Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (transl. by the author): ’Solitude: it’s become my trade’

Cover image for Whereabouts by Jhumpa LahiriFour years ago, I was sent a book by Jhumpa Lahiri which had intrigued me when I saw it listed as a translated work. In Other Words is her account of a passion for the Italian language so intense she uprooted her family from the US so that she could immerse herself in it. The memoir was written in Italian, then translated by Anne Goldstein. Lahiri has since translated other writers’ work, including Domenico Starnone’s Ties which begins with a memorably explosive burst of anger. Whereabouts was also written in Italian but this time translated by herself. This elegantly slim novella records a year or so in the life of a middle-aged woman who lives on the fringes of other people’s worlds.

Even though it’s Saturday there’s still a dash of elegance to how people are dressed: the bold shade of a jacket, a bright scarf, the tight lines of a dress. It feels like a party effortlessly organised at the last minute

Our unnamed narrator has lived in the same city since she was born. She’s an only child, the daughter of a mother with whom she had a fractious relationship as a child, and a distant father, struck down with a fever on the eve of a birthday visit to the theatre. Her only serious relationship ended after five years in the discovery of betrayal. Her friends envy her quiet, self-contained life, their own filled with the bustle and mess of family while she looks on fastidiously. As she walks through the streets she’s known all her life, she speculates about the people she sees, embroidering lives for them while they treat her with courtesy but little else. When she understands that an infatuation she’s been considering with a friend’s husband is unrequited she decides to push the boundaries of her attenuated life, accepting a fellowship in a neighbouring country. As she travels on the train, sitting neatly, quietly reading her book, a family enters her carriage, noisy and generous with each other, politely apologising for their clamour when they get off, leaving her to her regret at not joining them in the picnic they’d offered to share.

Solitude demands a precise assessment of time, I’ve always understood this. It’s like the money in your wallet: you need to know how much time you need to kill, how much to spend before dinner, what’s left over before going to bed

This is such a keenly observed piece of writing, suffused with a melancholy solitude occasionally broken by encounters with friends, colleagues and dutiful visits to our narrator’s mother. Lahiri’s prose is beautiful in its simplicity, descriptions of the unnamed Italian city in which her novel is set singing out from the page. Poetic, impressionistic vignettes, convey our narrator’s life and character – her disgust at the clutter of the hotel room in which she must spend three miserable days during an academic conference; her shame at her uncharacteristic outburst at a dinner party; her daily walk past the commemorative plaque to a man she never knew but often contemplates. Small details are slipped in so that we come to understand why our narrator’s life is so circumscribed, forever the outsider living off the scraps of others. In its precise, understated beauty, Lahiri’s novella reminded me of Mary Costello’s Academy Street: high praise indeed from me.

Bloomsbury: London 9781526629951 176 pages Hardback

35 thoughts on “Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (transl. by the author): ’Solitude: it’s become my trade’”

  1. It’s been a while since I read Jhumpa Lahiri but I’ve enjoyed her work so I really should get back to her. I remember also being intrigued by In Other Words. This sounds deeply melancholy but so closely observed. She’s a very sensitive writer.

  2. Since I’m learning Italian, I’ve come across her in that context. I didn’t realise that she was a novelist, though. Now I’m wondering whether I should try her in English or Italian.

  3. jenniferbeworr

    I am of course intrigued. My mind turns to my 18 year old who has been forced to read so much for school and does not choose to in read at all in her spare time. She can read in Italian and hopes to spend part of her upcoming gap year in Rome. Whereabouts might be a good gift for her. I’m excited by Lahiri as she follows passions and pulls that off in ways not many of us manage to do! There’s my 5 (million) cents and thank you. Jenny

    1. That’s so sad but I sympathise with your daughter. School ruined poetry for me. I hope she finds her way back to reading and enjoys her gap year, too. Lahiri’s love affair with the Italian language is intriguing. She’s clearly very good at it.

  4. As you can imagine, I am fascinated by bilingualism, especially one acquired later in life. I haven’t read this yet, but I too have heard that her style has shifted subtly since she started writing in Italian.

    1. My partner asked me to explain what I meant by ‘more European’ when we discussed the book and I couldn’t find the words but there’s definitely been a shift. I’d be interested to hear what you think if you read it.

  5. I’m not sure I would have paid attention to this book had it not been for your review, so thanks. I’m really intrigued by this character living “on the fringes of other people’s worlds”.

  6. This is already high on my wishlist, it sounds so beautifully observed. I also want to read In Other Words having read a novel that Jhumpa Lahiri translated from Italian.

  7. I think it’s incredibly impressive that Lahiri can write so fluently in Italian and translate that work into English. It’s the perfect partnership between writer and translator!

    1. I agree, Jacqui. In a strange coincidence I picked a random book off the TBR pile to find it, too, was written in Italian by an American who translated it herself – Heddi Goodrich’s Lost in the Spanish Quarter! Very different kind of book, though.

  8. I’ve just picked up my copy of this today (curbside) and it’ll sit in its homemade quarantine for a few days more until I dive in. It was much smaller/shorter than I was expecting from The Lowland (which was her prior novel, I believe, with the Italian work in the middle there?) so I’m curious now.

  9. Lovely review! I have read “ In Other Words” and this sounds like it would make a good companion book. I love learning languages and I am intrigued by any work that a writer attempts in a language other than his or her own.

  10. I recently encountered the work of Jhuma Lahiri. I’m italian and I read the italian version of “In Other words”. I also enjoyed reading the italian version of “The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories” curated by Jhumpa Lahiri. Several of the stories have been translated into English by Lahiri herself.
    This collection brings together forty italian writers of the twentieth century.

    I want to quote a passage from a review of this book by the italian journalist Beppe Severgnini:

    Out of the 40 stories included in the anthology, 16 had never before been translated into English, and 8 were re-translated. Many of the authors included in the anthology were themselves translators[…]. Some had been ignored or forgotten, even in Italy. Almost all, writes the editor, were, like her, “hybrid individuals with multiple proclivities, identities, signatures and shadows.” To have re-discovered, edited, and re-proposed these authors is laudable. But Lahiri went further: she understood them.

    Now I’m going to read both the italian and english version of “whereabouts”

    1. Thanks so much for your enlightening comment. I’m both fascinated and in awe of Lahiri’s achievement. It’s clear from the Severgnini passage you quote that she’s immersed herself in Italian literature. If you have time, I’d love to hear how you think the Italian and English versions of Whereabouts compare.

  11. Why not? I’ll try after the books reading.
    In the meantime I can just add some notes.

    In a previous comment someone wrote “her style has shifted subtly since she started writing in Italian”.

    This is interesting beacuse some of the italian writers she chose for the collection, during their activity, tried to shift style, for example using experimental prose or different genre of themes. So we can look at “Whereabouts” as a new step of the Lahiri artistic work. And she has other irons in the fire …
    I know she publishes her first book of poetry in Italy in June. I’m not sure but it may have some parts of poetry and some parts of prose. The title is “Il quaderno di Nerina” – “Nerina notebook”. (I don’t know if there is already an english version).
    Now she is working on a collection of short stories again written in Italian – “Roman Stories”.

    1. That would be lovely. Thank you!

      I felt her style had changed, too. It seemed more European than her previous writing to me although I’d be hard pressed to explain precisely what I mean by that. I’m even more impressed to hear that she’s writing poetry in Italian. Truly, a love affair with a language!

  12. Here I’am!

    In my opinion “Whereabouts”/”Dove mi trovo” is a involving representation of the the soul of a person. The description of the doubts, insecurities and questions of the narrator is a really good work of literature.

    If I try to compare english and italian version I can say they keep the same mood. I think there aren’t major differences between the two books. I see only one major difference, not so important anyway. The novel often is related to “an unnamed place or unnamed city” in articles and reviews. In the italian version there is a reference to the cobblestones of a street with a particular italian word. It’s a typical square cobble used for paving streets in Rome.
    For an italian reader it’s a clear indication. In the english version that type of cobbletones are just “cobblestones”.
    Of course there are some italian common saying that can’t be translated in english and they were translated with more meaningful sentences in english.

    On the other hand there are some subtle differences about the translation and the choises of the author (we know in this case author and translator are the same person).
    For example when the woman visits her mother she brings some cookies “wrapped up on a gilt-colored cardboard tray”. In the italian version there is just a word: “vassoio” (tray). As far as I know the object described is often used by italian pastry shops. Maybe it is not common in other countries.
    In any case I believe it conveys the accessory idea of something that wants to be joyful and childish. In this case the author don’t choose to translate “vassoio” as a simple “container for the pastries” but she wants to represent that kind of image and feeling. And she did.

    I found other examples and it was very interesting.

    1. Thank you so much. Very kind of you to take the time and trouble to leave such a thoughtful and luminating comment. Your observation about the cobblestones is particularly interesting. I thought Lahiri had left the city nameless to emphasize the narrator’s feelings of dislocation in her own city but clearly an Italian reader wouldn’t share that idea. I think my contact at her publisher would be interested in your comment. May I forward it to her?

  13. I imagine it’s very likely that these considerations have already made. In any case, thanks for your appreciation. I also enjoyed this site. You can use those notes.

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