In this period I feel like a divided person

Lafayette Street (The Stars That Guided Me Recede) ©MAIERMOUL
Lafayette Street (The Stars That Guided Me Recede) ©MAIERMOUL

In preparation, I decide, six months before our departure, not to read in English anymore.

From now on, I pledge to read only in Italian. It seems right, to detach myself from my principal language. I consider it an official renunciation. I’m about to become a linguistic pilgrim to Rome. I believe I have to leave behind something familiar, essential.

Suddenly, none of my books are useful. They seem like ordinary objects. The anchor of my creative life disappears, the stars that guided me recede. I see before me a new room, empty.

Whenever I can—in my study, on the subway, in bed before going to sleep—I immerse myself in Italian. I enter another land, unexplored, murky. A kind of voluntary exile. Although I’m still in America, I already feel elsewhere. Reading, I feel like a guest, happy but disoriented. Reading, I no longer feel at home.

I read Moravia’s “Gli Indifferenti” (“Time of Indifference”) and “La Noia” (“The Empty Canvas”). Pavese’s “La Luna e i Falò” (“The Moon and the Bonfires”). The poetry of Quasimodo, of Saba. I manage to understand and at the same time I don’t understand. I renounce expertise to challenge myself. I trade certainty for uncertainty.

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.

-Jhumpa Lahiri, from Teach Yourself Italian, The New Yorker, December 2015