I finally finished reading the epic and amazing The Italians, by Luigi Barzini. It is wonderful and insightful and funny but felt so long in the end, like I would never finish. I thought that I would read something light next, so read a sample of a book I'd read was good: The Love Lives of Nathaniel P. It left me feeling a little ill: it was exactly the kind of introspective early 30s love lives in the city thing that I once would have devoured, but now just leaves me feeling that life is too short. Oh Nathaniel, I just don't care about your adventures in Brooklyn. (No offence to people who live in Brooklyn, some of my best friends etc).
That morning I went into the kitchen to do some cooking and put the BBC World Service on. It's a habit I'm trying to cultivate, to enliven the hours spent cooking and tidying up that can dissolve into slow drudgery. The Book Club show was on, and the guest was Jhumpa Lahiri. Oh! I have had one of her books on my wish list for about seven years, but something about her work just seems like it might be too much like hard work. (Lazy, I know). But listening to her on the radio, I was made to slow down, listen to her. She read from her book in an even monotone, which almost made me laugh, it being so different to my idea of how Americans do public speaking (that is, that even the most introverted people do it very well and are extremely polished and clear). Not that she spoke badly, it was just flat, unemotional. Almost Finnish. But the spare and simple language of the stories felt like a laying bare of emotions, and made the life and behaviour she observed vivid. I found myself close to tears, unsure of exactly why. The passage she read was about a couple who have dinner together in a cafe in Rome, and her simple but beautiful description of the passegiatta caught me. She had taken such a well-observed ritual and seen it so clearly.
I bought one of her books, Unaccustomed Earth, and found it's one of those books that I have to be very strict with myself so that I don't spend all of my time reading it. I just want to sit with it all day. I usually don't like short stories, as I tend to find them unsatisfying, but these are, completely, and feel like novels in themselves. Her steady, even tone is so apparently simple. But it is as if the skin is peeled back and the behaviour and emotions are shown raw. The stories are surprisingly suspenseful: her honesty is such that one feels a sense of dread at what can happen. With this kind of honesty, anything can. And the tension is such that (so far, anyway), the resolutions are not so much a violent shattering of glass as a slow, long fracture. More subtle, holding the tension, perhaps more devastating in the end.
I marked some passages from the book but, re-reading them, they don't have the same power when divorced from their context. But this, from an interview with her, might give a sense of what I'm talking about:
"It’s interesting to be a mother to children who have a sense of home, especially since I’m a person without that."
This is the kind of subtle blow she delivers. Being without a sense of home is something I've thought about a lot, but I would never have formulated the thought in such a clear, simple and devastating way. Calm and steady words that are raw and freeing and quietly shocking.