In Other Words is the most evocative, unpretentious, astute account of a writing life I have read. In part, this is because Lahiri so unabashedly asks and answers big and vexing questions: 'Why do I write? To investigate the mystery of existence. To tolerate myself. To get closer to everything that is outside of me.'
It’s a bit surreal reading the Italian autobiography of an American author translated by someone else’s hand on the facing page. But the bilingual format is appropriate: All the personal experiences are connected to linguistic ones, all the linguistic issues refracted through the author’s life.
“In Other Words is, sadly, a less ecstatic experience for you and me. It’s a soft, repetitive, self-dramatic and self-hobbled book, packed with watercolor observations like: 'There is pain in every joy. In every violent passion a dark side.' That someone gets a lot out of writing something does not necessarily mean anyone else will get a similar amount from reading that thing.
The thrill of tracking Lahiri’s stubborn, headlong adventure gains additional intensity when you read her in Italian, absorbing her mind’s embrace of the language. Her potent, mellifluous use of the language, sparing but evocative, shows that she no longer has the slightest cause for embarrassment ... The style of In Other Words is more direct, more personal, and less pruned than in Lahiri’s guarded, stately fiction. And yet, her individual stamp remains.
Reading In Other Words is deeply pleasurable. It puts one in the company of a beautiful mind engaged in a sustained and bracing discipline. Lahiri's sensibility exists in exquisite counterpoint to a culture besotted with selfies.
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.
The sense of effort is everywhere apparent: the effort to write in Italian, which has stripped down Lahiri’s otherwise artfully meandering, bric-a-brac-rich sentences to the bare essentials, and then the perhaps even greater effort to keep us interested and impressed, often by simply insisting on the intensity of her feelings. It is rather as if we were exploring the emotions of a romantic affair, but without the concrete circumstances ... I can think of no other book set in Italy that has less of the color and drama of Italy in it. Not a single figure emerges. Not a dialogue of any note. Not a single situation characteristic of Italy ... her two fine, courageous [short] stories make clear that the problem is not what language to write in, but what to write about.
But I’m not so sure about the style in In Other Words, at least as it is rendered in translation. Sometimes its abruptness just feels blunt, like a writer bumping up against her limits, short of breath ... 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.
Her revelations about the emotional freight of language to the child of immigrants bring great weight to what could otherwise seem a slight book inspired by a successful writer’s whimsy ... Lahiri spins a linguistic memoir that actually tells the story of a transformation of identity. In Lahiri’s hands, these essays and stories become an invaluable insight into the craft of writing not as storytelling but as speaking the self into existence.
Whatever Lahiri may have lost here in linguistic flexibility is, to my mind, compensated for by the freshness and exuberance that Italian has given her. In the spirit of a modernist painter, she has deliberately shattered the compact surface of her prose, in search of a deeper, rougher truth. She has exchanged an inherited exile for a voluntary one, embracing solitude as a natural condition rather than an imposition.
I wish I could say I liked Ms. Lahiri’s book more in English than Italian. In truth, its shallowness and heavy-handedness were even more evident this time around. Couched almost entirely in the present tense, rife with portentous fragments ('A kind of voluntary exile.'), devoid not only of humor but the least flicker of irony, it takes itself with the utmost seriousness and isn’t above proclamations like this: 'Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. . . . I am exiled even from the definition of exile.'
This linguistic autobiography feels urgent and raw. Through it, Lahiri appears to forge a new sense of belonging. Using discomfort to shatter her own status quo, she produces a startlingly different voice—still Lahiri's, but stripped down to its essence.
To compare In Other Words to her English works – her previous titles – seems inevitable, even as such a comparison feels unjust. Unsurprisingly, her short stories are the collection’s standouts, but the raw intimacy of her essays offers an illuminating gift with which future titles can and will be read through a shifting lens.
Lahiri wrote In Other Words in Italian. Her original text and Ann Goldstein’s English translation are on facing pages, a practice common to works of poetry in translation. Its use here reinforces that this is as much a work of poetry as prose. The book contains two short stories, but most of the chapters chronicle her attempts to master her new language and adjust to life in Italy. Many sentences begin with 'I think,' a weak construction that implies a lack of confidence. But it underscores her feelings of disenchantment, of 'trying to get away from something, to free myself.'
The problem with Lahiri’s Italian is not that it is odd; instead it is sometimes smooth to the point of vagueness. In English, she is a wonderfully precise writer, but in Italian that precision is gone and her sentences can feel watered down. When she’s getting into complicated issues of identity and exile, I often wished she could switch to English. At the same time, her Italian has a simplicity that is very appealing — and revealing. With so many linguistic limitations, Lahiri has nowhere to hide.
There is an odd compartmentalization in In Other Words between Jhumpa Lahiri the novelist and the assiduous student of Italian. She barely mentions her former work. I was hoping she would write about how feelings of inadequacy or exile found their way into her fiction. Ms. Lahiri’s writing in Italian is simpler than her English prose. Just the essential words, feelings and hints of scene remain. It seems that in giving up English, she also gives up realism and has moved on to more abstract writing.
[Lahiri's] skill as a writer was so lively that writing about her abandoning English forces me to use dour sentences as though I’m writing a eulogy for her, even though she’s still alive, even though she likely has many fruitful decades ahead of her as a writer. Lahiri includes two pieces of fiction in Words, and they are, as Lahiri herself advertises, nothing like her writing in English. They’re stubby, awkward, uncomfortable, obvious and weird. Inserted into one of her two English story collections, they would jut out like a fractured bone, ugly and mean. They are not the work of the same writer.