From the best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize winner, “In Other Words” (Knopf, 231 pp., **½ out of four stars) is a powerful nonfiction debut— which has been described as an “honest, engaging, and very moving account of a writer searching for herself in words.”
According to critiques, In Other Words is a revelation. It is at heart a love story—of a long and sometimes difficult courtship, and a passion that verges on obsession: that of a writer for another language. For Jhumpa Lahiri, that love was for Italian, which first captivated and capsized her during a trip to Florence after college. Although Lahiri studied Italian for many years afterward, true mastery always eluded her.
As per some critiques, there’s a beautiful medium-length essay lost somewhere in Jhumpa Lahiri’s unilluminating and self-regarding new book In Other Words. Its conceit is exciting — one of the most gifted living writers of English prose deciding mid-career to write in Italian, daring failure — and it has moments of the cool and piercing emotional acuity that characterize her four previous books.
But too few of them, and thematically Lahiri (The Lowland, The Namesake) never moves far past her initial awe at the act of audacity it has taken her to write these essays and short fictions. Late on she says she composed them “as if they were homework for my Italian lessons.” Well, we think — yes, that sounds about right.
Seeking full immersion, she decides to move to Rome with her family, for “a trial by fire, a sort of baptism” into a new language and world. There, she begins to read, and to write—initially in her journal—solely in Italian. In Other Words, an autobiographical work written in Italian, investigates the process of learning to express oneself in another language, and describes the journey of a writer seeking a new voice.
What drove this experiment, in which Lahiri presents her Italian writings and their English translations (by Ann Goldstein) on facing pages? Language is essential to the identity of many of Lahiri’s Indian-American characters, and In Other Words describes the author’s own linguistic history. Her first memories of speech are of learning Bengali, but it was in English that she became American, and in English that she achieved fame as a writer.
By this light, her adoption of Italian seems felicitously ambiguous, another gesture of rebirth. She moves to Rome, and, writing in the city’s language, with a little dictionary at hand, says, “I’m aware of a state of deprivation. And yet, at the same time, I feel free, light. I rediscover the reason I write, the joy as well as the need.”
There’s the promise of something profound in this cleansing reinvention, midway upon life’s journey. But In Other Words never does much more than reiterate this central idea, declining to follow it too deep into the reaches of autobiography — Lahiri is steelier than ever here — and alighting instead on a series of year-abroad banalities about the minor errors involved in learning a new language.
Presented in a dual-language format, this is a wholly original book about exile, linguistic and otherwise, written with an intensity and clarity not seen since Vladimir Nabokov: a startling act of self-reflection and a provocative exploration of belonging and reinvention.
And indeed she treats these not with any sense of humor, which might have given them charm, but with deep gravity, a quality that pushes the book from disappointing to irritating. The tutors and publishers and friends who fill its vignettes are all solemnly reverent about her journey into Italian, and she herself refers to other writers famous for working in a second language (Conrad, Beckett, Nabokov) without quite the same irony and self-doubt that attended their transitions.
Add to this an understandable diminution in the excellence of her prose (phrases like “a stunning clarity,” which could be selling you a television, keep popping up), and a more surprising impoverishment of imagery (within a few pages she twice identifies new words in Italian as jewel-like, a weary simile from the outset), and you have a good author’s first bad book.
But even a bad book by a writer as gifted as Jhumpa Lahiri has something to offer. “Why do I write?” she asks at one of this volume’s elusive high moments, which call to mind the power of which she’s capable. “To investigate the mystery of existence. To tolerate myself. To get closer to everything that is outside of me.” It will be thrilling when she resumes that project.