Sunday, February 07, 2016

No exchanges

At the gym the other day I read Jhumpa Lahiri's "Teach Yourself Italian," an essay about her decades' long obsession with Italian and her intermittent attempts to master it. Since I've been studying Italian for a few years myself--and periodically wondering how serious I am and what the next stage of my studies might be--Lahiri's essay had an obvious appeal. I also liked the way she used her struggles with Italian to reflect on her struggles with English, a language her own mother never mastered and that for Lahiri was always fraught with the possibility of failure.

And yet. . . the essay just wasn't very good. It gestured toward interesting ideas, but the language was flat and unsubtle. It didn't sound like Lahiri or like The New Yorker.

But since I had another 30 minutes on the elliptical machine, I kept reading. Lahiri narrated her move to Italy with her family and her decision to start keeping a journal in Italian. At first her writing was comically bad, but she found it freeing to write without regard for errors. Gradually, it got better. And then abruptly, in the middle of a paragraph, Lahiri declared, "If I mention that I'm writing in a new language these days, many people react negatively. In the United States, some advise me not to do it. They say they don't want to read me translated from a foreign tongue."

Wha--? An idea occurred to me. I glanced down to the end of the article: "translated, from the Italian, by Ann Goldstein."

So that's why its prose was so unlovely, so un-Lahiri.

And then I read this, and something pinged in my head:

I became a writer in English. And then, rather precipitously, I became a famous writer. 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. Since then, I've been considered a successful author, so I've stopped feeling like an unknown, almost anonymous apprentice. All my writing comes from a place where I feel invisible, inaccessible. But a year after my first book was published I lost my anonymity.

By writing in Italian, I think I am escaping both my failures with regard to English and my success. Italian offers me a very different literary path. As a writer I can demolish myself, I can reconstruct myself. I can join words together and work on sentences without ever being considered an expert. I'm bound to fail when I write in Italian, but, unlike my sense of failure in the past, this doesn't torment or grieve me.

What this sounds like, to me, is a phenomenon I've been interested in for a while now: the gifted person who dismisses and downgrades her talents precisely because they seem to her so easy, or so undeserved--and then, surprisingly often, decides she might have equal success doing something else.

Think about the professional athlete who walks away from one sport to pick up another he hasn't played since high school. Or the singer who desperately wants to be an actor (or vice versa) and is perplexed when success doesn't follow. In some cases, the model-who-thinks-she-can-be-an-actor-can-be-a-singer may just be arrogantly self-confident, living inside a bubble of fame--but in other cases, the kind I'm interested in, the talented person really does have a conflicted relationship to his or her talent and believes that he or she would be happier, in some way, doing something else.

That's something I have real sympathy for. I'm not sure I have any remarkable talents myself, but I'm certainly better at some things than others (and not necessarily the things I would have chosen). I wish I were a good fiction writer, but I'm not. If I were to quit my job tomorrow and spend the next ten years working on a novel. . . well, I could do that, but there's no evidence to suggest I'd succeed. The fact that I'm a pretty good scholar with a pretty good prose style--and that I've been complimented on and rewarded for those things--does not mean I'd be equally valuable as some other kind of writer.

I believe in doing new things, and I'm all for self-exploration and self-expansion. If Italian has given Lahiri a way to write that doesn't trigger the kind of anxiety and self-doubt she felt in English, that's terrific, and I wish her well. But though she writes better Italian than I ever will, it's in English that she has a notable talent (and others rarely wish to finance our journeys of self-discovery). It's Lahiri's right to give that up and to move on to new things. But we admire--reward--pay for--the rarer skills.

"Gifts" are gifts precisely because they're not chosen.


Servetus said...

It's hard for me to say because I've never understood what captivates readers about Lahiri's writing in English, but isn't it hard to draw that conclusion unless we've read (and understood) her writing in Italian? For people who become very good writers in more than one language (and there are some of these), many times it's precisely because they develop a different relationship with aspects of their thoughts and speech in the newly acquired language. I'd want to have read something of hers in Italian before I judged that she wasn't a gifted writer of that language.

Flavia said...


I suppose that's a fair critique--but (despite appearances!) I actually didn't mean to make this post about Lahiri, whom of course I don't know and whose works I really only have a passing interest in. I'm interested in the larger phenomenon--what it means to discredit or simply be unhappy with one's gifts or honors, and to wish for something else and something other. That, I think, applies to a lot of people, to different degrees.

But I do trust that the translation captures something of the flavor of her writing, just because TNY often publishes works in translation, and because I'm familiar with Goldstein's other translations from Italian. This was not nuanced or reflective prose. (So, I wasn't judging the translation against Lahiri's works in English, though I *was* judging it *as* English, if that makes sense).

Servetus said...

I dunno. I don't read Italian. However, I am a near-native speaker of German, and I have never read a translation of a German book that comes close to capturing the feeling of the original. There are better and worse translations but translations are IMO always inferior, to the extent that when I have to read something in translation (most of Russian literature) and don't enjoy it, I usually include that as a hypothetical factor.

In terms of people walking away -- I sympathize with her a lot, although I was never considered a genius, having walked away from something most people thought was my first, best career choice, something I was really great at. Still, I couldn't do it anymore. You've only got one life. I imagine the problems are even larger for the artistically inclined -- who wants to repeat themselves? They need to go where the inspiration pulls them and where they feel they have the freedom to do what they need to do.

Maybe I don't understand your question.

Flavia said...

Well, perhaps I haven't explained it well--or perhaps no one but me in interested in (or has noticed) this!

Naturally, I agree about the need for artists (and indeed all of us) to keep moving and to keep following their interests. For some people (like David Bowie), constant experimentation and change means long-term success, but for many it can mean leaving success; I think about musicians who disbanded their very successful bands because they didn't want to keep doing the same damn thing forever, and whose experimentations and new projects may not have made them much money, but fed their souls. For all I know, that may be what's happening with Lahiri.

But that's not what I'm talking about.

Maybe what I'm talking about are really two or three separate phenomena. I'm interested, first, in those who have a conflicted relationship to their talent--who may be supremely good at something, but really wish they were good at something else. Maybe that something they dreamed of doing as kids, or did for a while but weren't able to sustain or find a career in. Second, I'm interested in the way that the talented may as a result overestimate their skills in another area, perhaps precisely because their one skill came so relatively easy (or success did, in a highly competitive field).

Basically, I'm interested in those who for reasons that appear mysterious to the rest of us, have something great, but don't particularly value it. I'm not attaching my own value judgment to that behavior in any individual instance, in part because it's not something that can be fully or accurately assessed: maybe I'm just mad that my favorite band broke up, and don't recognize how cool and cutting edge the composer's new work is.

But I'm interested in the internal drama there, and the not knowing: it must be hard, if you're a lauded stage actor who finds acting easy (or, I don't know: who gets crippling stage fright), to make a decision about leaving the stage to do something else: is it a sign of good personal health? Is it following your bliss? Is it hubris to think you'll be as good or as happy at something else? And what if anything do you owe to your supposed talent itself?

It's also possible I've been reading too much early Milton.

Anonymous said...

That's some pretty heavy thinking, being done at the gym there.

Anonymous said...

This is all very interesting, partially because I've been thinking lately about a similar, academic phenomenon. I'm just post-PhD, and I feel like when I look around at my peers, a surprisingly large number of those who have left academia already are those whose path through graduate school was relatively smooth. I'm talking about legitimately brilliant young scholars who got excellent (if non-tenure-track) work upon finishing their dissertations, multiple grants through graduate school, and interviewed everywhere from Harvard on down. I was thinking that these people, perhaps, had seen the best academia had to offer junior scholars, and well, it still didn't give them the job in the city they wanted, or where their partners worked, so they weren't willing to tolerate even lesser situations. But your post suggests another way of looking at it: maybe it's not just that these former colleagues of mine are frustrated by the downsides of even of the best situations 21st-century academia has on offer, but they're also finding that everything came to them just a little too easily.

It's going to be interesting to see whether they're all equally successful in other fields.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Interesting. I'd always assumed people in that situation changed because they got bored (which is a reason I keep pushing myself though I haven't had to make any dramatic changes since I haven't topped out), not because they wanted to prove themselves against their impostor syndrome. (Or, more sadly, to prove their impostor syndrome.)

Flavia said...

Anon 2:40:

That's an interesting and possibly analogous situation. I know one or two people like that myself--but it's so hard to tell, from the outside!

AND ALSO, PEOPLE! Though Lahiri isn't the point of this post, I'm still gratified that the NYT review of her book seems to validate my reading of the essay The New Yorker excerpted.

Dwight Garner sums up my feelings pretty exactly: "Learning to read and write in Italian has clearly been an invigorating experience for Ms. Lahiri. . . . '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. . . . That someone gets a lot out of writing something does not necessarily mean anyone else will get a similar amount from reading that thing. If only literature worked that way."