Everything Jhumpa Lahiri does is informed by her immersion a few years ago in the Italian language. As she recounts in the lavish, and immensely capacious, volume she has just edited, The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories , in 2012 while still based in the U.S., she chose to read only in Italian, and thereafter moved to Italy. She subsequently wrote in Italian, including her fascinating reading/ writing memoir In altre parole (translated into English by Ann Goldstein as In Other Words ). Now a professor of creative writing at Princeton University in the U.S., the American writer of Indian origin subsequently took to translating Italian works into English.
Lahiri has translated two novels by Italian writer Domenico Starnone, Ties and Trick . And here in the anthology of 40 short stories, many have been rendered into English by her. Many writers may already be familiar to non-Italian readers, including Italo Calvino, Natalia Ginzburg, Primo Levi, Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante, but overall it’s a collection full of prompts to discover more writing by the listed authors. Yet, Lahiri does something more than simply present her list. She conditions the reader to see the group of writers as a collective, with all sorts of hybridity defining their profiles as writers as well as their texts.
It helped that she was encountering writerly lives in their entirety — all living writers were eliminated while arriving at the final selection, which gathered together “many of the authors who have inspired my love for Italian literature, and for the Italian short story in particular”. Having narrowed her selection to 40, she found that many of the writers have known and influenced each other. She also found that they were “hybrid individuals”: “They were writers of fiction and at the same time they were almost always other things: poets, journalists, visual artists, musicians.”
Many had day jobs. But most interestingly, and it’s something that Lahiri brings out vividly in her short profiles of each writer: “…the vast majority were translators, living, reading and writing astride two languages or more.” Her own literary evolution may have made her particularly alert to this aspect, but her short profiles of each writer vividly highlight her point that “the act of translation, central to their artistic formation, was a linguistic representation of their innate hybridity.”
This hybridity, she says with reference to curiosity today about the identity of Elena Ferrante, is seen in the number of writers who wrote by another name, sometimes choosing a pseudonym or changing their names, sometimes for personal reasons but also to protect themselves. Natalia Ginzburg, for instance. The Jewish writer published her first collection of stories while in hiding in the early 1940s, due to the anti-Semitic Racial Laws, under the pseudonym Alessandra Tornimparte. After the fall of Benito Mussolini, it was published under Ginzburg’s own name — and Lahiri lets it slip silently that the story in the selection, ‘My Husband’, was suggested to her by Ginzburg’s daughter, Alessandra.
Ginzburg’s example is a reminder that all, barring one, of these writers felt the “reality of Fascism”, with all its violence against the human spirit, including against language itself by seeking to expunge foreign words. As Lahiri writes, “The entire twentieth century can be read as a battle of wills between the wall Fascism sought to erect around Italy and Italian culture, and those — many of the writers are very much among them — determined, despite running grave risks, to break it down.” Two of the writers here, Lahiri reminds us, were taken to Nazi concentration camps, one escaped before getting there, and many lived in hiding because they were Jewish or because they joined the Anti-Fascist resistance.
The need to keep the historical backdrop against which these stories were written is underlined by Lahiri’s chronology at the end, with two headings placed side by side: Literary Events and Historical Events.
Among the most awe-inspiring discoveries for me in this volume is a very short story by Goffredo Parise called ‘Melancholy’, translated by Lahiri. It is drawn from Sillabari , published in the original as two volumes in 1972 and 1982. Each story is evidently about a single emotion, and in ‘Melancholy,’ a seven-year-old girl experiences the emotion in a deeply personal and social context before her grandfather puts a name to it, an act of translation between the felt and the spoken.
Mini Kapoor is Ideas Editor, The Hindu.