Whether producing her award-winning novels or working as the screenwriting member of Merchant-Ivory, the film industry's longest-lasting creative team, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (born 1927) contributes a respected voice to modern literature.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's perspective as a creative writer is one born of the conflict between East and West, a conflict that mirrors her life as a citizen of both worlds. Born in Germany to Polish parents, Jhabvala, the daughter of a lawyer, began writing stories at age six. In the prewar days, she and her brother attended segregated Jewish schools, which "wasn't pleasant, " as Jhabvala told People reporter Harriet Shapiro. "Other children would scream after us and throw stones."
Jhabvala and her family left Germany for England in 1939, where they survived the London Blitz-the constant blitzkreig bombing of the city by German war planes. But tragedy was to follow: as Shapiro noted, Jhabvala's father, depressed by the loss of many of his relatives to the concentration camps, committed suicide in 1948.
A new life in India
At the time of her father's death, Jhabvala was a student of Queen Mary College. That same year, she attended a get-together in London, where an attentive young Indian man "stayed by my side for the entire party, " as the author recalled to Shapiro. While she admitted that his accent made conversation a challenge, Ruth Prawer and architect Cyrus Jhabvala completed a long-distance courtship and were married in 1951, after Ruth had completed her master's degree in English literature.
The new bride relocated to New Delhi with her husband; she later described her first impression of India as "the most wonderful place I had ever been in my life. India was a sensation. It was remarkable to see all those parrots flying about, the brilliant foliage and the brilliant sky." Indeed, Jhabvala had seen the India of travelogue-"I never noticed the poverty, " she added in the People interview.
The circumstance under which Jhabvala arrived in India-her marriage-is not usually the kind that propels other westerners to the Asian continent. In short, as Time writer Paul Gray remarked, the young woman was not "a do-gooder, a foreign-service careerist or a spiritual pilgrim. But her European background and natural desire to sympathize with her adopted land made her an acute observer."
Writing from "the Inside"
Her adopted country provided Jhabvala with the impetus to begin her literary career. "I was 24, " she told David Streitfeld in a Washington Post Book World interview, "and just at the age when one really starts to write seriously. There was so much subject matter for me. I hardly finished a book before I started a new one. I was so full of energy, I immediately wrote as if I were an Indian, from inside." But even that kind of enthusiasm couldn't mask an underlying conflict: "I wasn't even really anything when I was in India, because I was a foreigner there. People are always asking where my roots are, and I say I don't have any."
Jhabvala's first novel, To Whom She Will (published in the United States as Amrita) was released in 1955. In a New York Herald Tribune Book World review, Nancy Wilson Ross welcomed the publication as "a fresh and witty novel about modern India." Jhabvala's Jane Austen-like take on the mores of middle-class Indians found favor with many critics and readers, and Amrita paved the way for a collection of insightful novels and short stories with an Indian theme.
One of the best-known Jhabvala novels is the 1975 work Heat and Dust, which the author also adapted for film. This story of a young British woman recreating the India journey of her grandfather's wife contains "social comedy … as funny and as sympathetic as it is in Jhabvala's earlier novels, even though she has departed from her more usual theme of middle-class Indian life, " according to Times Literary Supplement critic Brigid Allen. A critical and popular success on both sides of the Atlantic, Heat and Dust won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize for fiction.
"More and More an Alien Place"
After two decades in India, Jhabvala faced a growing problem: she was finding it increasingly difficult to write about a country that she was living in. Reviewers began commenting on an ambivalence toward India in her work that was particularly apparent in her short story collection Out of India. One reviewer of this 1986 work, Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, wrote that "bit by bit, the stories in Out of India darken, grow denser and more ambiguous." In this way, Kakutani concludes, Jhabvala "gradually moves beyond the tidy formulations of the comedy of manners, and a strain of melancholy also begins to creep into her writing."
As Jhabvala explained in People, "India became more and more an alien place. It is not a place that you can be indifferent to. It absorbs you against your will. You can't live there and eat and be comfortable when you see how others have to live." And so in 1975 the author moved to a New York City apartment. Her husband, who remained in India, is a frequent visitor to New York, while the couple's three grown children live in India, England, and California.
Now in the United States, Jhabvala was not lacking in challenging work opportunities. As a longtime collaborator with the filmmaking team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory-indeed, the two were even neighbors, living in the apartment below Jhabvala, as Shapiro's article reported-she produced scripts on an average of almost one per year through the 1980s and 1990s. Merchant-Ivory Productions gained fame as a leading proponent of period dramas, many of them bearing the stamp of India as provided by Jhabvala.
A Thriving Film Career
Beginning with Shakespeare Wallah and Bombay Talkie, and continuing through Autobiography of a Princess, Heat and Dust, and A Passage to India from the E.M. Forster novel, Merchant-Ivory pictures brought to the world Jhabvala's visions of the East. But as successful as those films were, the moviemaking trio would gain their largest audiences with more "mainstream, " Western-themed productions, including the smash hit A Room with a View. This tale of a naive-but-pragmatic young Englishwoman torn between her hot-blooded true love and her dull, sensible fiancee struck a chord with audiences and critics, whose acclaim helped propel the independent film to three Academy Awards, including one for Jhabvala in adapting another Forester book to the screen.
A Room with a View ushered in an era of Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala films that caught popular attention. The release of Howards End (1992) prompted Time columnist Richard Corliss to dub the three artists "a nuclear family, a multinational corporation and a tight little island of quality cinema." Corliss also noted that Merchant-Ivory films "have often been admired, and reviled, for their dogged gentility, the Masterpiece Theatricality of their style. Even the soggy films proceed at a confidently leisurely pace." But with Jhabvala's tight script for Howards End, he added, "you get the sense of an entire novel, its characters and character, unfolding in 140 minutes."
Kazou Ishiguro's 1988 novel, Remains of the Day, was the basis of another well-received Merchant-Ivory film. In adapting the story of a butler whose lifetime of selfless dedication to the denizens of Darlington Hall is tested when Lord Darlington becomes allied with the Nazi Party during World War II, the filmmakers also faced industry gossip. "As is widely known, a screenplay by Harold Pinter was discarded in favor of one by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, " as Stanley Kauffmann reported in a New Republic review. "Jhabvala is certainly no crude hack, but she has underscored some matters and has altered the tone of the original." That sits fine with Corliss, who wrote in his Time review that with this film the creative team has "gone their source one better, or one quieter: the film is more discreet … than the book." Also in agreement is National Review writer John Simon: "It is to Jhabvala's credit that she has managed to objectify and animate what in the novel is mostly internalized, point-of-view reflection."
Less successful for Merchant-Ivory Productions was the team's 1995 film, Jefferson in Paris. Simon, in another National Review article, singled out Jhabvala as "culpable" for what he termed a lifeless study of Thomas Jefferson's years as an ambassador.
In the view of Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala "have turned civility into a kind of middlebrow fetish. Their films have come most alive when the characters are most repressed." With another adaptation, Surviving Picasso (1996), the filmmakers "have now achieved a certain slickness and fluency, but without the spark of inspiration that makes the whole world kin, " in the words of John Simon. This film dramatizes the affair between the aging Pablo Picasso and his young protégé, Francoise Gilot. "Never less than watchable, " said Gleiberman, the production "is also a cinematic paradox, a movie that works to capture Picasso from every angle yet somehow misses the fire in his belly."
However the critics may react to their films, there is no denying the success of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala partnership-in fact, the three were cited in one reference source as the longest-lasting filmmaking team ever. Discussing their formula for success with People's Harriet Shapiro, Ivory singles out Jhabvala's contributions. "Most screenwriters are not fueled by any real creative gifts as writers. They are not proper storytellers. Unlike so many people who adapt classic novels, Ruth is not down on her knees before them, not daring to change anything."
Further Reading on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 4, 1975, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 29, 1984.
Entertainment Weekly, September 27, 1996.
National Review, December 13, 1993; May 1, 1995; November 11, 1996.
New Republic, December 6, 1993; April 24, 1995.
New Statesman & Society, April 9, 1993.
New York Herald Tribune Book Review, January 15, 1956.
New York Times, August 30, 1973; July 19, 1983; September 15, 1993; August 2, 1984; August 5, 1984; March 7, 1986; May 17, 1986; July 5, 1986; August 6, 1987.
People, September 28, 1987.
Publishers Weekly, July 17, 1995.
Time, May 12 1986; March 16, 1992; November 8, 1993.
Times Literary Supplement, May 20, 1965; November 7, 1975; April 15, 1983; April 24, 1987; November 13, 1987; April 16, 1993.
Washington Post Book World, September 12, 1976; September 18, 1983; May 25, 1986; February 21, 1993; March 28, 1993.