How Italy Improved My English

Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books:

Tim-parks-italyIt has become commonplace, in this age of globalization, to speak of novelists and poets who change language, whether to find a wider audience or to adapt to life in a new country. But what about those writers who move to another country and do not change language, who continue to write in their mother tongue many years after it has ceased to be the language of daily conversation? Do the words they use grow arid and stiff? Or is there an advantage in being away from what is perhaps only the flavor of the day at home, the expressions invented today and gone tomorrow? Then, beyond specifically linguistic concerns, what audience do you write toward if you are no longer regularly speaking to people who use your language?

The most famous candidate for a reflection on this situation would be James Joyce, who left Ireland in 1904 aged twenty-two and lived abroad, mainly in Trieste and Paris, until his death in 1941. Other writers one could speak of would be W. G. Sebald, writing in German while living in England, Dubravka Ugrešić writing in Croatian while living in Holland, or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky, who went on writing in Russian after being forced into exile in the United States. One could go back and look at Robert Browning’s fifteen years in Italy, or Italo Calvino’s thirteen years in Paris. There are many others. Yet the easiest example, the only one I can write about with some authority, and, frankly, one of the most extreme, for length of time away and level of engagement with the foreign language and foreign country, is myself. What has happened to my English over thirty-five years in Italy? How has this long expatriation—I would never call it exile—changed my writing?

More here.