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in altre parole

4 september 2017

Jhumpa Lahiri's In altre parole is the most attentive, extensive memoir I know of about the process of learning a new language. And not only learning that language (in Lahiri's case, Italian), but learning to write, and to deliver the fruit of her learning in her new language.

Writers who adopt new languages often do so under the pressures of political exile, or the need to earn a living (e.g. Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad respectively, authors that Lahiri invokes [139]). Lahiri faced neither pressure – she was well-off and celebrated in the United States when she turned decisively toward Italy and Italian a few years ago. "Non c'era alcun bisogno di imparare questa lingua … Nessuna necessità [There was no need to learn this language … No necessity]" (113).

In fact, Lahiri talks of being pressured by too much success as an English language writer. Even, in an odd sense, of knowing English too perfectly, as one of its living literary masters. She had no hope, and never will, of speaking native Italian; she will always fall short of that kind of fluency. Yet imperfection is its own reward: it yields "una chiarezza sbalorditiva, una consapevolezza più profonda di me stessa [an amazing clarity, a deeper understanding of myself]" (86). Along with that understanding, Lahiri gained a clean page to write on. As she puts it:

L'italiano mi offre un percorso letterario ben diverso. In quanto scrittrice posso smantellarmi, posso ricostruirmi.

[Italian offered me a very different literary path. As a writer, I could tear myself down and build myself back up again.] (123)
The very gratuitousness of the process circumscribes it greatly, of course. Most Americans can't afford more than a few nights in Italy, once or twice in their lives; Lahiri can just up and move to Rome, can wander around Venice whenever it strikes her fancy. There is not much here that even the average writer can relate to. But the very remoteness of Lahiri's experience brings the linguistic aspects of her project into greater focus. The nuts and bolts of adult language acquisition are the core of In altre parole, and Lahiri tinkers with them perceptively and memorably.

For whatever arbitrary reasons, Lahiri – a native speaker of English and Bengali, an American with a graduate degree in English literature, a renowned writer in English – chose Italian as the target language of her linguistic makeover. She had some grounding in the language from school, but American schools and colleges notoriously offer very shaky grounding in foreign languages. Or I should say, Americans may teach languages perfectly well, but American students lack much exigency to learn them, and lack environments in which to foster them. You leave an American language classroom with the basics for exploration of another language, you fail to find anywhere to use those basics, you don't really need to, anyway – and the language evaporates within weeks.

So it was with Lahiri's Italian, though the basics were somewhere there in the substrate of her mind, reinforced by school study of Latin. When her literary work took her to Italy to meet translators and publishers, she became obsessed with its language, filling notebooks with new vocabulary, taking down idioms, relentlessly rehearsing arcana of Italian grammar.

As I have found with my own desultory grasp of other languages, reading came more easily to Lahiri than any other form of encounter with Italian. More easily in one sense, though in another, offering a difficulty she craved:

In italiano sono una lettrice più attiva, più coinvolta, anche se più inesperta. … Leggere in un'altra lingua implica uno stato perpetuo di crescita, di possibilità. So che il mio lavoro, da apprendista, non finirà mai.

[In Italian I am a more active reader, more involved, even if more unskilled. Reading in another language means a constant state of growth, of new potential. I know that my apprentice-work will never be over.] (43)
At first, Lahiri's apprentice-work consisted of clutching a dictionary and looking everything up; gradually she turned to her notebooks, memorizing lists of words, distinguishing one idiom from another. Verb tenses puzzled her, and I sympathize – heck, I've changed the verb tenses in this very paragraph several times while composing it, and it's in my native language. She moved to Italy, started speaking Italian, reading solely in Italian, and then suddenly writing stories in Italian, seeing the whole story in outline at once and executing it as a conscious task. I will venture that the two stories included here – "Lo scambio" and "Penombra" – aren't very good stories. They're too abstract, too symbolic; the memoir portions of the book are far superior to the embedded fictions. But that's not really the point. The point is to have written in Italian at all, and to have written in Italian, Lahiri reports, in a manner totally different from her looser, free-associative compositions in English.

To the end of In altre parole, Lahiri remains diffident (I would say too diffident) about her Italian.

La lingua è vera, ma la maniera in cui la assorbo e utilizzo sembra finta. Un lessico cercato, acquisto, resta per sempre anomalo, come se fosse artefatto, anche se non lo è.

[The language is authentic, but the way in which I've absorbed and use it seems phony. A vocabulary you've consciously sought and secured remains forever strange, somehow artificial, even if it's not.] (156)
And to make matters worse, by diving so completely into Italian, Lahiri presents herself as diffident in English (and Bengali, the third side of her linguistic "triangle," 109-17) as well. "La mia comprensione dell'italiano più cresce, più svela una debolezza anche in inglese [The more my comprehension of Italian grew, the more it revealed weaknesses even in my English]" (114). George Bernard Shaw is supposed to have said that anyone who learns another language never fully masters his own, a mot I have never quite been able to figure out. (Maybe my English isn't good enough.) But Shaw must mean something like the idea that Lahiri expresses here: that a strong consciousness of the arbitrariness, the extraordinary complexity, the futility of mastering any given alien language reveals the arbitrariness, complexity, and futility of one's native tongue.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. In altre parole. Milano: Guanda, 2015.