Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Personal History” piece may be the best thing I’ve read in the New Yorker on language (in the foreign-language sense), and since they’re making it available to nonsubscribers, I’m passing it along to you. It starts slow, and I confess to getting a little irritated with her endless difficulties at first (“Why not just give up, then?”), but it pays off in the end. (And the end is a real shocker.)
Update. Lucy Ferriss at Lingua Franca has a nice response:
Lahiri follows a distinguished line of writers who have elected to compose their work in a nonnative tongue. Many of these — Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, Ha Jin — have chosen to write in English. But since, as my colleague Geoffrey Pullum recently pointed out, English is the lingua franca of the globe, I’m not focused on them so much as on those who chose a different, less widespread vernacular. Samuel Beckett, an Irishman, wrote in French because it allowed him to write “without style.” Ágota Kristóf, who also chose French when she immigrated to Switzerland from her native Hungary, said toward the end of her life that “a book takes five times longer when I’m writing in French, even now. But I did a lot of theatre in my youth, and there, there’s not too much description, there’s dialogue, sentences. I began writing little plays as a game.” Ana-Kazumi Stahl, whose heritage is Japanese, German, and American, writes in Spanish. […]
Though I speak French fluently and read it passably, I am not yet prepared to try writing in French. I tell myself I’m too old. I remind myself how much I love English, and I do: I love the mongrel quality of it, the ridiculous wealth of vocabulary, the many ways a verb can be jiggered to convey different senses of the past, the inflections of syntax that convey a speaker’s region or accent. But really, I’m daunted. Partly it’s the steep climb that scares me — the passé simple! — but even more, it’s the rawness, the self-revelation that beginning to express oneself in a new tongue seems to bring on. As Lahiri puts it in her Daphne metaphor, “It’s true that a new language covers me, but unlike Daphne I have a permeable covering — I’m almost without a skin.” How dangerous, and how thrilling.
And of course that’s the entire subject of Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour’s Alien Tongues, which anyone interested in the topic should read. (It’s not just about Russians; she has a whole chapter on Beckett.)