By Randy Kraft
Jhumpa Lahiri, an Indian-American, stunned the literary world in 1999 with a brilliant short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer Prize. She has since published five books, all to great acclaim. Natalia Ginzburg, an Italian born in 1916 who died in 1991, just as Lahiri was finding her voice, is cherished by European literati for her moral insights and anti-Fascist writings. She also turns her sharp eye to the fault lines in relationships. She published more non-fiction than fiction, but is esteemed for introspective novels like Family Lexicon.
The connection is more than skill. Lahiri some years ago made a dramatically sharp turn in her life and writing. She moved to Italy to study Italian, became an award-winning translator, and then wrote a fascinating memoir about it. Now, she has written a slim stream-of-consciousness novel [more like a long story] Whereabouts, written in Italian and then translated for herself. The result is a magical series of observations and profound thoughts about solitude and loneliness and the choices we make, often when we don’t believe we have choices. Little happens, but we are happy to serve as voyeur. Ginzburg might have been her muse.
After I read Whereabouts, I picked up Happiness, As Such, by Ginzburg, a very different novel and yet, the tone, the observational perspective, mirrored Lahiri. Told much in letters, the members of family connect through the wandering son, whose politics have necessitated distance, and through their communications, we come to know them, and also reflect on what it is that connects us, or not.
Beyond these simple descriptions, I will allow you to decide if the voice speaks to you through their own words.
From Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri
When we were together, all I did was listen to him. I would try to solve all his problems, even tiny ones. Every time his back went out, every existential crisis. But by now I can look at him without absorbing a drop of that tiresome anxiety, that ongoing lament.
Solitude demands a precise assessment of time. I’ve always understood this. It’s like the money in your wallet: you have to know how much time you need to kill, how much to spend before dinner, what’s left over before going to bed.
This evening as I read in bed, I hear the roar of cars that speed down the road beneath my apartment. And the fact of their passing makes me aware of my own stillness. I can only fall asleep when I hear them. And when I wake up in the middle of the night, always at the same time, it’s the absolute silence that interrupts my sleep. That’s the hour when there’s not a car on the road, when no one needs to get anywhere. My sleep grows lighter and lighter and then it abandons me entirely. I wait until someone, anyone, turns up on the road. The thoughts that come to roost in my head in those moments are always the gloomiest, also the most precise. That silence, combined with the black sky, takes hold over me until the first light returns and dispels those thoughts, until I hear the presence of lives passing by along the road below me.
Because when all is said and done the setting doesn’t matter: the space, the walls, the light. It makes no difference whether I’m under a clear blue sky or caught in the rain or swimming in the transparent sea in summer. I could be riding a train or traveling by car or flying in a plane, among the clouds that drift and spread on all sides like a mass of jellyfish in the air. I’ve never stayed still. I’ve always been moving, that’s all I’ve ever been doing. Always waiting either to get somewhere or to come back. Or to escape.
Is there any place we’re not moving through? Disoriented, lost at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, severed, turned around. I spring from these terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold.
From Happiness, As Such, by Natalia Ginzburg
Whereabouts was just published in hardcover, Happiness, As Such, is in paperback, although you’ll likely have to order it or borrow from the OCPL, they have it, and both for e-readers. They won’t take long to read, but you’ll remember them for a long time to come.