The Gossamer Glow of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Roman Stories”
Just over a decade ago, in 2012, Jhumpa Lahiri moved with her husband and two children to Rome. In the 12 years prior, she had become a literary sensation, gaining wide recognition for her fictional works exploring themes of home, family, tradition, estrangement, exile, in-betweenness, and belonging. In 2000, Lahiri received the Pulitzer Prize for her debut story collection, Interpreter of Maladies; her best-selling 2003 novel, The Namesake, was turned into a Hollywood film directed by Mira Nair. Her arrival in Rome, it turned out, would alter her already extraordinary literary trajectory—and her relationship to language—forever, giving her what she has called “a second life, an extra life.” Her 2013 novel, The Lowland, which was a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and a National Book Award, remains her last published work of fiction written in English. In Rome, Lahiri’s “linguistic landscape dramatically transformed,” as she has put it, and by 2015, at age 48, she began writing almost exclusively in Italian.
“Writing in another language reactivates the grief of being between two worlds, of being on the outside. Of feeling alone and excluded,” Lahiri (who was the guest on Ep. 69 of our Time Sensitive podcast) notes in her 2022 collection of essays, Translating Myself and Others. This sentiment gets to the heart of her latest story collection, Roman Stories (Knopf), which has been beautifully translated to English by Lahiri (who has also become a noted translator in recent years) and Todd Portnowitz.
In these nine probing stories, there are traces of where Lahiri began with Interpreter of Maladies—with tales of outsiders and outcasts, immigrants and “foreigners”—but in that first book, each of the characters has some connection, however tenuous, to India. With Roman Stories, Lahiri enters a broader diasporic world, this time entirely within the city in which she has lived, on and off, for the past 11 years. It is a magnificent book reflective of—and extending out of—the time Lahiri has spent in the Eternal City, but with giant fictional leaps. Through characters who experience at turns, among other things, xenophobia and nationalism, violence, racism, anxiety, and various social and cultural divisions, Lahiri explores what it means to adapt to Rome, to adopt it as a home, to decipher its particularities and peculiarities as an outsider—and also, in some cases, to experience it as an insider.
If it’s not already clear, Lahiri is obsessed with the city. In a 2017 interview with LitHub, she said, “The first time I saw Rome, after a couple of hours I said to my husband: I absolutely have to live in this city. Why, I didn’t care; I was overcome by a feeling, an urge to be in a place and have a relationship with that place.” That urge shines bright throughout these immersive, inquisitive, and sensuous stories.
Finely tuned, Roman Stories showcases Lahiri’s profound skill at writing in her third—and now, in a way, her first—language, and in the case of this new English-language edition, at translation. In her hands, the city of Rome (and in the stories “The Boundary” and “P’s Party,” also the countryside outside it) is expressed with tender intimacy and care. Her prose shimmers, as exquisite and ethereal as the cinematography of a Paolo Sorrentino film. Layered with flashes of sun-drenched beauty (“the huge, glowing clouds, the color of pomegranates in October”), her prose is filled with a certain loneliness and melancholy, too, as well as a sense of decay and fracture. Consider, for example, the foreign-born visiting professor in “The Reentry,” who, out to lunch at a trattoria with her Roman-born friend who’s in mourning, “fears that her relationship with the city is actually quite tenuous. In the end, she has no personal link to the history she studies, nor will she ever experience the comfort of having lunch in a trusted restaurant that forms part of her family’s history, that holds within it memories of countless lunches between father and daughter, a space that soothes her friend even after such an immense loss.”
It should be noted that Lahiri was also recently the editor of The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories (2019). Nearly half of the stories in that compendium were published in English for the first time and, in those acts of translation, Lahiri captured a certain Italianness that can’t be understood in any other way than through fiction and translation. And just as those stories—whether Goffrido Parese’s “Melancholy,” Alba de Céspedes’s “Invitation to Dinner,” or Alberto Moravia’s “The Other Side of the Moon”—put readers in distinctly Italian frames of mind, Lahiri’s in Roman Stories do the same, but through Rome specifically.
As much Romanness as there is to these new stories, though, there’s also a heartbreaking otherness. In various ways, “us”-and-“them” divides recur throughout. An overwhelming sense of despair—a limbo between being “home” yet also yearning to escape some of the realities that come with it—pervades. In “The Boundary,” a 15-year-old immigrant housekeeper in the Roman countryside recalls that her father, when living in Rome earlier in his life, was badly beaten by a group of men who told him, “Go back to wherever you came from.” In “A Well-Lit House,” a group of women block an immigrant wife and mother from entering her family’s apartment building and shout at her: “Pack your bags.” In “The Delivery,” a dark-skinned woman is strolling along a street when a motorino pulls up behind her; next thing she knows, a voice calls out, “Go wash those dirty legs.”
In the collection’s final story, “Dante Alighieri,” split up into nine sections, the narrator rather prophetically notes at one point, “You travel a certain distance, you desire and make decisions, and you’re left with recollections, some shimmering and some disturbing, that you’d rather not conjure up,” a single sentence that practically captures the book’s very essence. In these transfixing tales, Lahiri presents a polyphonic Rome of varied views. It is a book about the city’s frustrating and fragile realities. It is a book about having an acute, timeworn understanding of what it means to be considered “alien” or “other.” It is a book about living between worlds. It is a book that evokes the gossamer glow of Italy’s magical and confounding capital city.
That this is by the same author who, 24 years ago, published Interpreter of Maladies is astounding, but not surprising. The jump between the two books isn’t just massive—it’s metamorphic. Still, her linguistic DNA is present. In time, Roman Stories may prove to be Lahiri’s most seminal work of fiction yet.