Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
At the End of the Century
(Counterpoint Press, 2018)
The writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927 – 2013) lived a life that spanned numerous wars and traversed the globe. She wrote novels and screenplays; Heat and Dust, her eighth, garnered the Man Booker Prize in 1975, and her E.M. Forster-adapted screenplays, A Room with a View and Howards End, both won Oscars. This month brings her posthumous collection of stories into the world, At the End of the Century (Counterpoint Press, 2018).
Born of a Jewish family in Germany, her family fled to London in 1939. There, she came of age, earned her English degree, and married an Indian architect named Cyrus Jhabvala. They relocated to New Delhi where they raised three daughters. India was her adopted land, but she struggled profoundly with her relationship to it. “I think of myself as strapped to a wheel that goes round and round and round and sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m down,” she wrote in her essay “Myself in India.” It’s those complex feelings and experiences that informed the bulk of her writing. “I have lived in India for most of my adult life. My husband is Indian and so are my children. I am not, and less so every year.” The cross-currents of Indian and English cultures are wound tightly throughout her stories, and she delves into their far-reaching ramifications. If postcolonialism is an academic study of the cultural legacy of colonialism and imperialism, she was one of its most ardent scholars. Years later, she would relocate once more to the Upper East Side of New York, living in the same building as her friends and creative partners, filmmakers James Ivory and Ismail Merchant (twenty-two of Merchant Ivory’s films were penned by Jhabvala).
The collection is mammoth in scope. Jhabvala’s characters traverse India, England, New York, Los Angeles, and back again, across the span of generations. They’re flawed and compelling enough to give weight to the tides of change and fortune that they stumble into. She’s gifted at shifting her readers’ empathies mid-story. A bitter, middle-aged bride of a glowering judge ends up caring for his mistress of twenty-five years. Two sisters with a large age gap between them spend their lives as entwined as the Big and Little Edie Beale of Grey Gardens, despite family secrets that would have torn other families apart.
In their own way, each story furnishes the emotional scope of a novel and encapsulates lives in their entirety. There is an old-fashioned storytelling quality to her voice that evokes classic British and Russian novels. Her readers are given broad strokes of families before she zooms into the erotic, aberrant, and curious turns they take. Central to her stories, large swaths of time may pass with a single sentence: “As the years went by, Lilo became more and more of a home bird—not that she was particularly domestic, she never was, not at all, but that she loved being there, in her own home where she was happy with her husband and child (my mother).”
The universal themes of seduction, betrayal, and power are paramount, and each character is treated to a deep humanity: two English women struggle toward enlightenment under the guidance of a power-hungry guru, and petty competitions and disappointments ensue. An Indian student has an affair with her professor in England and becomes a crafty (if cliché) nuisance to the married man. In “The Widow,” a woman goes through the internal and external motions of grieving (terrified of her changed circumstances; shunned, traditionally, by her cultural’s mores). Her emotions shift, and she entertains an attraction to her downstairs tenant’s son. Her desire is manipulated by him for financial gain (maybe she’ll buy him that scooter he wants), but this doesn’t bother her much. “Sometimes—when she was alone at night or lay on her bed in the hot, silent afternoons, her thoughts dwelling on Krishna—she felt strange new stirrings within her which were almost like illness, with a tugging in the bowels and a melting in the thighs.”
In the way that her screenplays were controlled with a British restraint that eventually snaps (perhaps most famously in Remains of the Day, 1993, which she adapted, along with an uncredited Harold Pinter, from the Kazuo Ishiguro novel), so are her short stories.
Most of the work in this collection appeared in print, much of it in The New Yorker, which published thirty-one of her short stories across her lifetime. Her stories—as the celebrated screenwriting she did for the legendary Ismael Merchant and James Ivory partnership—cross the boundaries between generations, class, gender, politics, and country. Her stories were always deeply aware of the passing of time and circumstance, of fortune and misfortune. As a faithful reader of Jhabvala’s since I was a twelve-year-old girl first picking up Heat and Dust, the difficulty in finishing this book was knowing that she’s no longer with us to offer sorely-needed wisdom in a changing world.