HXgZZclg^iZgÉh ÒXi^dcVa egZdXXjeVi^dch
At the End of the Century: The Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Little, Brown, £20
Reviewed by David Herman
RUTH PRAWER Jhabvala is best known for her screenplays, including A Room with a View, Howards End and Remains of the Day. Her long collaboration with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory won her two Academy Awards and captured a distinctive Englishness.
This is perhaps surprising in a German Jewish cantor’s granddaughter who came to Britain with her family in 1939 and, in 1951, moved to India where she married an Indian architect.
She lived there for 24 years before moving to New York in 1975 and, for the rest of her life, divided her time between India and the United States.
Jhabvala, who died in 2013, was a pro- lific writer, producing a dozen novels and eight collections of short stories, in addition to 23 screenplays.
This new selection contains 17 stories written over 50 years, between 1963 and 2013. Most are set in India, a few in America and two in Britain. And just two are about the experience of Jewish refugees from central Europe, both written late in Jhabvala’s career.
Disappointingly, the book is lacking in biographical or bibliographical information. The short introduction by Anita Desai is not especially helpful. What are the criteria for selection? Why are there so few stories about Jewish refugees, and none from early in her career? How did someone who changed continents three times in her life find a literary voice? Where did she ever feel at home, as a person or a writer?
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of her best stories are about people who Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in A are out of place, especially British women in India.
This contributes to the melancholy feel of so many of the stories. They are studies in loneliness, about women who are unfulfilled, often divorced or unhappily married. There’s a telling reference to “our small mismanaged lives.”
“Something was missing,” states an Indian student in Britain. One character, Pauline, feels “sick, with disappointment.” Another feels there was something “amiss, or missing.”
What is missing in these women’s lives? Sometimes it’s a child, more often love, or a sense of belonging. The stories are nearly all about “the feelings in a woman’s heart.”
These are interior narratives, concerned with feelings and emotions, not history or politics. There is little sense of Britain or America, or even India. The first reference to Partition comes on page 319; there is little about the tensions between Hindus and Muslims, the Raj, or the fight for independence.
Instead, what stands out from the stories are people’s problems with boundaries. They have affairs and commit adultery. They form odd triangles. Husbands love their sisters-in-law. Dark passions run deep. All far from the posh world of manners in the Merchant Ivory films.
They are about lonely and unfulfilled women
David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer
Room With a View