When Jhumpa Lahiri was 32, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her first book, "Interpreter of Maladies"; it was only the seventh time a short-story collection had been so enshrined.
"[R]ather precipitously, I became a famous writer," Lahiri, now 48, recalls in her new book. "I received a prize that I was sure I did not deserve, that seemed to me a mistake. Although it was an honor, I remained suspicious of it. I couldn't connect myself to that recognition, and yet it changed my life."
Lahiri set these thoughts down in Italian. She wrote "in modo piuttosto precipitoso, sono diventata una scrittrice famosa..." and then her words were put into English by Ann Goldstein, herself a headliner for translating Elena Ferrante, Primo Levi and now Lahiri.
The reader who takes up Lahiri's "In Other Words" ("In Altre Parole") holds an appealing, missal-sized text with the Italian printed on the left and its English version on the right. The paragraphs are laid out in parallel, so an Anglophone can glance left, noting structural diversions and possible linguistic overlaps. It is Lahiri's first book of nonfiction, yet it contains two short stories. In introducing one, "The Exchange," Lahiri tells us the symbolism of a missing black sweater in the story: It is language. She herself understood this months after she wrote it — the revelation arriving suddenly as she jogged through a park in Rome.
In this diverting way, a reader bobs in the wake of Lahiri's grand experiment, her decision to immerse herself in Italian as an adult, to move her family to Rome and to write her fifth book in a language she enters slowly, awkwardly, often comparing herself to a child but without a child's plasticity for acquiring language:
"I read slowly, painstakingly. With difficulty. Every page seems to have a light covering of mist. The obstacles stimulate me. Every new construction seems a marvel. Every unknown word a jewel.... I find the process more demanding yet more satisfying, almost miraculous. I can't take for granted my ability to accomplish it. I read as I did when I was a girl. Thus, as an adult, as a writer, I rediscover the pleasure of reading."
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. Instead of "Eat, Pray, Love," the reader finds a book situated in Italy without a single reference to food or prayer or sex. The tone hasn't a shred of the coquettish, nor is it monastic. "In Other Words" gives off the intoxication of metamorphosis, the title of one of her 24 chapters.
Normally, Lahiri explains, she is annoyed by the journalistic boilerplate of being asked her favorite book, but during her time in Rome, begun in 2012, she was "able to respond without any hesitation" that it was Ovid's "Metamorphoses." She had read the entire poem in Latin as a young woman at Boston University, and that ecstatic experience feels like a reverb for Lahiri's midlife task.
The content of Ovid's masterpiece also fits. Like Daphne fleeing Apollo, Lahiri tries to escape the embrace of English, the demands and separations it inflicted on her girlhood. These started in a kindergarten doorway in Rhode Island, where she set aside the Bengali she spoke at home for "a culture that had to be mastered, interpreted." How shocking when the tree bark made of this second language, her second skin, transformed her into a literary celebrity, including a National Humanities Medalist, awarded by President Obama at the White House in September.
As Lahiri reports it, her escape into Italian hits a wall. Her husband, Alberto Vourvoulias, speaks the language with a Spanish accent. "For him, it's enough to extend his hand, to say, 'A pleasure, I'm Alberto.' Because of his looks, because of his name, everyone thinks he's Italian. When I do the same thing, the same people say, in English, 'Nice to meet you.'"
The writer's facility with Italian far outstrips her husband's, but her appearance reads "foreign," just as it did in Boston, where she once refused a flier, only to be cursed by a man who demanded to know if her problem was that she couldn't speak English. When she travels to Kolkata, India, despite a lifelong proficiency with Bengali, vendors address her in English.
These paradoxes vex Lahiri, but she knows they are one wellspring of her creativity. Toward the end of her latest work, she describes it as "a hesitant book and at the same time bold. A text both private and public. On the one hand it springs from my other books. The themes, ultimately, are unchanged: identity, alienation, belonging. But the wrapping, the contents, the body and soul are transfigured."
The cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker notes that "language comes so naturally to us that we're apt to forget what a strange and miraculous gift it is." On every page, including the half that monolinguists can't fathom, Lahiri's magnificent book reminds us.
Long manages the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards for the Cleveland Foundation
In Other Words
Jhumpa Lahiri; Translated by Ann Goldstein
Alfred A. Knopf: 233 pp., $26.95