Why Write in English?

Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov; drawing by David Levine

Why not write in a foreign language? If people feel free to choose their profession, their religion, and even, these days, their sex, why not just decide which language you want to write in and go for it? Ever since Jhumpa Lahiri published In Other Words, her small memoir in Italian, people have been asking me, Why don’t you write in Italian, Tim? You’ve been in the country thirty-five years, after all. What keeps you tied to English? Is it just a question of economic convenience? That the market for books in English is bigger? That the world in general gives more attention to books written in English?

Is that it? Certainly economics can be important. And politics too. Arguably, these were the factors that pushed Conrad and Nabokov to abandon their Polish and Russian mother tongues. If it is not possible to publish at home, or to publish there as one would wish to publish, then one is more or less obliged to go elsewhere if one wants to have a viable career as a writer. And if to publish elsewhere one has to change language, then some authors are willing to take that step.

Something of the same logic no doubt drives the many writers from Africa, Asia, and the sub-continent who have turned to writing in French and English in recent years. The opportunities are larger. There is also the fact that people in Europe and the West are interested in the countries they grew up in. Just as in the nineteenth century, novelists like Thomas Hardy or Giovanni Verga could “sell” their familiarity with peasant, provincial life to a middle-class metropolitan public, so post-colonial writers have fascinated us with stories that might seem unremarkable in their home countries, where the narrative tradition very likely deals with different content and requires a different relationship between writer and reader.

But beyond any understandable opportunism, there is often a genuine idealism and internationalism in the decision to change language. If you have “a message” and if English is the language that offers maximum diffusion, then it would seem appropriate to use it. In the 1950s, the rebellious and free-spirited Dutch novelist Gerard Kornelis van het Reve felt that the Dutch language and culture was simply not open enough and not big enough for an artist with important things to say. Van het Reve moved to England in 1953, dropped the exotic “van het” from his surname, and set about writing in his adopted language. “Let us no longer express ourselves in a local argot,” he boldly declared. The revolutionary, the preacher, and the megalomaniac will always tend toward the medium that offers the widest possible readership.

For writers from countries that were once colonies, the switch to the language of the colonial power could also be seen as a kind of counterattack. The post-colonial writer appropriates the ex-overlord’s language, subverts it, and adapts it to his or her own purposes, all this to the supposed chagrin of members of the once dominant culture. This is the depressing, confrontational, and, I suspect, flawed logic of Rushdie’s 1982 article “The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance” (it is interesting that references to this famous article tend to omit the last three words).

More simply—more probably—you could say that if a global culture really is developing, and if the lingua franca of that culture is English, then its energy will naturally draw in those from the peripheries, just as the excitement over the formation of the nation-state in a country like Italy in the nineteenth century prompted many writers to switch from writing in the local idioms of Naples and Venice and Milan to address the whole nation in the standard Tuscan Italian that finally became the language of the institutions and the schools.

All this makes sense, yet critics tend to pay attention only to those who have made a success of writing in a new language. In April 2014, a New York Times article about the phenomenon essentially compiled a list of young literary stars who had switched to writing in the main Western languages. The piece, titled “Using the Foreign to Grasp the Familiar,” is full of enthusiasm and positivity. “All interesting literature is born in that moment when you are not sure if you are in one place with one culture,” Yoko Tawada, a Japanese author who writes in German, is quoted as saying.

At this point, the native English speaker almost begins to feel at a disadvantage for having been born into the dominant culture. Should we perhaps head for Paris, like Beckett or Jonathan Littell, just to be between two worlds? Or look for something more exotic and have ourselves translated back into English afterward? Why not Korean, or Swahili? One reason is that changing languages doesn’t always work. Van het Reve, notorious in Holland for his deeply pessimistic postwar novel De Avonden (The Evenings, 1947), was never able to secure a publisher in England, where his style and politics seemed incomprehensible. His talent wouldn’t flower again until he returned to Holland and threw himself back into his country’s national debate, in Dutch of course, with an incendiary mix of Catholicism, homosexuality, and obscenity. His genius needed his mother tongue, his home milieu, and an atmosphere of intense antagonism.

Kundera was already a huge international presence by the time he switched to writing in French in the 1990s, one of those authors who need never fear they might not find a publisher. Yet his work has lost power and intensity with the switch of language. In French, he just doesn’t seem able to produce novels of the quality of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Both Reve’s and Kundera’s moves suggest a certain hubris; they supposed their individual talents were entirely separate from the culture and language in which they had developed. It’s a hubris inherent, perhaps, in the Western obsession with freedom, and the consequent refusal to accept that we are conditioned and limited by circumstances of birth, family, and education.

In this light, Lahiri’s quite unusual decision to move away from global English to write in Italian begins to make a little sense. Growing up in Rhode Island between Bengali and English, triumphing as an author in the latter, while feeling that she had betrayed the former and her parents’ culture with it, one can well imagine the conflicted feelings towards both languages that she describes in one of the later chapters of In Other Words: “I was ashamed,” she writes, “of speaking Bengali and at the same time I was ashamed of feeling ashamed. It was impossible to speak English without feeling detached from my parents…”

Yet these difficult emotions, transmuted into other people’s stories, were recognizably the driving force of Lahiri’s excellent early stories. To imagine they could simply be set aside by moving into a language for which she had a certain affection but no deep knowledge, was perhaps ingenuous. In the event, what Lahiri writes in Italian is little else than an account of her attempt to escape English. At no point does it draw energy from Italian culture, or even transmit a feeling that her life is now firmly based in the world of Italian. There are no Italian characters in the book, indeed, no characters at all aside from Lahiri, as if actually she were writing in a language that was all her own, and that just happened to coincide with the language 60 million Italians use. The decision to publish the American edition of the book as a parallel text, Italian on the left and English on the right, gives the curious impression that, though written in Italian—indeed published first in Italian—the book is somehow not written for Italians; rather, the achievement of Italian becomes a trophy to show off to the American reader. We never believe that Lahiri will really spend her life in Italy, or go on writing in Italian. Reviewers have generally agreed that the book just didn’t work.

Writing in another language is successful when there is a genuine, long-term need to switch languages (often accompanied by serious trauma), and when the new linguistic and social context the author is moving in meshes positively with his or her ambitions and talents. At which point, let me make an admission. After only two years in Italy, long before I had published any fiction in English, I did write a novel in Italian: I nani di domani (literally “Tomorrow’s Dwarves”). It was a comic “thriller” about a Veronese rockband, I nani di domani, who turn out to be a cover for a rather amateur terrorist organization. I had arrived in Verona in 1981, around the time of the Red Brigades’ kidnapping (from an apartment block only a mile from where I was living) of General James Lee Dozier, deputy Chief of Staff at NATO’s Southern European land forces. The novel satirized pretty much everyone and everything I had come across in Verona, the main character being a female version of myself, teaching at a seedy private school run by the father of one of the terrorists.

Having written half the book, I sent it to Italy’s only major literary agent at the time, the popular and immensely respected Erich Linder, an Austrian Jew whose family had brought him to Milan as a child in 1934 to escape persecution. To my amazement—since all my attempts to write in English were collecting regular rejections in London—he liked my Italian book and offered to take it on. But no sooner had I sent him the final pages than Linder died and my chances of becoming an Italian author with him. His successor at the agency, in the more usual Italian style, did not reply to my letters.

Years later, when I had published a number of novels in English, I nani di domani came up in conversation with an Italian publisher. I showed it to him and he offered to publish. But after rereading it, I decided against. Any charm it had was to do with my naïve fun with the language; it was superficial, and playful in a rather facile way and I decided I wouldn’t feel comfortable promoting the book. My real subject matter still had to do with England and English and it was to my home culture that my books were addressed, something that put me in a tradition, I suppose, with any number of other ex-pats—Muriel Spark, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Robert Browning, Lord Byron—who never dreamed of changing language. Not to mention W.G. Sebald, who always wrote in German despite thirty years in England, or the excellent Dubravka Ugrešić, who continues to write in Croatian despite having been forced to leave her homeland for the Netherlands in 1993.

The critic Karen Ryan, who has written a great deal on Russian émigré literature, remarks that “all transnational writers” have “a sense of play and inventiveness.” I think this is true. An acquired language feels like a playground, at least at first. It is easy to have fun and break rules, because they are not internalized, they don’t weigh so heavily in the psyche. In particular, it’s easy to make puns, because the sound of the language still often dominates over the sense. Hence, changing language can benefit the author whose genius lies in that direction. But along with the playfulness comes a loss of pathos. The second language never seems to mean quite as much as the first. Or not for many years. In any event, after my early experiment, I never went back to writing in Italian. Rather I began to see how I could use a life, speaking and reading mainly in Italian, to develop an English that would be very much my own. Changing language is not the only way to bring energy to your writing.