Come back if you can

Christopher Tayler

  • BuyThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
    Bloomsbury, 340 pp, £16.99, September 2013, ISBN 978 1 4088 2811 3

‘Read all the Russians, and then reread them,’ the hero’s father, Ashoke Ganguli, recalls his grandfather telling him in Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, The Namesake (2003): ‘They will never fail you.’ These wise words, spoken in West Bengal, don’t address the language problem. But ‘when Ashoke’s English was good enough’, we’re told, he took his grandfather’s advice. It’s a nice set-up for the confusions in store for Ashoke’s son, who will grow up in America with ‘Gogol Ganguli’ on his birth certificate. And it’s a token of the sedulous way Lahiri has written herself into a craftsmanlike tradition running back from William Trevor and Alice Munro, via Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield and Dubliners, to the Russians translated by Constance Garnett. She has been admired since the beginning of her career for her restraint and the air of naturalness she gives her effects. It isn’t hard to imagine her tacking lines from Chekhov and Isaac Babel above her desk, like Raymond Carver, or exclaiming, as Tolstoy is said to have done, of a businesslike sentence from Pushkin (‘The guests were arriving at the dacha of X’): ‘How charming! That is how one ought to write.’

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