In the six years that he spent in Mumbai as a teacher of the Italian language at Mumbai University, Roberto Bertilaccio acquainted himself with Hindi as well as bookstores around the city. But when he moved to Delhi in 2015, to concurrently teach Italian at Delhi University and Jamia Milia Islamia, Bertilaccio was surprised to find Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s books in the bestseller sections of bookstores in the capital. His linguistic worlds were melding into each other as he watched the global appreciation for Ferrante, the Neapolitan quartet and the “exotic” appeal of Naples for the Anglophone world, as well as the buzz around Pulitzer-winning American novelist Jhumpa Lahiri writing in Italian.
That’s what got Bertilaccio to look into the works of both these acclaimed authors – who have a huge following in the Anglophone world – with a view to exploring common elements. To begin with, there is Ann Goldstein, the editor at the American magazine New Yorker, who has translated Ferrante’s books from Italian to English, as well as Lahiri’s Italian book In Altre Parole into the English In Other Words. Having immersed herself in the Italian language for much of the last decade, Lahiri moved to Rome, and has, at several literary fora, explained her reasons for not translating her own work in Italian into her prima lingua English.
However, Bertilaccio says he felt no uneasiness while reading In Altre Parole. “I was aware that the writer is not Italian and it isn’t her language. It is also not a novel and so the expectations were different. I did not feel any gap or distortion between whatever she is talking about and the style. I did not find her choice of word strange or unnatural or naive.”
Drawing on the critique of Ferrante by Tiziana De Rogatis, a professor at Università per Stranieri di Siena, Bertilaccio notes the common elements between Ferrante’s characters and Lahiri’s evolution with the Italian language as nothing short of “smarginatura”.
Ferrante has created new literary models of female identity, explains Bertilaccio. But while her characters are secure in themselves, even in their struggles, sometimes they are on the verge of crises, constantly struggling between choices.
“Smarginatura” – a word that Ferrante employs in her novels – cannot be easily translated into English. Goldstein has worded it as “dissolving margins” across Ferrante’s now-famous Neapolitan quartet. Said Bertilaccio, “Smarginatura is the experience of Lila, Ferrante’s character, right from the first book of the quartet My Brilliant Friend. Across all four books, Lila is in and out of margins. Compared to her friend Elena, she is the one who is constantly exposing herself (to situations) and is thus seen as less defensive.”
This exposing of oneself is extremely painful and yet vital for metamorphosis, and Lahiri, says Dr Bertilaccio, has expressed this kind of metamorphosis as important to her too, especially as she grasped the Italian language.
But Lahiri’s admiration of Ferrante, and of her own “smarginatura”, goes beyond mere fandom. Lahiri has previously spoken about how, having read Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment in English, she felt the desperate need to read it in Italian, and she did so as she developed her own skill as a reader of the language. She said:
“It was one of those reading experiences that changed my life, pushed me over the edge as a reader of the Italian language. I decided to write two letters to Ferrante, because I felt this was the only way I could express what effect she had had on me as a reader. I wrote to her about her choice as an author to be present solely in terms of her writing, at least for our consumption and accessibility, and my admiration for this radical step to not participate in the publication of her books…”
Giving her a vision beyond the surface, “smarginatura” happens unwillingly to Lila. For Lahiri to put herself in the uncomfortable situation of not just learning but also writing in a new language is also about seeing beyond the surface, even it that might cost her her self image.
Bertilaccio feels that Ferrante has influenced Lahiri’s writing style in the Italian. In Altre Parole was born out of a collection of essays that Lahiri wrote during the one-and-a-half years she lived in Rome, and was invited to write for the politics and literary magazine Internazionale about her experiences in Italy and with the language. “The complete book as it is today is much more complex and is a mix of genre.” Said Bertilaccio. “On the one hand, it is like a journal as she follows her experience in a chronological way, while on the other hand, it is a coming-of-age book: a child (in language) becomes an adult, through different experiences, becomes more aware. The book is also a theory on literature and writing.”
He elaborated on this inspiration: “Apart from ‘smarginatura’, the idea of ‘sorveglianza’ or ‘watchfulness’ is typical of Lila, whereby the woman is acutely aware of whatever is happening to her and her children. The word can denote the act of policing, but in this context it is the psychological state typical of women. Lahiri’s writing has that kind of ‘sorveglianza’, about her own literary steps into Italian, with a continuous questioning of her own explorations, to reach some clarity, in each chapter.”
Lahiri’s journey also mirrors the “innesto” as experienced by another Ferrante character Leda. In The Lost Daughter (not part of the quartet) Leda abandons her two daughters for three years to escape from her unhappiness over the failure of “innesto” or “graft” – bonding – with her children. “Lahiri says her approach to the Italian language was also ‘innesto’, a graft, because inserting grafts are risky,” said Bertilaccio. “For Lahiri, the possibly ‘wrong graft’ with its imperfections is the premise of her book. For her, the frustration and the imperfection of a new linguistic process puts her closer to a new way of creativity.”
In Altre Parole is divided into different chapters, each with a title that is a metaphor, which is about Lahiri’s process of learning the different linguistic and cultural nuances of the language during her journey. Lahiri, Bertilaccio asserts, chooses to write from such a context of displacement.
Ferrante is absconding from her real identity by creating a new one, but is also speaking openly about her childhood experiences, her vision of global politics, through her publisher. In her new collection of essays and interviews, titled Frantumaglia – another word that is difficult to translate and could be best understood as debris – she recounts her childhood, adolescence, and her life as a teacher. “Ferrante is thus described as a character: not just as an author whose story isn’t known, but one with an identity and a story of the past,” said Bertilaccio.
But Lahiri has been erasing her English literary background and starting from scratch as a writer in Italian, throwing herself into the mouth of a new language, by ignoring her own existence as an award-winning writer in English.
“Here in Italy where I am very comfortable, I feel more imperfect than ever…every day when i speak and write in Italian, I meet with imperfection...this reveals that I am not rooted in this language…Why, as an adult, as a writer, am I interested in this new imperfection? What does this offer to me? I would say, a stunning clarity, a more profound imperfection…Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity...It stimulates…the more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive. I have been writing since a child to forget my imperfections, in order to hide in the background of life. In a certain sense, writing is an extended homage to imperfection…I consider a book alive only during the writing. Afterwards, at least for me, it dies.”