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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical

In Other Words

Jhumpa Lahiri

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase In Other Words

Title: In Other Words
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Genre: Autobiographical
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 231 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: In Other Words - US
In Other Words - UK
In Other Words - Canada
In Other Words - India
En d'autres mots - France
In altre parole - Italia
  • Italian title: In altre parole
  • Translated by Ann Goldstein
  • This is a bilingual edition that includes the original Italian version

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting personal account

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 5/2/2016 Jan Dalley
The Guardian . 30/1/2016 Tessa Hadley
Harper's . 1/2016 Christine Smallwood
The Hindu . 14/2/2016 Mini Kapoor
The Independent . 28/1/2016 Roma Tearne
Irish Times . 20/2/2016 Eileen Battersby
The LA Times A 18/2/2016 Karen Long
The NY Rev. of Books . 24/3/2016 Tim Parks
The NY Times D 10/2/2016 Dwight Garner
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/3/2016 Joseph Luzzi
The Spectator . 20/2/2016 Lee Langley
The Times . 30/1/2016 Roger Lewis
Wall St. Journal . 6/2/2016 Ben Downing
The Washington Post A+ 28/1/2016 Howard Norman

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus; some think it's wonderful, but some very critical

  From the Reviews:
  • "Yet what initially appears artless is of course not that. The progress of the book mirrors Lahiriís growing confidence and skill in the language, her obsession with it, immersion in it, and the texts become more layered, more linguistically adventurous." - Jan Dalley, Financial Times

  • "Lahiriís book feels starved of actual experiences of Italy, or reflections on how that language gives form to its different world. Monkishly, all her contemplation is turned inwards on to her own processes of learning, not outwards on the messy imperfect matter the language works to express." - Tessa Hadley, The Guardian

  • "No one would deny that a native speaker has capacities and instincts that the learner clumsily flails at, and Lahiri does a lovely job of documenting the effort it takes to get hold of these -- or fail to do so." - Christine Smallwood, Harper's

  • "In Other Words is a haunting book, drawing the reader into Lahiriís linguistic pilgrimage, and the reinvention and self-inquiry set off by that simple switch to a new language, one which she will not master as fully as she has English. Itís an unsettling read, because once she is past the logistics of the move to Rome and the internal rules set to read and write only in Italian, you keep wondering whether fluency in a language helps self-expression." - Mini Kapoor, The Hindu

  • "Lahiri has written an astonishingly sincere book on the mechanics and mystery that surrounds the creative process." - Roma Tearne, The Independent

  • "(A)n impressionistic and unexpectedly painful, clinical and at times strained, account of her struggle to master Italian. (...) It is difficult to detect any warmth within In Other Words only an aspiration to excel and, after all, ambition can prove a distancing motivation, as it does here. There is no celebration, only struggle; no humour merely frustration." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "Reading In Other Words is deeply pleasurable. It puts one in the company of a beautiful mind engaged in a sustained and bracing discipline. Lahiri's sensibility exists in exquisite counterpoint to a culture besotted with selfies." - Karen Long, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(A) slim memoir that examines her long sense of lexical displacement. (...) In Other Words is, sadly, a less ecstatic experience for you and me. Itís a soft, repetitive, self-dramatic and self-hobbled book, packed with watercolor observations (.....) Ms. Lahiri, writing in Italian, at this point seems only a lesser version of herself, a full orchestra reduced to tentative woodwinds." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "(A) book that is everywhere about displacement and the discoveries it can lead to." - Joseph Luzzi, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is essentially a literary memoir, a passionate love letter to language and to Italy. (...) For anyone remotely interested in grammar, the chapter on the minefield of Italian prepositions and the past imperfect makes entertaining reading. And thereís no academic aridity; the spare, limpid prose of Lahiriís fiction permeates a bold and quirkily engaging self-portrait." - Lee Langley, The Spectator

  • "In altre parole both did and didnít meet my expectations. As a case study, it was interesting, but only in outline. Though Ms. Lahiriís Italian seemed good enough to formulate sentences almost as subtle and probing as her best ones in English, she rarely did so, usually settling for flat, even banal prose. Perplexingly, the subject matter seemed less to have stoked than damped her imagination. (...) Ms. Lahiriís wounded dudgeon and ponderous solemnity might be tolerable if only she had more to say." - Ben Downing, Wall Street Journal

  • "In Other Words is the most evocative, unpretentious, astute account of a writing life I have read. In part, this is because Lahiri so unabashedly asks and answers big and vexing questions (.....) Words like "enduring" and "indispensable" should be saved for only the rarest literary achievements, and the memoir In Other Words is one of those." - Howard Norman, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Author Jhumpa Lahiri has enjoyed considerable critical and popular success with several works of fiction written in English, her second language. She was born to a Bengali family, and Bengali remained the language of the household even after they moved to the United States, where Lahiri grew up; somewhat surprisingly, Lahiri notes that while she speaks it (imperfectly): "I don't know how to read it, or even write it". In Other Words is an attempt at writing in yet another language, Italian, the book itself an account of how she came to write it, and to (try to) learn Italian -- an unusual writer-exercise of finding and working in a new and different language. (Lahiri also chose not to translate her own work into her still dominant language of English; the translation is by Ann Goldstein, and the English edition is a bilingual one, with the Italian original printed facing the English translation.)
       In short chapters her mostly chronological account describes her longtime fascination with Italian ("a fancy of mine") and her efforts at learning it, first while at university, and then recently by full-scale immersion, as she and her family moved to Rome. She describes her constant struggles, first in basic communication, and then later in many of the finer points; among her frustrations is how even when she attains considerable fluency Italians still often address her in English (as she apparently does not look very Italian to Italians -- unlike her Spanish husband).
       With language the basic tool of the writer, the choice to switch languages is an obviously risky one; while not unheard of, in most cases those authors who have done so rarely turn to a new language quite so late (Nabokov learned English in the nursery already, etc.) and what instances there are -- rather too many foreign authors now trying their hands at writing in English in the hopes of breaking into the English-language market more directly -- are often examples of the worst kind.
       In In Other Words Lahiri very effectively describes and presents her groping efforts to try to get a feel of and hold on the new language. She notes that:

     I find that reading in another language is more intimate, more intense than reading in English, because the language and I have been acquainted for only a short time.
       But the more or less passive activity of reading is a very different one from writing -- and Lahiri's ambition is to write in Italian, too. She admits:
     When I write in Italian, I feel like an intruder, an impostor. The work seems counterfeit, unnatural. I realize that I have crossed over a boundary, that I feel lost, in flight. I'm a complete foreigner.
       Yet she's obviously drawn to this aspect of the exercise -- acknowledging also that it is in reaction to her own complex relationship with English:
     By writing in Italian, I think I am escaping both my failures with regard to English and my success. Italian offers me a very different literary path. As a writer I can demolish myself, I can reconstruct myself.
       Other writers have likely dealt with similar personal issues, but few seem to have taken the leap Lahiri has. The English language itself would seem to offer ample opportunities for literary reinvention, so there's clearly more to it than just the linguistic aspect. While Lahiri does reveal a great deal about herself and her life in In Other Words, it's also selective information, and one does get the sense that pieces of this puzzle are being left out.
       This is an interesting personal account of a journey into a new language, and of an effort to find and/or re-shape personal identity (as among the Lahiri's greatest frustrations seems to be how she is perceived -- everywhere -- as foreign). Her fascination with Italian is of course not solely linguistic but must be -- in the largest sense -- cultural, but Lahiri doesn't fully make clear why Italian (as opposed to all the other possible languages). Disappointingly, too, she doesn't consider or examine the other languages in her life that closely either -- Bengali, in particular (especially given the shocking claim that she can't read it), though it's the suggestion that her Latin is quite good that is perhaps the most tantalizing (now there's a language for a modern writer to turn to, a dead one, unencumbered by everything that bogs down a 'living' language like Italian (and all those encounters in it Lahiri describes)).
       In Other Words is a sort of flailing book, of personal reinvention, refracted almost entirely through language and questions of language. Lahiri's presentation of her slowly gaining the necessary command of the language, even as the natural fluency of the writer remains elusive, is effective and interesting -- but it feels more like autobiography (and a good dose of self-analysis) than a through exploration of the basic questions of language and writing itself. It remains largely a personal story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 June 2016

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In Other Words: Reviews: Other books by Jhumpa Lahiri under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Jhumpa Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

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© 2016-2022 the complete review

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