The one-sided deal

Paul Constant

June 06, 2016

For many years, I had an agreement with Jhumpa Lahiri. Well, it wasn’t so much an agreement because she never agreed to it. In any case, it went like this: for as long as Lahiri would write fiction and novels, I would read them. In my mind, Lahiri was embarking down the road to a long and fulfilling career, like a Philip Roth or a John Updike, and I was prepared to read all her new books as they came out, to expand my understanding of her writing one book at a time.

So far as reader-writer covenants go, it’s not so unusual, after all. That’s usually how these things work. But Lahiri didn’t hold to her side of the bargain. She wrote three books – her Pulitzer-Prizewinning debut The Interpreter of Maladies; her resplendent debut novel The Namesake, which was one of my favorite novels of the first decade of this millennium; her magisterial second story collection Unaccustomed Earth; and her ambitious, prickly second novel The Lowland — and I loved them all in different ways. I waited patiently for her next book. Then I started waiting impatiently. And then Lahiri changed the deal entirely.

In her latest book, In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri explains that she has moved to Italy. And she has started only writing in Italian, a language that she has been learning for a lifetime, but one that she has never really mastered. For those of us who had decided we would be lifelong fans of Lahiri, this move had a kind of impetuousness to it, something like what basketball fans must have felt when Michael Jordan quit the game to become a mediocre minor-league baseball player. Imagine if Yo-yo Ma announced he was only going to make music on the accordion, or if Lynda Barry announced she was only going to draw cartoons from now on with her non-dominant hand. It feels like a squandering of potential, an erasure of a bookshelf’s worth of books.

As if to hammer home Lahiri’s point, Words was translated from Italian to English by New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein, not Lahiri herself. And it’s presented in facing-page translation, a clever move which disorients a reader who flips too fast from one page to the next, resulting in nonsensical sentences like this: “During the first months in Rome, my clandestine Ital-in italiano é l’unica cosec he mi consola, che mi då stabilitå.” These fractured sentences must on some level duplicate the linguistic turmoil that Lahiri put herself through when she first moved to Italy, immersing herself in the language.

When I give up English, I give up my authority. I’m shaky rather than secure. I’m weak. What is the source of the impulse to distance myself from my dominant language that I depend on, that I come from as a writer, to devote myself to Italian?

That’s the central question, and Lahiri employs a number of different metaphors to explain her decision: Italian is a lover steering her into infidelity, or a helpless child she must care for, or a river, or a bridge. Her command of Italian is brutish, and when she writes in Italian she feels “both freer and confined.” The words escape her, again and again, and her argument is indelicate and ugly — but that, it seems, is the point.

Lahiri’s command of English, her native language, was among the best of her generation of writers. She wrote with such complexity that everything seemed effortless. Her sentences were taut guitar strings, her stories mellifluous and of impeccable rhythm. Her 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.

Some of Words reads to me like an apology, or a breakup letter. Lahiri repeatedly admits that she is consciously making herself a lesser writer, and she is occasionally apologetic for it. Most of the time, though, she writes about her relationship to English as the problematic one. She felt hemmed in by her familiarity with the language, tied down by expectations of perfection and her own success. “For practically my whole life,” Lahiri writes – or, more accurately, Ann Goldstein translates Lahiri’s writing – “English has represented a consuming struggle, a wrenching conflict, a continuous sense of failure that is the source of almost all my anxiety.”

It’s a painful thing, as a reader, to discover that the thing that you loved – a writer’s prose – was causing the writer grievous mental harm. It makes a reader complicit in that discomfort in some small way. And at her most vulnerable in Words, Lahiri’s honesty is enough to make a person reconsider that covenant between author and reader.

Because really: authors don’t owe their readers anything. Not a next book. Not a new story. Not even the next sentence. The expectations that readers put on their authors are impossible: we expect them to write new books continuously, and we expect those books to be unlike the other books they’ve written, but still similar enough within a proscribed formula that we won’t have our delicate sensibilities offended.The fact that we wrap this kind of expectation up in the auspices of “fandom,” as though we’re giving the author something of equal value in return for their life's work, makes it even worse.

Maybe it’s time to reconsider that unspoken, un-agreeed-to agreement. Maybe as a reader, I should stop expecting a next book, imagining each new novel as the latest installment of a continuum that is an authorial career. Perhaps Lahiri’s expatriation is a reminder that it is not the fan’s place to ask, huffily, what an author has done for us lately. Maybe the first thing we should do, always, when we receive a new book, is to be grateful.

The funereal tone to this piece keeps seeping in at the seams; certain quotes when taken out of context would make it sound as though Lahiri has died. This is not true. There will, presumably, be more books from Lahiri in the future. They won’t be the same as those books I imagined five years ago, ten years ago, fifteen years ago. But they’ll probably exist, and I’ll very likely read them. I might like some of those books. I might not like some of them. But maybe now that Lahiri has spoken out about the cost of writing, about the weight that my expectations had on her, maybe I’ll remember to not take her work for granted. Maybe that will be enough for both of us.

Books in this review:
  • In Other Words
    by Jhumpa Lahiri
    Translated by Ann Goldstein
    February 08, 2016
    256 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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