Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Jhumpa Lahiri and the Rapture of Italian

I am not a full-time literary critic, which has one particular advantage: I get to choose which books I review. And I jumped at the chance to review a new anthology of Italian short stories in translation, curated by none other than Jhumpa Lahiri, someone who's so far had two distinct literary lives -- one fabulously successful one in English, and one, unexpectedly and joyously, in Italian. I reviewed the anthology for the Three Percent Blog, run by the University of Rochester's one-of-a-kind literary translation program. And in reviewing it, I gleefully found I have a kindred spirit in Lahiri as she, too, is drawn to overlooked Italian women writers whose work should reach wider audiences. In particular, the anthology includes the five authors writer Dacia Maraini calls her "literary mothers": Lalla Romano, Anna Maria Ortese, Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg and Fausta Cialente.

Here is a short excerpt -- read the whole review at Three Percent's site, and prepare to become intrigued by authors you may have never heard of before!

Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories ed. Jhumpa Lahiri
Translated from the Italian by Various
528 pgs. | hc | 9780241299838 | $30.00
Penguin Random House
Review by Jeanne Bonner

Novels and memoirs often become labors of love for the authors who birth them. But what about an anthology? How often do we imagine the editor of a large, door-stopper compilation of, say, short stories, calling the arduous task of sorting and selecting the entries a labor of love? And what if the short stories are in a foreign language and the editing also involved commissioning new translations and tracking down old ones?
Author Jhumpa Lahiri, who edited the new Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, doesn’t use those exact words in the anthology’s introduction, but she comes pretty close as she describes what inspired her to want to curate such a collection. It’s of a piece with what inspired her in 2012 (a dozen years after winning the Pulitzer Prize) to move her family to Rome so she could surround herself with the Italian language: “I surrendered to an inexplicable urge to distance myself, to immerse myself and to acquire a second literary formation.” That second literary formation she mentions (it makes me think of “formazione,” which in Italian means training or education) has been fruitful. In addition to publishing two books in Italian, including In Other Words, based on the Italian diary she kept in Rome, Lahiri has translated Domenico Starnone’s novels Ties and Trick, and now the short stories of underappreciated or overlooked authors such as Corrado Alvaro, Aldo Palazzeschi, and Fabrizia Raimondo—all of which appear in the anthology.
It’s not unprecedented for an author to go abroad and lose her head over a language and a country (James Joyce also decamped to Italy, and would converse with his children in Italian; James Baldwin lived for decades in France, as did Mavis Gallant). But how often does such an author—especially one gifted enough to receive this country’s highest literary honor—master the new language enough to write in it or translate important works, as she has done? Indeed, Lahiri’s role as not only a booster of Italian lit, but also a practitioner arguably transformed the process of editing and curating the Penguin anthology (just as, in her diary, she wrote how Rome had transformed her). The result is a primer on short fiction from Italy that, given its thorough and nuanced selections, will likely be used as a college text. Indeed, Lahiri’s inclusion of a side-by-side chronology of Italian literary and historical events—a copy of which may go up on my wall—is peerless in a general interest book of this kind.