jhumpa lahiri: 2 posts

Reading for Late Summer Days

It’s the time of les vacances in Brussels. The streets are quiet. The parks are deserted, especially during the week. This summer tourists have taken the warnings of their home countries to heart and have mostly stayed away. I have the city to myself. So I take a book to a park, sit on the grass and read. (It’s a rare luxury in these parts, a fact demonstrated by the distinct lack of outdoor scenery in my picture. It started raining just when I had time for a photography session.)

books summer recommendations

The question then becomes what book to pick. A romance, a detective novel or a great classic? Walt Whitman once commented that the only reason he didn’t become overwhelmed by a steady diet of Sophocles, Homer, Aeschylus, and Dante was “likely because I read them… in the full presence of Nature, under the sun, with the far-spreading landscape and vistas, or the sea rolling in.” My selection is less lofty–simply some of my new and old favorites.

Agota Kristof The Illiterate

It’s fitting that I discovered the work of a Hungarian writing in French while reading a book by an American author writing in Italian. In her explorations of self and language, In Other Words (see my review), Jhumpa Lahiri mentioned being touched by Kristof’s experience. Kristof was born in Hungary and moved to Switzerland in 1956 as a refugee, and while she gained safety, she ended up in a social desert as she lost her language. The Illiterate is a series of stories about her love of reading, her family, her writing. They are tragic but also hopeful, and I related to them. I didn’t cross a frontier as an infant and didn’t have to work at a Swiss watch factory while writing poetry in my spare minutes, but having left the place where I was born, relatives, friends, and the familiar language(s), I can understand the anguish.

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In Other Words : Jhumpa Lahiri’s Italian Peregrinations

“The unknown words remind me that there’s a lot I don’t know in this world,” writes Jhumpa Lahiri in her memoir about learning Italian, In Other Words/In Altre Parole. It was the first sentence I read as I flipped through the slim volume at the bookstore, and I flashed back on years of studying languages and the part I always loved–finding new words and new shades of meaning in the familiar ones.  Words, with their roots borrowed from distant times and places, hid other worlds of experiences, ideas and thoughts, and even as I stumbled upon the strange grammar constructions and irregular verbs, learning a new language felt like an exhilarating journey.


Lahiri’s particular gift as a writer, whether in her collections of short stories, such Interpreter of Maladies for which she won a Pulitzer prize, or in novels like The Namesake is to draw the curtain on the inner world of her characters. In her new book, Lahiri once again focuses on the subtle and the evanescent, but the exploration is of her own self. Without revealing personal details, it’s a strangely intimate and candid book. I read it, feeling alternatively as a voyeur or a trusted confidant. Days after finishing it, I kept missing Lahiri’s soliloquies and I re-read some passages several times. She’s an earnest, thoughtful companion, and her crisp, clear style–in both Italian and English–has the alluring simplicity of a Japanese calligraphy painting. A few lines say volumes.

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