In an interview in The Observer three years after her 1975 Booker Prize win with Heat and Dust (now reissued by Abacus), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, then in her fifties, said: ‘I sometimes wonder what I’ll be doing at 80.’ The answer is this: delivering a masterclass in storytelling and writing beautiful, luminous prose.
The stories in this collection exploit traditional structures, usually a small cast of characters, with settings that range from Bombay Bollywood palaces in the 1950s, upstate New York during the AIDS crisis, tacky fundraising banquets in Hollywood and vast, gilded apartments in uptown Manhattan to shabby New York holes infested with mice and cockroaches and the polluted urban crush of India. Prawer Jhabvala crosses class, cultural and sexual boundaries with ease; she presents homosexual characters, both repressed gay men ensconced with their mothers and elegant queers comfortable in the world and with themselves. She chooses to dramatise intense family relationships and claustrophobic situations: mothers clutching their grown-up sons; marriages gone wrong or lasting for decades; possessive odd couples, such as the brother and sister in ‘The New Messiah’ who share a bedroom and hold hands lightly across the twin beds. A cleverly suggestive portrait of an ageing Bollywood star in ‘Bombay (pre-Mumbai)’ and the daughter-in-law who becomes his hostess (and possibly his mistress) re-enacts the emotional drama of one of the most famous films of the period it depicts, Pakeezah, in which the erotic attachment between the Maharajah and the dancing girl, his son’s lover, is explicit. Prawer Jhabvala astutely ransacks the cultures of three continents, everywhere equally at home.
Several persistent themes emerge: the figures of the mentor and the apprentice; the artist and his or her devoted interpreters; the guru and her disciple. One of the most powerful and suggestive stories, ‘School of Oriental Studies’, describes the fate of a repressed, bespectacled academic, an English translator who has dedicated herself to a famous poet. Anuradha, the enormous ageing poetess, seduces the translator, not only with poetry: ‘The poetess, a huge mound rising, pressed against her with her fat hot flesh, suffusing her with the by now so familiar, so beloved smell of rose-scented oil, garlic and perspiration.’ Prawer Jhabvala’s tone shifts from revelatory poetic ecstasy to domestic farce. The translator enables the poet’s stifled son to escape – and then takes his place as the adoring acolyte. The miracle of this unlikely couple is celebrated in their ‘wild nights’, a reference to Emily Dickinson’s queer hymn of joy to art and love between women.
One of Prawer Jhabvala’s points of reference is clearly Henry James. There is a delicate allusion to the climax of The Portrait of a Lady in ‘Critic’: when an old actress watches her adored son addressing a glossy film star whose performance he has trashed in his reviews, Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle fleetingly reappear. ‘Pagans’ playfully reproduces the plot and the lightness of touch in The Ambassadors; each messenger sent to Los Angeles to bring back the central protagonist becomes enchanted by the brittle beauty of California and falls for Hollywood’s pleasures.
Prawer Jhabvala’s career as a screenwriter, which includes two Academy Award-winning Merchant Ivory productions (A Room with a View and Howards End), enables her to draw uncompromising portraits of film moguls, actors and their attendant parasites, flatterers and hangers-on. She describes both the creators of art and all the necessary sideshows: the translators, agents, critics, producers, fundraisers, and the generous, if gullible, billionaires.
The short story or fable, closely related to the fairy tale, is a form that traditionally exploits the magical and the supernatural. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala invents a freak show composed of ordinary humanity in extraordinary, unstable situations. Scroungers, stalkers, the obsessed, the depraved and the mad all stroll through her tales. She registers the economic forces affecting every character: where the money comes from, its lack and acquisition. These are precisely priced fictions, as exact as a Victorian novel. The simplicity of her language is beguiling and treacherous. Beware the complexity and ambiguity of her meanings. Her fictions are as sinister as the original tales of the Brothers Grimm, but told with a moral delicacy, in gentle and dangerous prose.