Much of my reading this year has been preoccupied with writing. I’ve been reading about how Laura Ingalls Wilder’s notebooks and autobiographical writing worked their way into fiction for young readers (Pioneer Girl). Robin Robertson edited Mortification, in which writers discuss work-related embarrassments, often unfolding as they were travelling for readings and public events. Even Angela Thirkell’s novel High Rising considers the life of a young mother who has taken up her pen to support her family after her husband’s death.
Some out-and-out lit crit has also snuck into my stack. Inspired by my reading of Howard’s End and On Beauty, I dipped into Adam Kirsch’s Rocket and Lightship: Ideas on Literature and Ideas for its pieces on E. M. Forster and Zadie Smith.
As a retelling, Zadie Smith’s novel was fascinating reading, although I’m not sure that I would have enjoyed the story on its own terms quite as much.
Does that even matter? The story wouldn’t exist with Forster’s novel and she states that openly.
And does that matter? Couldn’t one say that every story exists on the shoulders of other stories?
This is the kind of circular – but strangely satisfying – idea that spirals when I read literary essays, and even though I don’t think Adam Kirsch’s reading preferences often intersect with my own, these essays got me thinking.
Meredith Maran’s Why We Write about Ourselves is a new collection of essays on the subject of writing memoir. Most of the contributors are well known and the pieces are engaging and varied in tone and style.
This A.M. Homes quote struck me: “Even when you’re thirty-something years old, and you’ve written a bunch of books, and you think you know who you are, the reveal of a piece of information an addition or subtraction to your known narrative, can yank it all out from under you.”
And I always enjoy Edwidge Danticat’s musings on creativity. Here, she writes: “I write memoir to feel less alone.”
Earlier this year I read the first volume in the Paris Review Interview collections, some of which were heavily flagged and unexpectedly too. I mean, I thought I’d enjoy Rebecca West’s interview, but I didn’t have a lot of notes in the end.
Meanwhile, I marked something on almost every page of Richard Price’s interview. He explains how, “in the beginning”, he “had to learn enough about the texture of truth out there in order to have the confidence to make up lies, responsible lies”.
He goes on to say: “We all grow up with ten great stories about our families, our childhoods…they probably have nothing to do with the truth of things, but they’re yours. You know them. And you love them. So use them.”
However, there is no question that Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words was my most-flagged writing-read of the year. Rather than key in the memorable quotes, I was seriously considering scanning series of pages!
Immediately In Other Words strikes the reader as being different, because it has been written and published in two languages – English and Italian – and the text is presented in a parallel format, which allows the reader to follow along methodically in either or both.
My first thought was a practical one, all about the individual words on the pages in front of me, that I would love this book if I was learning Italian.
As I read on, however, I recognized that it was less about the words and more about the story (even though it is non-fiction), that there were two languages on display here but also two selves, two versions or aspects of Jhumpa Lahiri.
“In a certain sense writing is an extended homage to imperfection. A book, like a person, remains imperfect, incomplete, during its entire creation. At the end of the gestation the person is born, then grows, but I consider a book alive only during the writing. Afterward, at least for me, it dies.”
And she seems to feel separated from the English language as well. “A few years later, however, Bengali took a step backward, when I began to read. I was six or seven. From then on my mother tongue was no longer capable, by itself, of rearing me. In a certain sesnse it died. English arrived, a stepmother.”
Nonetheless, her relationship with earlier languages remains significant. “Although I’m fleeing, I realize that both English and Bengali are beside me. Just as in a triangle, one point leads inevitably to another.” She writes: “Writing in another language represents an act of demolition, a new beginning.”
And, so, In Other Words, is a new beginning. One by its very nature attached to other endings and evolutions.
This is the aspect of the work which I most enjoyed, the sheer bookishness of it, reaching beyond any single language and one’s relationship to it.
Here are some of my favourite quotes in that regard:
“Books are the best means – private, discreet, reliable – of overcoming reality.” (“I libri sono I mezzi migliori – private, discreti, affidabili – per scavalcare la realtà.”)
“Every new construction seems a marvel. Every unknown word a jewel.” (“Ogni nuova costruzione sembra una meraviglia. Ogni parola sconosciuta, un gioiello.”)
“I write to feel alone. Ever since I was a child it has been a way of withdrawing, of finding myself. I need silence and solitude.” (“Scrivo per sentirmi sole. Fin da ragazzina è stato un modo di ritirarmi, di ritrovarmi. Mi servono il silenzio e la solitudine.”)
And, perhaps my favourite of all – and it is exceptional in Italian too:
“I think that the power of art is the power to wake us up, strike us to our depths, change us.” (“Credo che il potere dell’arte sia il potere di svegliarci, di colpirci fino in fondo, di cambiarci.”)
What has stood our in your reading year so far?
Are you reading any books about writing?
Is Jhumpa Lahiri on your TBR?