Come back if you can
‘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.’
Lahiri was born in London in 1967 and grew up in New England, where her Calcutta-born father had found work at MIT and then the University of Rhode Island. After training as an academic, she made her name with Interpreter of Maladies (1999), a story collection; The Namesake and a second collection, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), spent time on the American bestseller lists. Each of these books deals with – but isn’t wholly defined by – the middle-class Bengali emigrant experience as it has played out for her and her parents’ generations. The older characters tend to have had arranged marriages and to be benignly uncomprehending of their children’s Americanised ways, while the children learn early on to pay attention to the differences between their home and school lives, and are intermittently pained by outsiders’ curiosity or ignorance. Yet the parent figures aren’t unadaptable. They’ve generally moved to the US to advance their careers as doctors, engineers or professors, and their offspring slip easily into a cosmopolitan upper middle class in which social and educational credentials are more important than ethnicity. Damage and disaffection largely manifest themselves in elegant Chekhovian impasses; there are few depictions of materially deprived emigrants or noisy family showdowns.
So it’s a bad idea to wrestle Lahiri’s writing towards a notion of ‘immigrant fiction’ if that’s understood as meaning either boisterous exoticism or Naipaulian rage. At the same time, it’s not quite fair to complain – as people sometimes do – that she avoids pigeonholes of that sort only to end up turning out stories about the problems of sensitive Ivy Leaguers. It’s true that her fiction is heavily populated by PhD candidates: in The Namesake it’s clear that Gogol’s wife, Moushumi (French literature, NYU), is going to have an affair with Dimitri (German literature, Heidelberg) from the moment she sees him ‘striding across campus, alone, holding a copy of The Man without Qualities’. But Lahiri’s feel for the surfaces of comfortable lives doesn’t rule out a charge of non-editorialised irony. We don’t need to be told how to feel about a couple who ‘swear by … a certain butcher on Mott, a certain style of coffeemaker, a certain Florentine designer of sheets for their bed’. And she’s attuned to the workings of class and ethnicity. ‘Were he not Indian,’ a husband thinks of his less poshly raised white American wife in ‘A Choice of Accommodations’, ‘Megan would have probably avoided someone like him.’