Archive for May, 2021

ITALY AND THE INNER LIFE: JHUMPA LAHIRI’s ‘WHEREABOUTS’

Jhumpa Lahiri, Whereabouts, London: Bloomsbury, 2021, 157 pp. Translated by the author from Italian original, Dove mi trovo (Milan: Ugo Guanda, 2018).

**

This fine, distinctive short novel is the latest work by Jhumpa  Lahiri, who rose to prominence, globally and in the genre known as Indian Writing in English (IWE), in 2000 with her first book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning short story volume Interpreter of Maladies. The London-born author, child of Bengali parents, was educated in the US but now lives in Italy, a circumstance which marks out her new novel as unusual within the IWE genre, since it was originally written and published in Italian and subsequently translated into (American) English by the author herself – a history which should attract the attention of scholars in the field of Translation Studies. The three-year lag between versions means that Lahiri’s English text appears in the time of the pandemic but describes the pre-pandemic world – and thus may be read by some with a nostalgia which was not originally intended.

 

The novel is narrated throughout in the first person, by a woman protagonist who lives alone in a big city and has never married, but is deeply observant of her surroundings and the people she encounters. The woman is not named, and nor are either her city or the country she inhabits. However, internal evidence makes it clear that the country is Italy, as given away when she speaks of trattorias, piazzas or decaying villas, while the city would appear to be Rome. She is presumably of Italian extraction, given her recollections of her family, which give out a sense of them being long-established there.

The book consists of forty-six monologues of varying length, with titles like ‘At dawn’, ‘On the balcony’, ‘In the bookstore’ or ‘At the supermarket’. We accompany the protagonist in her day-to-day activities, observing people and things, sometimes interacting with others but returning home alone. There is some narrational development: towards the end, she decides to go away for an extended absence, to somewhere across the border in an unnamed foreign country, and we last see her on the train heading for her new destination.

The narrating voice is sensitively and cohesively maintained across the novel. The protagonist is characterised by a rich inner life, and there are passages whose introspective depth recalls the Fernando Pessoa of The Book of Solitude/O Livro do Desassossego. Her thoughts and feelings strike parallel chords in the reader: in a time of divided identities, this narration, set in Italy by an author of UK/US/Indian origins, comes across in its emotional accessibility as a plea for a shared humanity and its universalism.

LIGHTING UP THE WORDS ON THE PAGE: JOHN MULLAN’S ‘THE ARTFUL DICKENS’

LIGHTING UP THE WORDS ON THE PAGE: JOHN MULLAN’S ‘THE ARTFUL DICKENS’

John Mullan, The Artful Dickens: The Tricks and Ploys of the Great Novelist, London: Bloomsbury, 2020, 428 pp.

**

The appreciation and study of the work of Charles Dickens are notably enriched by John Mullan’s ambitious and impressive The Artful Dickens. The author, noting that ‘Dickens’s very popularity seems to have made it hard to recognise his technical boldness and his experimental verve’, conversely stresses that ‘our enjoyment of Dickens does not come despite our better judgement, but because of his extraordinary skills as a novelist’ (34). Mullan reminds us that despite the deadlines of serial publication, Dickens was a keen and frequent redrafter, as is abundantly clear from the various archive collections, notably at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Over fourteen chapters, the author ably lights up multiple facets of Dickens’ writing – essentially the fifteen novels, with occasional forays into the shorter works and non-fiction – always being careful to demonstrate his assertions with palpable quotes from the books themselves, and gliding effortlessly from novel to novel to home in on just the right passages to evidence his theses.

The aspects of Dickens’ work explored are both substantive and formal. Concrete themes examined include death by drowning and the ins and outs of ghosts and haunting; more formal elements include the naming of the characters, the individuality of their voices, the use of coincidence, repetitions and lists, and, in perhaps the most revealing chapter, Dickens’ masterly manipulation and subversion of the cliché. With all this, characters like Alfred Jingle, Flora Finching or the Veneerings come to be known by the reader as rarely if ever before.

This book is guaranteed to send the reader back to the novels and re-read Charles Dickens’ words on the page with more alert and attentive eyes. This is a feat not all works of criticism can achieve, but John Mullan’s study is exemplary in this regard, and it is hoped it will inspire similar studies of other writers too!