Roman Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri (transl. Jhumpa Lahiri and Todd Portnowitz): An exquisite collection

Cover image for Roman Stories by Jhumpa LahiriBack from my travels, more of which next week, with one I’ve been eagerly anticipating for some time. When I reviewed Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful novella Whereabouts, an Italian reader kindly left a detailed comment describing his response to her translation of the book, which she had originally written in Italian, mentioning that a volume of short stories was in the works. I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled ever since so was delighted to spot Roman Stories on NetGalley. Unsurprisingly, it’s almost impossible to pick favourites from the nine pieces that make up the collection but I’ve done my best.

They were so different from the group I belonged to: those of us born and raised in Rome, who bemoaned the city’s alarming decline but could never leave it behind.

In The Boundary a young girl quietly observes the latest occupants of the holiday let her father oversees, taking pleasure in the kind of ease her own family will never enjoy as outsiders not entirely welcome in the country. The Reentry sees a professor meeting her recently bereaved friend who takes her to a trattoria where the professor meets with racism, barely registered by her friend. A brief exchange after a dramatic event at a friend’s annual party in P’s Parties triggers an erotic obsession, unsettling a middle-aged writer’s routine. In The Procession a couple are in Rome to celebrate the wife’s birthday, planning to see the annual procession that made such an impression in her youth but their ever present loss overshadows the holiday.

At night the steps turn into a kind of ancient amphitheatre, with groups of teenagers seated out in the open, waiting to watch some tragedy unfold. Except they themselves are the spectacle: the nightly drama lies in their exchanges, intense or completely casual, private even though they’re in public.

At the heart of the collection is The Steps, a suite of interlinked pieces following characters who live or work close to the titular steps climbed by a mother every morning who thinks of her son on another continent while she cares for her employers’ children. Later an expat wife runs up the steps, fending off worries about an impending operation; two brothers sit remembering their father after his funeral, a schoolgirl longs to be a part of a group of her peers; a screenwriter thinks about documenting the teenagers who sit on the steps at night unsettling the widow who can no longer sleep. These pieces vividly summon up both the city and the many and varied people who live in it.

I felt a pang of insult but it didn’t fully sink in, like the slip of a dull knife while you’re idly chopping onions, causing a vaguely irksome cut but not a bloody one.

Written in elegant, precise language, Lahiri’s stories are suffused with a quiet empathy for characters who are often living far away from their family or have reached the middle of a life marked by loss or discontent. The experience of well-heeled professionals, some at a stage where they’re taking stock, contrasts with economic and political migrants, often homesick and struggling to pay the rent. Several of the stories explore racism – sometimes a subtle undercurrent, occasionally shocking – often accepted with a weary resignation by its targets. Altogether an impressive collection, mostly translated by its author with three by Todd Portnowitz, done so well I couldn’t see the join.

Picador Books: London 9781035017553 224 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)

17 thoughts on “Roman Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri (transl. Jhumpa Lahiri and Todd Portnowitz): An exquisite collection”

  1. Hope you had a great holiday.

    Very glad to see your review of these. I have read a few short pieces by Lahiri which I liked, and still mean to get to Whereabouts. You’ve tempted me to add these to my list as well–the Steps especially sounds wonderfully done.

      1. Writing – in the creative sense – in another language is beyond impressive. My French is pretty decent but the thought of hitting any kind of standard that would make my writing in French a literary legend (except in a totally detrimental sense) is beyond imagining.

        1. She fell in love with Italian, spent some time living there and now writes in the language then translates her writing into English. Her book In Other Words is a memoir of that experience. I’ve reviewed it on the blog if you’re interested. I’m a hopeless linguist which makes it all the more fascinating for me.

          1. It’s extraordinary! I had such an interesting exchange with an Italian reader who commented on my Whereabouts review telling me he intended to read it in both languages. I asked him if he’d mind letting me know how they compared when he’d read them which he did, leaving another illuminating comment. The blogosphere is a wonderful place!

  2. This sounds fantastic. I was just trying to organise my bookshelves this week (haha) and despairing at how long I’ve had some Lahiris languishing in the TBR! I really must get back to her.

    Looking forward to hearing about your travels Susan 🙂

    1. I’ve been a fan since The Namesake and it’s been fascinating to see how her writing has changed since she fell in love with the Italian language. Very much more European.

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