Reflections on Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘In Other Words’

In Other WordsIn Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

I realize that the wish to write in a new language derives from a kind of desperation. I feel tormented, just like Verga’s songbird. Like her, I wish for something else — something that I probably shouldn’t wish for. But I think that the need to write always comes from desperation, along with hope. Jhumpa Lahiri

 

Twenty-one summers ago I was finishing up one graduate degree in International Affairs and preparing to start a second degree in Linguistics, moving from an inquiry the effects of women’s levels of education in the developing world have on household income, birth rates, and infant mortality, into an examination of how language affects our creativity. I intended to pursue a Ph.D in Linguistics and was mulling over a dissertation on expatriate writers in France who wrote in their adopted language. I planned to explore how writing in French had changed their approach to the language of their stories, how this second—or some cases, third or fourth language—influenced the content, rhythm, and expression of their thoughts.

 

Then I was offered a job, a great job, in my first field. I pondered the inherent financial and professional insecurities of a life in academe and I turned from the Ph.D path, away from Linguistics.

 

Oh, the irony as twenty years later I try to make a living as a writer, having turned from the path of financial and professional security and stability because it wasn’t a life authentic to me. If someday I achieve a measure of commercial success, I will relocate lock, stock and barrel to France, where I can immerse myself wholesale in a language and culture that fills and sustains my heart and intellect.

 

Along comes Jhumpa Lahiri with In Other Words, a luminous meditation on how immersion in another language changes a writer’s soul. In this evocative and earnest collection of brief essays on learning to express herself in Italian, Lahiri touches on everything I felt to be true or what I have experienced with equal intensity living in France and living in the French language: the daily intoxication and despair, the loss and discovery of self, the intimacy and estrangement that come with linguistic and cultural displacement.

 

This is not a book on what it’s like to live in Italy. It is not a travelogue, a glimpse into a place any of us fortunate enough to have traveled there or who dream of going can mine for memories or tips. It could be set in Poland or Peru. This is a memoir of the mind of a writer who finds herself humbled by language. Lahiri writes of her first experiences crafting a story in Italian, “I’ve never tried to do anything this demanding as a writer. I find that my project is so arduous that it seems sadistic. I have to start again from the beginning, as if I had never written anything in my life. But, to be precise, I am not at the starting point: rather, I’m in another dimension, where I have no references, no armor. Where I’ve never felt so stupid.”

 

I am reminded as I savor these hesitant, glorious essays that my instincts two decades ago were right. Even then, so many years before I began writing, I understood the metamorphic potential that profound engagement with another language held for a writer. In Other Words has given me reason to take up that dream again, this time not at a scholarly remove, examining other writers’ lives and work, but as a way to enhance my own.

 

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Elena Ferrante #ReviewWomen2015

Discovering authors whose works I’ve either never heard of, or for some reason passed by, is one of reading’s great joys. Something—a friend’s recommendation, an author interview read or heard, a change of heart—compels me to read one of the unknown or forgotten, and I find myself in the lovely spot of suddenly having an author’s backlist to catch up on. Because the book, the writing, the everything is THAT GOOD. It’s like finding $50 in your pocket, just as the clouds clear on a dreary day and the sun beams through.

 

I’m already in for two new-to-me authors this year, and 2015 isn’t even three months old. The first was Lily King, whose Euphoria I waxed euphoric about last month; I read another of King’s right away, and was enthralled once again: Father of the Rain. The second is Italy’s enigmatic Elena Ferrante.

 

I don’t have time to determine why these writers’ previous works escaped my notice; I have too much reading to do.

The Days of AbandonmentThe Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.

 

And so begins Olga’s descent into the heart of her own darkness. The Days of Abandonment packs a wallop of tension and cringe-inducing desperation into 188 pages of elegantly-rendered narrative. This isn’t the story of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, this is THE nervous breakdown, in all its raw ugliness. We may tut-tut as we read Olga’s hair-raising mayhem, but really, isn’t this what we fear, in the wee hours, in our most vulnerable moments? As Shakespeare’s Polonius declares in Hamlet, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

 

The method is familiar: husband leaves wife for younger woman (in this instance, the very young daughter of a former family friend). Wife, who hasn’t worked outside the home for many years, is left with the children, the house, the bills, and her own aging body. Disbelief, depression, anger, the divvying up of friends, the hope and fear of running into the ex and his paramour ensue. But Olga’s madness? There is nothing expected in the way Elena Ferrante portrays Olga’s domestic drama.

 

Olga’s recounting of her freefall is detached and unsentimental. She tells it some years distant, but I also wonder if there is not some translation styling at work here. Although Ann Goldstein has translated all Ferrante’s Europa Editions-published works, so I have to assume her tone is true to the author’s own.

 

Contrary to that sense of emotional detachment, The Days of Abandonment is an intensely physical story. Olga is both obsessed with and horrified by her body, which at thirty-eight is showing the inevitable signs of age. She ruminates frequently about sex, reducing it to a purely animal act, torturing herself with images of her husband Mario, and his young lover, and then seducing her neighbor in a pathetic cry to recapture her crushed sexual self. Ferrante uses pain-an errant piece of glass in pasta sauce that pierces the roof of Mario’s mouth; the threat of a mother to cut off her daughter’s hands with sewing shears; a child’s forehead smashing into the windshield to the sound of screeching car brakes–to frame Olga’s sanity. It’s almost as though pain is a stand-in for emotion: as long as Olga can envision pain and feel it, she’ll be alright. She had reinforced locks put in the front door and at her lowest point, she struggles to open the locks, finally resorting to using her teeth. At one point, Olga asks her daughter Ilaria to poke her with a paper cutter if her concentration wanders

 

I immediately pulled my mouth away from the key, it seemed to me that my face was hanging to one side like the coiled skin of an orange after the knife has begin to peel it. …For a while I let myself sink into desperation, which would mold me thoroughly, make me metal, door panel, mechanism, like an artist who works directly on his body. Then I noticed on my left thigh, above the knee, a painful gash. A cry escaped me, I realized Ilaria had left a deep wound.

 

Most disturbing is the toll Olga’s depression takes on her children and Otto, the family dog. The upsetting scenes of abuse and neglect may well kill any empathy you develop for Olga as an abandoned woman. But without them, Ferrante’s narrative would simply be a mildly prurient glimpse into the life of the newly forsaken.

 

Olga wrestles with her post-abandonment identity, and her struggle is an alarm bell the author sounds relentlessly as she mocks the absurd circumstance of marriage that calls upon women to set aside their professions and their physical freedom, to attend to home, family, husband.

 

I had carried in my womb his children; I had given him children. Even if I tried to tell myself that I had given him nothing, … Still I couldn’t avoid thinking what aspects of his nature inevitably lay hidden in them. Mario would explode suddenly from inside their bones, now, over the days, over the years, in ways that were more and more visible. How much of him would I be forced to love forever, without even realizing it, simply by virtue of the fact that I loved them? What a complex, foamy mixture a couple is. Even if the relationship shatters and ends, it continues to act in secret pathways, it doesn’t die, it doesn’t want to die.

 

What a complex, foamy mixture a couple is… Indeed. Foamy. An interesting choice of word. So sensual, evocative, invoking the fluids of sex, but also foaming at the mouth—a sign of madness, a rabidity of rage.

 

The Days of Abandonment is frank, gutting, oddly funny, and awfully sad. But it is not without hope, and throughout you are reminded that Olga survives her madness. Even swirling in its whirlpool, she has one hand above water, reaching, grasping.

 

Elena Ferrante’s brilliance is withholding her judgment of her characters. She writes their truth and allows readers to create their own morality. Her writing, though not warm, is full of heat. The carapace of narrative rage cracks to reveal tender new skin beneath.

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Book Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Beautiful RuinsBeautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got a table at the Rainbow Room
I told my wife I’d be home soon
Big ships are approaching the docks
I got my hi-fi boom box
Mashed potatoes in cellophane
I see my life going down the drain
Hold me baby and don’t let go
Pretty girls help to soften the blow
Palm trees; the flat broke disease
And LA has got me on my knees
I am the bluest of blues
Every day a different way to lose
The Go Getter
I’ll be the Go Getter
That’s my plan
That’s who I am
The Go Getter
Yeah the Go Getter

The Go Getter The Black Keys

I have a complicated relationship with social satire. I give the vulgar and violent (thinking here of South Park and Chuck Palahniuk) a wide berth –– but the bizarre sensibilities of Monty Python, the gentle humor of Garrison Keillor or the politician-skewering tirades of Stewart and Colbert tickle me. I have the hardest time appreciating modern literary satire. When I commit to spending a few days with a book, I want story. Good, old-fashioned, beginning-middle-end story, not cynical commentary wrapped in wit.

Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins is the marriage of gentle social satire with old-fashioned story-telling; a marriage that gives life to a delightfully original and brave novel. Like any skilled satirist, Walter creates a world that is slightly off-kilter – not bizarre, not unbelievable- just a sense that something, somehow is slightly amiss. The reader is always a bit wobbly – guaranteeing she will take nothing for granted in the narrative.

The title Beautiful Ruins refers to one of novel’s central themes: the inevitable crumbling of youth, of promise, of dreams. There are so many beautiful ruins in this story, which takes place in 1962 Italy and present-day Hollywood, with a bit of contemporary Spokane and Edinburgh and 1970’s Seattle tossed in, not to forget a slight detour to the Sierra Nevada mountains in the 1850’s.

Among the ruins we find the village of Porto Vergogna and the dreams of its most ambitious resident, hotel owner Pasquale Tursi; the actress Dee Moray, who comes to Porto Vergogna in 1962 to convalesce; Alvis Bender, a war veteran turned writer who can’t write past his first chapter; the legendary movie producer Michael Deane, who has made a beautiful ruin of his face with Botox and plastic surgery; Deane’s assistant Claire Silver, whose love life and career represent everything she hates about sell-out, superficial Los Angeles; former Seattle grunge rocker Pat Bender, a mid-life shamble of addiction and self-loathing; and aspiring screenwriter Shane Wheeler, who delivers one of the book’s most surprising chapters, a pitch for a movie about that great ruin of the American frontier spirit: the doomed Donner party.

That’s a heckuva lot of characters (and there are more, far more!) and this is a heckuva lot of story. Yet it works, in all its madcap and poignant twists, thanks to Walter’s crisp writing and efficient plotting. You fall in love with these characters – Walter gives them such soul, your heart is constantly tugged. This is a book you could read in the space of a Sunday, not because it’s simple, but because you simply don’t want to put it down. I waver and withhold a fifth star because the Hollywood scenes feel a bit thin and fantastical to me – there’s that satire twitch of mine – and I couldn’t quite connect with Claire, who holds a pivotal role, until she, well, I don’t want to spoil things.

If you don’t care for Hollywood endings, you might feel cheated by Walter’s wrap-up of his intertwined story lines. Me? I’m a sucker for spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of satire go down.

Richard Burton makes a brilliantly comic cameo; it is in fact this famous actor for whom the book is titled, after Louis Menard’s piece in The New Yorker: “[Dick] Cavett’s four great interviews with Richard Burton were done in 1980….Burton, fifty-four at the time, and already a beautiful ruin, was mesmerizing.”

Jess Walter uses his characters and their exploits to poke firmly but not cruelly at the bubbles of pop culture, our adoration of celebrity and beauty and the fickle nature of the film and publishing industries. Not to mention the fickle and fleeting nature of love. He shows the folly of great expectations and the beautiful ruins of unfulfilled hopes and dreams. It is a charming literary mosaic.
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