The Clothing of Books, by Jhumpa Lahiri
“How do you clothe a book?” is how this small, but powerful volume begins. Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories are personal and complex, and as we learn in the adaptation of this translation from Italian of a presentation at Cenaolo di Santa Croce in 2015, a book’s cover design presents a different set of questions. The book is small enough to slip into a pocket, a writer’s memoir in which Lahiri examines the origins behind the covers of the many editions of her books. In her trademark careful prose, she mines the relationship of text to image, the impression that image makes (often a defining one), and the sometimes jarring effect of seeing one’s work translated to visual terms by a book designer.
A viewpoint based on a layered, often conflicting, identity
Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, was heralded for its quiet, affecting portrayals of Bengali Americans, and received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. This extraordinary debut was followed by three other works of fiction: Unaccustomed Earth, The Namesake, and The Lowland, and a work of nonfiction, In Other Words, first published in Italian in 2015 as In altre parole, a memoir of her experience learning Italian, as a reader, a writer, and a translator.
Born in London to Bengali parents, Lahiri grew up in the US, but has always thought of herself as living between both the world of her parents and their adopted homeland. In 2012, she relocated with her family to Rome (she returned to the US in 2015 to join the Creative Writing faculty at Princeton University), which added another layer of complexity, one she has said was at first bewildering, but that ultimately provided, an opportunity for both reinvention and freedom of language on the page.
So much of Lahiri’s viewpoint is based on this layered, and often conflicting, identity, including her impression of the many covers that have graced her books: “Upon close inspection, my covers tend perfectly to mirror my own double identity, bifurcated, disputed. As a result they are often projections, conjectures.”
Using the language of the visual
In the translation of text to image, the concept of book cover can also be misinterpreted: “Once, after I complained that the cover of a book in which the protagonist was born and raised in the United States seemed too ‘exotic,’ that a less ‘oriental’ approach was better suited, the publisher removed the image of an enchanting Indian building and replaced it with an American flag. From one stereotype, that is, to another.”
At just over seventy pages, The Clothing of Books is a swift read, but the writer goes deeply into her subject, and as the title suggests, touches on the literal idea of clothing, how it relates to books, and to one’s idiosyncratic visual esthetic. From Lahiri’s childhood, observing the prim school uniforms of her cousins, to her love of the artist Edward Gorey, and the glimpses she provides into the backstory behind her books’ covers, The Clothing of Books is satisfying for both readers and writers. In one lovely anecdote, Lahiri confesses to having bought books for their cover alone. “The cover,” she writes, “has an independent identity. It has a presence, a power of its own.” It’s an important reminder that the cover is the first of a book we see, after all, and its imagery speaks to us, using the powerful language of the visual, to suggest the story within.
A duality in life and work
“What drew me to my craft,” Lahiri has said, “was the desire to force the two worlds I occupied to mingle on the page, as I was not brave enough, or mature enough, to allow in life.” The duality that has defined her life and work is mined here in the same artful way.
Read an interview with Jhumpa Lahiri, on her approach to translation and her love of the Italian language, in the Paris Review.
And read about the author’s latest book, Whereabouts, her first in nearly a decade, which I’ll cover here next week.
— Lauren Alwan