In Other Words BY Jhumpa Lahiri. Knopf. Hardcover, 256 pages. $26.

The cover of In Other Words

Per publishing custom, the first pages of In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri’s fifth book and first essay collection, present a selection of critical praise for her previous work. The nature of this praise, all of it pertaining to Lahiri’s 2013 novel The Lowland, is both predictable and particular, with an emphasis on the author’s reputation as “an elegant stylist.” The blurbs celebrate Lahiri’s “legendarily smooth . . . prose style,” her “brilliant language,” and her ability to place “the perfect words in the perfect order.” Beyond the usual hosannas, what emerges is the sense of an author defined by her prose—its cleanness, precision, and control. For this, Lahiri earns from one critic the title of “American master.”

Not far into In Other Words, a record of creative and linguistic restlessness, it becomes clear that such praise might well bedevil its object more than please her. For The Lowland, like all of Lahiri’s previous books, was written in English, her second language (after Bengali), but the first in which she learned how to write—those smooth, perfect, Pulitzer-winning sentences. And if Lahiri hasn’t come to the end of her relationship with English, several years ago she reached a point of reckoning, as described in these short, methodical, extraordinarily self-conscious essays. Facing an artistic and existential crisis, this American master did something highly un-American: She decided to immerse herself in another language.

In Other Words is the English translation of In altre parole, which was published in Italy in 2015. Three years earlier, Lahiri moved herself and her family to Rome, determined to concentrate fully on her longtime but intermittent study of Italian. The essays collected here are the first Lahiri has written in Italian, the culmination of an encounter that she likens to love at first sight: When she visits Florence for the first time in 1994, it is the sounds of Italy, as much as the sights that captivate our young traveler. Enveloped by the hum and flow of Italian chatter, Lahiri has “an instantaneous, intense, paradoxical reaction”:

It’s as if Italian were already inside me and, at the same time, completely external. It doesn’t seem like a foreign language, although I know it is. It seems, strangely, familiar. . . . It’s like a person met one day by chance, with whom I immediately feel a connection, of whom I feel fond. As if I had known it for years, even though there is still everything to discover. I would be unsatisfied, incomplete, if I didn’t learn it. I realize that there is a space inside me to welcome it.

Lahiri’s infatuation with Italian deepened into romantic attachment and then utter devotion. Compared to her elusive new love, English now seemed too easy, “overbearing, domineering, full of itself,” and also “like a hairy, smelly teenager.” Being confronted with it is like running into “a boyfriend I’d tired of, someone I’d left years earlier. He’s no longer attractive.” The alienation is so complete that Lahiri declined to translate her own manuscript, leaving that task to Ann Goldstein, who has also translated into English the work of Elena Ferrante.

Like her fans, I doubt poor English saw it coming. Yes, there were the hours Lahiri spent disappeared into deepest Brooklyn for private lessons with a Venetian grandma, trysts that soon formed the highlight of her week. There was Rome, where she began a secret Italian diary, groping her way toward “a new approach” in her writing, and rediscovering in “this new, approximate language” her reason for writing at all, “the joy as well as the need.” There was, finally, a consummation: a first piece of fiction, about a restless translator who moves to a new city with only a black sweater. Having completed it, Lahiri realized the story could only have been written in Italian.

Lahiri’s English prose continued to suggest a relationship in perfect health, but exile loomed in part because for Lahiri perfection had become a trap, a torment. Her security in English began to feel dangerous, and led to the grip of desperation that, combined with hope, she believes precedes all writing. What Lahiri claims to have sought, and found, in Italian is “the freedom to be imperfect.”

In Other Words proceeds from this supposed freedom and embrace of imperfection, its story of flight, struggle, and regeneration told in the language its author meant to defy. The idea that the book’s truest form is in the original Italian is renewed on every other page: The English and Italian versions of the text are presented side by side. This layout anchors the central theme of metamorphosis; it also invites the reader of English to graze on Lahiri’s trim, straightforward Italian. Doing so, one falls on the odd striking phrase (“i sassi sparsi sulla sabbia” has a bouncy flourish lacking in the thing it describes—“rocks scattered on the sand”) and gathers a sense of the diligence, the sheer and slightly deranged force of will, that brought these sentences into being.

Deciphering the impulse behind that effort is the book’s true subject—Lahiri’s first book in Italian is very much about the writing of her first book in Italian. Metaphors of self and transformation structure these essays, which investigate Lahiri’s relationship to language and seek to make sense of her flight from English. Her success in English is fraught, intertwined with the perfectionism and will to please that Lahiri ties implicitly to the predicament of first-generation immigrants. The language has come to symbolize “a consuming struggle, a wrenching conflict, a continuous sense of failure that is the source of almost all my anxiety. . . . English denotes a heavy, burdensome aspect of my past. I’m tired of it.” For Lahiri, overcoming this fatigue is a matter of survival: “Writing is my only way of absorbing and organizing life. . . . If I didn’t write, if I didn’t work with words, I wouldn’t feel that I’m present on the earth.”

To confirm: In Other Words lies well outside the bounds of American-abroad narratives involving language barriers, cultural snafus, and quaint ethnographic detail. What it undertakes it does with such thoroughness that one struggles to say something about these essays that Lahiri hasn’t said already. Though she writes extensively of her liberation, through Italian, from the burdens of perfection and expectation, Lahiri’s telling of that process has a strangely fixed quality, its insights and analysis lovely and persuasive but somewhat airless. I wanted to know how it feels, this freedom she invokes, but instead often felt as though I were being led by the muzzle. Each metaphor is carefully explained, every theme turned stitch-side out: Italian is her lover, her child, a black sweater, a lake that requires crossing; her predicament is one of fragmented identity, of feeling bound as a writer to conjure a dream of India so vivid that it might “restore a lost country to my parents,” of being “exiled even from the definition of exile.” Though she insists that writing in Italian has left her “transformed, reborn,” for better or worse Lahiri’s readers will find the author’s habits of mind and of the page stubbornly intact.

All the same, it is fascinating to discover how well Lahiri attends those habits. She is frank, for instance, about her resistance to autobiography, and to drawing directly from reality in her writing. Starting out as a fiction writer, she “thought it was more virtuous to talk about others. I was afraid that autobiographical material was of less creative value, even a form of laziness on my part.” In Other Words marks a shift in this thinking, as well as in Lahiri’s belief that an invented world, fictional but grounded in radiant specificity, allows a writer “more creative autonomy.” Though her range and skill will always be more limited, writing in Italian has offered Lahiri a clean slate on which to engage with language, with no room for old hang-ups about what good or virtuous writing is, how great stories work, the best way to capture and deliver the world. There is a kind of clarity in its confinement, a new and necessary pressure to figure out what one really has—what one absolutely needs—to say.

This pressure has carried Lahiri away not just from English but from fiction, from invented yet concrete, culturally bound worlds, and toward both autobiography and a greater sense of abstraction. The result is an engagement with a theme central to Lahiri’s fiction—the longing for home, a stable sense of place and of self—that is both more direct and more diffuse. In “The Second Exile,” she describes how a brief visit to the US after a year in Rome left her certain “more than ever that I am a writer without a definitive language, without origin, without definition. Whether it’s an advantage or a disadvantage I wouldn’t know.” Lahiri’s immersion in Italian leaves her at once homeless and homesick; the only certainty she finds is in uncertainty, in confirming the in-between-ness that is her true home.

Another essay here, “The Wall,” departs slightly from abstraction, and from Lahiri’s abstracted love for Italian. In it she touches on Italy’s rampant xenophobia, the impasse she faces in engaging the locals. Lahiri’s husband, Alberto, looks Italian though he is not, and is treated with deference; his wife, however, is rendered invisible despite her fluency. After describing a representative incident in Salerno, Lahiri glances over Italy’s notorious sexism and racism, identifying similar barriers to her integration in America and even in India, which is fair enough but leaves the essay a little flat. This first effort seems conscious of its first readers, Italians whom I can only imagine as flattered beyond words and all gesticulation by the book’s existence.

In one of the most personal and startling essays, “The Metamorphosis,” Lahiri reflects on feeling more protected in Italian, despite being left more exposed—a compelling paradox for any artist, especially one of such famous composure. Comparing herself to Ovid’s Daphne, Lahiri writes that “although I don’t have a thick bark, I am, in Italian, a tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way.” The Lahiri who wrote early on “in order to conceal myself,” preferring “to hide between the lines, a disguised, oblique presence,” felt more comfortable emerging as a protagonist in Italian, the language that covers her even as it leaves her “almost without a skin.” It may not be a coincidence that it is also a language in which pronouns commonly disappear into their verbs; in which a writer might inhabit fully the act of writing, harmonize with it, each transforming the other; in which the doer and the doing become one.

Michelle Orange is the author of the essay collection This Is Running for Your Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).