Here’s a personal essay worth reading, by the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, in which she recounts her struggle to learn the Italian language, and what she’s gained out of it. Lahiri writes about how she worked for years and years to master Italian, with several teachers, but nothing worked — until she decided to move to Rome. In preparation, she forced herself only to read in Italian. Excerpts:
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 make a list of terms to look up, to learn. Imbambolato, sbilenco, incrinatura,capezzale (dazed, lopsided, crack, bedside or bolster). Sgangherato, scorbutico,barcollare, bisticciare (unhinged, crabby, sway, bicker). After I finish a book, I’m thrilled. It seems like a feat. I find the process demanding yet 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.
In this period I feel like a divided person. My writing is nothing but a reaction, a response to reading. In other words, a kind of dialogue. The two things are closely bound, interdependent.
Now, however, I write in one language and read exclusively in another. I am about to finish a novel, so I’m necessarily immersed in the text. It’s impossible to abandon English. Yet my stronger language already seems behind me.
Living in Rome — which is to say, in the Italian language — was very hard at first, but gradually Lahiri made the metamorphosis into a writer and speaker of Italian. And this occasioned a deeper change:
As I said before, I think that my writing in Italian is a flight. Dissecting my linguistic metamorphosis, I realize that I’m trying to get away from something, to free myself. I’ve been writing in Italian for almost two years, and I feel that I’ve been transformed, almost reborn. But the change, this new opening, is costly; like Daphne, I, too, find myself confined. I can’t move as I did before, the way I was used to moving in English. A new language, Italian, covers me like a kind of bark. I remain inside: renewed, trapped, relieved, uncomfortable.
Why am I fleeing? What is pursuing me? Who wants to restrain me?
The most obvious answer is the English language. But I think it’s not so much English in itself as everything the language has symbolized for me. For practically my whole life, English has represented a consuming struggle, a wrenching conflict, a continuous sense of failure that is the source of almost all my anxiety. It has represented a culture that had to be mastered, interpreted. I was afraid that it meant a break between me and my parents. English denotes a heavy, burdensome aspect of my past. I’m tired of it.
And yet I was in love with it. 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.
Read the whole thing. It’s really quite thought-provoking. And here are the thoughts it provoked in me.
I have always wanted to speak French — not for complicated reasons of my personal psychology, as with Lahiri, but because I think it’s the most beautiful language (Italian, to my ear, is the only thing that can compare), and because of my deep affection for French culture.
On the other hand, how can I be sure there are no ulterior psychological motives behind my love of French? Lahiri explains that she came to the US from India as a girl, and never mastered her native tongue, Bengali. And, she became a successful writer in a language that was not originally her own. There are deep issues of identity here, issues that aren’t apparent to me, in my own life. On the other hand, I have written at length about how culturally alien I felt growing up in the rural South because I didn’t care for hunting, athletics, country music, and the other things that are part of our local culture. I turned first to my cosmopolitan great-great aunts, who lived in a cabin nearby. Their little cabin was a haven for me as a tiny boy, and I loved above all their stories about serving in France as Red Cross nurses in World War I.
Perhaps the seed of Francophilia was planted there, before I started elementary school. Perhaps I came to see in France the representative of all I aspired to be, and an escape from all that was in front of me, for which I seemed so ill-suited. Forty years later, when I read these words from the Francophilic essayist Adam Gopnik, I understood exactly the appeal of France, and especially of Paris, to me:
We are happy, above all, when we are absorbed, and we are absorbed when we are serious, and the secret of Paris, in the end, is that the idea of happiness it presents is always mingled, I do not always know how, with a feeling of seriousness.
That sense of serious happiness, of pleasure allied to education … this tincture of seriousness infiltrates our happiness, giving it dignity. In Paris, Americans achieve absorption without obvious accomplishment, a lovely and un-American emotion.
Paris is my favorite city because I feel “serious happiness” there in a way that I do not anywhere else. When we were living there for a month three autumns ago, I felt more at home in the world than I do in the place where I was born. What a mystery! I can’t explain it, but I recognize it. I envied my sister Ruthie so much because she was completely at ease in our home. She had a sense of harmony that I could not manage, and even cannot manage today. Truth to tell, I think that’s less a matter of place than of character. If I were rich and living happily in the Sixth Arrondissement, a block away from Poîlane and two blocks from Huîtrerie Régis, I would think every day about Starhill, and there would be a part of me that would not be satisfied living away from it.
Even so, the English language is not for me, as for Jhumpa Lahiri, a thorn in my side. In fact, it was, and is, my liberty and my joy. As a writer, my intimacy with the English language is so tied to it that I cannot imagine my self apart from English. I would love to try on French, to work at it enough to become fluent, to see what kind of writer I could be in the French language. Would I discover different parts of myself? Would I discover aspects of the world around me that were hidden to English-speaking me? Who am I apart from English? I would like to find out, but such an opportunity is unlikely to come my way. Anyway, it seems from Lahiri’s essay that her “infatuation” (her word) with Italian was driven in part by her conflicted feelings about English. I don’t have that whip driving me forward.
For me, though, I turn to the language of cooking to work out an alternative sense of self. For me, the greatest joys in life have to do with language — writing, reading — and food (cooking, eating). I am not much of a cook, but I cook with enthusiasm. It thrills me to take ordinary ingredients and confect them in such a way to give people at my table pleasure. For some reason, cooking satisfies me in a way writing cannot. I never, ever know if what I’ve written is any good, and I find it hard to think about it, to be honest. I will never be as good a writer as I want to be. But when I cook, I know without any doubt whether it’s good, bad, or so-so — and I am confident in my ability to improve. I write because I am; I cook because it gives me pleasure.
A thought: what if I were told by an evil genie that I could never write again, but I would be paid my same salary to cook interestingly every day of my life? In other words, what if I had to confine my creative expression to the language of the kitchen, and master it? That — not learning French, but that — would be the rough equivalent of doing the Jhumpa Lahiri experiment.
How about you? For you readers who are speak more than one language, how are you different from language to language? How do you account for the difference? Are you more yourself in one language than in the other — and if so, what does it mean to “be yourself”?