It has become commonplace, in this age of globalization, to speak of novelists and poets who change language, whether to find a wider audience or to adapt to life in a new country. But what about those writers who move to another country and do not change language, who continue to write in their mother tongue many years after it has ceased to be the language of daily conversation? Do the words they use grow arid and stiff? Or is there an advantage in being away from what is perhaps only the flavor of the day at home, the expressions invented today and gone tomorrow? Then, beyond specifically linguistic concerns, what audience do you write toward if you are no longer regularly speaking to people who use your language?
The most famous candidate for a reflection on this situation would be James Joyce, who left Ireland in 1904 aged twenty-two and lived abroad, mainly in Trieste and Paris, until his death in 1941. Other writers one could speak of would be W. G. Sebald, writing in German while living in England, Dubravka Ugrešić writing in Croatian while living in Holland, or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky, who went on writing in Russian after being forced into exile in the United States. One could go back and look at Robert Browning’s fifteen years in Italy, or Italo Calvino’s thirteen years in Paris. There are many others. Yet the easiest example, the only one I can write about with some authority, and, frankly, one of the most extreme, for length of time away and level of engagement with the foreign language and foreign country, is myself. What has happened to my English over thirty-five years in Italy? How has this long expatriation—I would never call it exile—changed my writing?
One’s age at the time of leaving home and reasons for doing so are important. I left London in 1981 at twenty-five, in part because my wife, who was Italian and whom I had met in the States, wasn’t happy with England, and again because, having failed to secure a publisher for any of my first four novels, I needed to get away from friends and family who were pressing me to settle on a decent career before it was too late. I knew no Italian. I had no desire to leave England. Indeed, I was extremely anxious about losing touch with English. Two years previously, I had abandoned a Ph.D. at Harvard because I wanted to be in England to write about the English, not the Americans. So this new move felt a little like a failure. My hope was that I’d be back in a couple of years bringing a publishable novel with me. What changed my mind was learning Italian.
It was a huge effort. I had never been good at languages, at least orally. At school I regularly failed the oral side of German and French exams, and at Cambridge chose Latin for my language requirement precisely to avoid the oral. Also, I love to talk; not knowing the language is a big privation for me. Added to which, my wife spoke four languages fluently, so there was quite a shift in the relationship as I found myself obliged to rely on her. I was floundering.
We had chosen to live in Verona because my wife’s brother was studying there. There was not a large English community in the city at the time, and anyway we did our best to avoid it so that I could learn Italian. For four or five years, aside from the language lessons I taught to make ends meet, I spoke little English and read even less, concentrating entirely on Italian fiction, Italian newspapers, Italian history books, checking every word I didn’t know in the dictionary. It was exhausting. There was no radio in English, no satellite TV, no Internet. I was immersed in Italian in a way that I think has become difficult today.
I say I was learning Italian, but in fact I was learning English too. Relearning it. Nothing makes you more aware of your own language, its structure and strategies, than the differences of a new one. And very soon I had my first major pay-off from all this effort. I had been reading the work of Natalia Ginzburg—È stato così; La strada che va in città; Caro Michele. I had chosen Ginzburg merely because friends advised that she was the easiest Italian writer for foreigners. But something in the laconic colloquial voice meshed with my own writing. Trying to imagine how that voice and downbeat storytelling style might work in English I wrote two short novels, Tongues of Flame and Loving Roger, in rapid succession. Oddly, though I had taken both voice and, to an extent, structure from Ginzburg, these would be the most English of all my novels, acts of pure memory of places and people: my family in the first book, an office where I had once worked in the second. Though both books were rejected dozens of times, I felt confident that I had got it right. Five years later both were published and won prizes.
In a previous piece I mentioned that early on in Italy I wrote a novel in Italian. This came immediately after Tongues of Flame and Loving Roger and this too was influenced by Ginzburg. The curious thing was how differently influence plays out when you are writing in the same language and when you are transferring to another. In the same language, influence can look dangerously like imitation. My Italian book was hopelessly derivative. This had been true too of my earlier love affairs in English with Henry Green and with Beckett. The writing was too obviously hankering after its model. But transferring Ginzburg, whom I doubt I understood perfectly at the time, into my English world, linguistic and cultural, made something new happen, something that was neither Ginzburg nor the old me. I began to understand that I could use my immersion in Italian to become a different writer in English.
Translation helped. I had started to translate at a commercial level after a couple of years in Italy, and shortly after my thirtieth birthday, the very same week that Tongues of Flame was finally accepted for publication, I was given my first “literary” translation, Alberto Moravia’s La cosa, or Erotic Tales as it was to become. Over the next ten years I translated more Moravia, as well as Antonio Tabucchi, Italo Calvino, Roberto Calasso, and others. In each case, the closeness to fine writers, the awareness of how differently they wrote, from each other and from myself, a difference I always strove to preserve, was the best possible school for writing. Again and again, one had to ask, how can this voice, this peculiar tone, this way of moving into a story be made to work in English? And once one had found a solution it became natural, on starting a story of my own, to wonder, how would Tabucchi do this? What would this story sound like if Calasso were writing it? My novel Shear, in particular, couldn’t have been written without the rather bizarre combined influence of my regular translation of a trade magazine for the stone quarrying business and the 450 pages of Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. Writers whose work I felt wouldn’t be helpful in this way—Oriana Fallaci, Aldo Busi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, in his last novel Petroleum—I simply refused to translate. The commercial work provided enough money to live on. And where I was open to an author’s influence, there was always the abyss between his or her Italian and my English to prevent me from falling into imitation. I remember seven or eight intensely fertile years.
But how long would my English hold up against the daily attrition of Italian?
I worried about this. Going home for holidays I noticed that buzzwords had come and perhaps already gone—nerd, dink—without my ever using them. Editors were forever picking up Italianisms in my writing. Setting a new story in England I began to feel vulnerable. Often Italian expressions came to mind when what I needed was English. Even Italian situations. Often English expressions came to mind that quite likely no one was using any more. Nothing is more normal than for the expat’s vision of his home country to remain anchored in the past. Ulysses we remember, published in 1922, was set in 1904, immediately before Joyce left Dublin.
I began to write non-fiction, about Italy, to draw this experience into my writing. Where fiction was concerned, I looked for a different kind of storytelling that didn’t involve an intense contemporaneity, or was set outside the UK. A novel like Europa, where foreign language teachers working in an Italian university travel together to the European parliament to present a petition, was a deliberate attempt to turn this displacement from England into drama. Now I consciously played with Italianisms in English, to see what effects might be achieved that way. In Destiny, the disturbed son of an Italian mother and English father constantly provokes his father by introducing Italian idioms in English sentences.
Just when it seemed I had pushed these strategies to the limit if not beyond, changes in my circumstances and indeed in technology came to my aid. The fact is that no two writers abroad are ever in quite the same situation. Had I come to Italy as a Korean, or a Norwegian, languages people rarely use or need here, I wonder if it would have been possible or sensible to go on using my mother tongue in the same way. And had I arrived twenty years earlier I could not have had the career that eventually offered itself to me in the late nineties. First the fax, then email, then the Internet, opened the way to working regularly for British and American papers. In 1995 I wrote my first piece for The New York Review. As a result, I found myself reading mostly in English again, as a reviewer now rather than a translator. With the Internet came radio and television in English. One was no longer “isolated in Italy.” Gradually, I could feel part of an English-speaking community again, without ever leaving my Italian home. It’s hard to express how uncanny this seemed at the time, and how radically it changed expat existence.
Also, this was a community one could write toward. That is, writing in English, in Italy, I wasn’t really writing toward my old life, England and London, any more. I was writing to all the people out there who read English. So I needn’t worry that my English was no longer an idiomatic British English. For me, with my Italian experience long consolidated, this could not have happened at a better time.
There is a formative period in a writer’s life when influences are crucial, when to go and live in another country, read in another language, discover this or that author, will matter intensely. And there is a time when, while still open to novelty and experiment, it can no longer blow you away, or revolutionize your approach. For a writer to go to a foreign country as a young man, like Sebald, who went to England in his twenties, is quite a different matter than to go when most of one’s major work is accomplished, as was the case with Solzhenitsyn’s move to the States. For Sebald there was mostly gain, for Solzhenitsyn, much later in life, mostly loss.
Looking back, I have no idea what kind of writer I might have become had I stayed in the UK. Perhaps I would never have got published at all. Or perhaps I would have found my way to the center of London literary life, though that was never an ambition. All in all, I feel immensely lucky to have gone to Italy when I did and experienced for a decade or so the relative linguistic isolation that made me focus so intensely on language, writing, and translation. But equally lucky to be able to send this piece to New York by email, and to be part of that now global community that shares its thoughts, on literature and other matters, online, regardless of where we live.