblematize the modernist character of Lahiri’s move into Italian. Invoking the violent, rule-breaking terms of early 20th-century aesthetic reinvention, Lahiri calls her decision to write in Italian “a transgression, a rebellion,” the act of “an intruder, an imposter” working in a new medium to keep a “devouring vortex” at bay. Lahiri’s “primitive mode” yields unexpected authenticity in its imprecision:


I do not recognize the person who is writing in this diary, in this new approximate language. But I know that it is the most candid, most vulnerable part of me. … The new diary, however imperfect, however riddled with errors, reflects my disorientation clearly.


Thrust into a kind of “literary survival” in Rome, Lahiri tells us, she began to compose essays and fiction in Italian describing her ever-changing relationship with the language. She named these pieces for the stages of her quest (e.g., “The Crossing,” “Exile,” “The Wall,” “The Scaffolding”), each title a compressed allegory of authorial discovery. Lahiri’s writings were published serially in the weekly magazine Internazionale and later evolved into the 21 loosely connected essays and 2 short stories that make up In altre parole. The finished book appeared in 2015 and won Italy’s Premio Internazionale Viareggio-Versilia, awarded annually since 1975 to “a world-famous personality who has devoted his or her life to culture, understanding among peoples, social progress, and peace.”

Lahiri has previously identified her influences as writers of detail-rich realist English-language short stories: William Trevor, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant. Mastering a new language requires her to realign her literary genealogy. After she renounces reading in English she finds that “the anchor of my creative life vanishes, the stars that guided me recede. I see, in front of me, a new room, empty.” She populates her empty room with figures from the Italian canon (Dante, Leopardi, Verga, Moravia, Ortese, Calvino), multilingual modern and postmodern authors (Pessoa, Pavese, Fuentes), contemporary Italian novelists (Starnone, Ferrante), and, most importantly, expatriate writers whose linguistic crossovers demanded literary innovation (Conrad, Beckett, Nabokov). These artists haunt Lahiri as she sacrifices the serene, authoritative perfection of her English to liberate a “new voice, rough but alive.” Her earlier fictions bore the sheerest traceries of literary artifice, shunning any hint of self-reflexive artistry, but her new aesthetic idiom strikes a distinctly modernist posture. “In Italian I lack a complete perspective,” she declares, calling attention to the artistic insufficiency that now destabilizes her prose.  

In Other Words, the slightly disappointing 2016 English-language version of In altre parole, seems anxious to demystify the deliberate opacities of Lahiri’s original text. Knopf’s apparatus-heavy edition includes a prefatory author’s note in English, a facing-page English translation of the Italian text by Ann Goldstein, and Lahiri’s lengthy afterword. A pleasing conceptual symmetry linked the cover design of the Italian edition to Lahiri’s modernist sojourn: the abstract form of a woman stands before the book’s title words, which are broken into street signs, sculptural obstacles, and graffiti. By contrast, In Other Words features a cover photograph of Lahiri in an empty library, authorial celebrity overshadowing the book’s elemental focus on the concept of language.

More problematically, if inevitably, the dual-language Italian-English format literalizes the very “separazione totale that is In altre parole’s subject, reminding us, page by page, of potential losses. Ann Goldstein—the magisterial translator of Leopardi and Calasso, Ferrante and Levi—imparts a perplexing informality to her translation that clashes with Lahiri’s cultivated prose. Consider, for instance, the lyrical cadence of Lahiri’s Italian as she compares herself to Ovid’s nymph Daphne, who transformed into a laurel tree:


Sebbene mi manchi una corteccia spessa, sono, in italiano, una scrittrice indurita, che cresce diversamente, radicata di nuovo.
(Although I lack a thick bark, I am, in Italian, a toughened writer, who grows differently, rooted anew.)


Goldstein’s translation:


And although I don’t have a thick bark, I am, in Italian, a tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way.


Translation demands creative license, but in this case, the translator’s decisions diminish the elegance of Lahiri’s sentence. Goldstein elects to use the contraction “don’t” and to contribute the word “freer”; she turns the past participle adjective “indurita” into the comparative adjective “tougher” and reverses Lahiri’s last two clauses. For English readers, the steady accumulation of such choices dulls the knife-edge of a feat that Lahiri views as singularly dangerous: “daring to write in Italian after merely a year of living in Italy.”

In altre parole’s artistic daring rivals its linguistic daring. For the first time in her literary career, Lahiri offers us defamiliarizing, ambiguous fiction stripped of realism’s reassurances. The book contains two short stories whose style is as foreign for Lahiri as the Italian she writes in: “Lo scambio” (“The Exchange”), a quasi-symbolist work about a translator’s newly anonymous life, and “Penombra” (“Penumbra”), a psychological tale about a husband troubled by nightmares and suspicious about his wife’s fidelity. On one hand, the desire for renewal and the travails of marriage extend the themes of Lahiri’s earlier works. Indeed, Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1999 debut, begins with a story about a marriage ravaged by a stillborn baby. That story’s refined prose and measured narrative equilibrium introduced the dominant trope of Lahiri’s art: the alienation that inheres in intimacy. This trope matured into the philosophical center of the ambitious fictions that succeeded Interpreter of Maladies: The Namesake (2003), a coming-of-age novel about a boy named for Nikolai Gogol; Unaccustomed Earth (2008), a Hawthorne-inspired collection of stories about New England families separated by death and distance; and The Lowland (2013), a multigenerational novel about the long aftermath of Communist revolution in Calcutta. Characters in these works are displaced, exiled, willingly mobile, or otherwise living lives fragmented by geography, but the forms of Lahiri’s fiction are as unified as her characters are divided. What is literally untranslatable to her characters—a Bengali love letter, ancient Etruscan “signs and portents,” a tape recording of multilingual family chatter—gathers incontrovertible meaning through narrative itself. The totalizing clarity of Lahiri’s realism endows her English fictions with a near universality through which characters and readers alike arrive at a shared conception of mortality.

Lahiri’s earlier fictions bore the sheerest traceries of literary artifice, shunning any hint of self-reflexive artistry. her new aesthetic idiom strikes a distinctly modernist posture.

But clarity and totality vanish when language itself becomes Lahiri’s subject, replaced by the partial, the imperfect, and the ultimately ineffable. Nameless characters in nameless settings undergo experiences simultaneously insignificant and transformative. In “Lo scambio” (a story that Lahiri acknowledges she would “never have written in English”), a translator walks away from a full life in order to “generate another version of herself,” and loses her only sweater while trying on a different one in a designer’s mysterious showroom. Reluctantly accepting what she thinks is the designer’s sweater, the translator wakes up the next day to realize that she had never lost hers at all. But the suspected loss has changed the sweater so that it “no longer seemed the same … Now, when she wore it, she too was another.” The story’s abrupt ending, a strange metamorphosis beyond the protagonist’s comprehension and the narrator’s articulation, descends from Kafka rather than from Ovid. In a chapter of In altre parole that details the genesis of “Lo scambio”—significantly, a chapter that itself echoes Mary Shelley’s famous introduction to Frankenstein—Lahiri explains that “The sweater is language,” something extrinsic to and yet constitutive of the self.

The sweater in “Lo scambio” belongs to a collage of ephemeral, self-cancelling metaphors that give In altre parole its momentum. Metaphor, Lahiri’s signature literary device, has always connected the several narrative threads of her fiction. Unusual resemblances fill The Lowland, for example, fortifying the novel’s utopian vision of a synthesis between the natural world and human culture: a heron’s long bill evokes a brass letter opener, fishbones on a plate look like a set of sewing needles, veins in a character’s forearm suggest a “pointed archway beneath the skin.” But when Italian supplants English, aesthetic disjointedness supplants unity. In altre parole hunts restlessly for metaphors equal to the paradoxical state of linguistic belonging and exile: how, each chapter asks, can language describe itself? To convey the doubling that is also a break, the void that is also an overflow, Lahiri weighs and discards one metaphor after another. She alights on the two-faced Roman god Janus and then on the “duplicate impression” of a metamorphosis; she herself becomes a child when she speaks Italian but imagines the Italian language as both her indifferent lover and her newborn infant. Two tenses of the all-important verb “to be” (essere), the past and the imperfect, confound her in the manner of an optical illusion:


a series of cubes in three colors, a simple but complex design that deceives the eye. The effect of this illusion is astonishing, a little disconcerting—the perspective shifts, so that you see two versions of the same thing at the same time.


Being itself as simultaneous versions of the same thing: this “exquisite tension” reaches a poetic acme in a chapter titled “Venezia.” Lost in the city and yet spellbound, Lahiri composes a beautiful metaphor that binds philosophy and confession and merits citing in the original:


Il labirinto veneziano trascende la propria pianta come una lingua trascende la propria grammatica. … Ci sono momenti in italiano, così come a Venezia, in cui mi sento soffocata, sconvolta. Poi giro e, quando meno me lo aspetto, mi ritrovo in un luogo sperduto, silenzioso, splendente.
(The Venetian labyrinth transcends its own map just as a language transcends its own grammar. … There are moments in Italian, as there are in Venice, when I feel suffocated, shattered. Then I turn around, and when I least expect it, find myself in an isolated, silent, shining place.)


But even these elaborate paradoxes are insufficient stopping places for Lahiri’s self-understanding. Her artistic coming-of-age occurs when she finally escapes an agonizing disjunction between Bengali, her “mother tongue” (“lingua madre”), and English, a language she regards as her “stepmother” (“matrigna”). Italian frees Lahiri precisely because it carries no burden of familial or cultural inheritance: “It arises from my desire, from my difficulty. It arises from me.” Now, framed by three languages rather than divided by two, Lahiri wonders how Bengali, English, and Italian might come together to generate a self: “The frame defines me, but what does it contain?” Her “autoritratto,” or self-portrait, takes the form of a complex triangle:


If I were to sketch it, I would use a pen to draw the English side, a pencil for the other two. English remains the base, the more stable, fixed side. Bengali and Italian are both weaker, more indistinct. One inherited, the other willingly adopted. Bengali is my past; Italian, perhaps, a new pathway into the future. My first language is my origin; the latest, the goal. In both I feel like a child, a little awkward.


It is the necessarily abstract geometry, the impossible temporality, of Lahiri’s triangle that makes In altre parole a classic. Il triangolo summons the untranslatable aspects of being, illuminating what T. S. Eliot called the “ordered though unconscious progress of a language to realise its own potentialities within its own limitations.” Potentialities within limitations: Lahiri wishes that the frame enclosed a mirror, but finds only “a void, reflecting nothing.” This void is both origin and destiny, the unsuspected source of her “other words.”

How, ultimately, should we read this book? Lahiri makes no pretense of expertise in semiotics, translation studies, or comparative literature. Neither does she enter into debates about the linguistic complexion of national or world literatures with scholars such as Pascale Casanova, Emily Apter, or Franco Moretti. She is no Caliban: her crisis of language lacks the plangent note of postcolonial discontent, and her frustration with the “pane sciapo” (unsalted bread) of her exile-born Italian shares nothing with Derek Walcott’s versioning of Ovid’s plaint, “When I was first exiled, / I missed my language as your tongue needs salt.” Finally, and perhaps most crucially, In altre parole disdains the deeply flawed prevailing characterization of Lahiri as “the acclaimed chronicler of the Bengali-immigrant experience.” Despite the book’s wealth of intimate detail about Lahiri’s bilingual childhood, the author’s aesthetic ambitions—as ever—stand apart from the historical particulars of Indian identity. Here, in the spirit of Eliot and Stevens, Joyce and Beckett, Lahiri discovers that “unknown words represent a dizzying, fruitful abyss.” Like her modernist predecessors, she accepts l’abisso as the simultaneously generative and paralyzing force behind her art.