Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has earned her greatest fame bringing other writers' elegant worlds to the screen. But as James Atlas discovers, in her latest novel, even contemporary New York is a rarefied setting.
March 1993

The novelist and screenwriter at home in New York

The list of books "Also by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala” at the front of her new novel, Poet and Dancer (Doubleday), unfurls impressively down the page; 10 previous novels and five volumes of short stories attest to a vigorous career. Born in Germany between the wars, educated in England, and now resident in New York after a quarter century in India, Jhabvala has gone about her work with the casual industry one associates with British writers, producing a book every two years or so. In the intervals between, she's written 16 screenplays for Ismail Merchant and James Ivory that have resulted in a virtually new genre: the film as literature. Her novels, modest in scope, are never less than serviceable; a few of them (notably Heat and Dust) are masterpieces. The movies that the Merchant‑Ivory team has made from her adaptations of Henry James and E.M. Forster, and from her own books, are stately, serene, and gorgeous to watch. The sheer persistence of such a disciplined and prodigal talent ‑such a writerly writer‑ is reassuring. Like the lush Sussex landscapes and country houses that adorn her latest film collaboration, Howards End, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala isn't quite of this time, this place. Her work evokes a vanished world.

But then, much about Jhabvala ‑as her hybrid name suggests‑ is anomalous. A Jew married to an Indian, she epitomizes that melancholy modern phenomenon: statelessness. "I'm by nature an outsider,” she said one rainy winter afternoon over tea in her midtown Manhattan apartment." I don't mingle easily.” It's not only a matter of disposition; Jhabvala's life has been a sequence of displacements. The daughter of a prosperous lawyer in Cologne, she fled Germany with her family at the last possible moment, in l939; her father's entire family was wiped out in the holocaust and he himself committed suicide in 1948. Jhabvala studied English literature at London University, but like true novelists she largely educated herself. "Dickens, Lawrence, Hardy ‑just name it, I read it." In 1949 she met Cyrus Jhabvala, an architecture student, from India, at a party on a Thames houseboat. Jhabvala went back to India for two years, then returned with a marriage proposal. The couple moved to Delhi, and Jhabvala wrote her first novel, Amrita, or To Whom She Will. '”I got hold of a Writers and Artists Yearbook,” she recounts, "and made a list of 20 publishers. Then I wrote to them all. I said, 'I've written this novel, and would you like to see it?' Everyone answered ‑it was marvelous. Can you imagine that today?” The manuscript was published by Allen and Unwin, and by W. W. Norton in America.

India was difficult for Jhabvala. She was "lonely, shut in, shut off," she confessed in a candid preface to her collection of stories, Out of India, reflecting on the deep ambivalence she felt toward her adopted homeland:

I have a nice house, I do my nest to live in an agreeable way. I shut all my windows, I let down the blinds, I turn on the air‑conditioner; I read a lot of books, with a special preference for the great masters of the novel. All the time I know myself to be on the back of this great animal of poverty and backwardness.... Even if one never rolls up the blinds and never turns off the air‑conditioner, something is bound to go wrong. People are not meant to shut themselves up in rooms and pretend there is nothing outside.

By 1975 she'd had enough. "Twenty‑four years in India is a very long time," she says, noting that for British civil servants who were posted there, after a decade “one year counted as two.” The only question was where to live. "I wanted to go to Europe, which was really New York" ‑the Europe she'd known was death haunted. New York was a glamorous city in those days, Jhabvala recalls, “a great shining palace." And it was familiar; the culture of her youth, the German‑Jewish aristocracy destroyed by World War II, had been transplanted to cavernous apartments on the Upper West Side. "It felt like home again; I could have been in Cologne."

Jhabvala's fiction radiates sensuality. The stories in Out of India­ -for instance, "Desecration," about an adulterous woman who commits suicide after she's abandoned by her sadistic lover‑ give off a sultry buzz; and a destructive affair is also at the heart of Heat and Dust. The hot climate ignites illicit passion. How does Jhabvala know so much about men and women ‑especially Indian men and women? To meet her is to be reminded that novelists really do invent: Dressed in slacks and a sweater, her gray hair pulled back in a bun, she could be anyone's grandmother. Her manner is shy and recessive, almost oppressively soft‑spoken. Even her small apartment, in a prewar building on the East Side, has a fugitive air about it; the furniture is generic modern, the bookshelves are sparsely stocked, the prints on the wall are few and far between. But her life seems less barren than it must have been a decade ago, when a profile in The New York Times Magazine described her solitary routine: writing in the morning, followed by lunch alone in a coffee shop on First or Second Avenue, and reading in the afternoon. After a long geographic separation, her husband has moved to New York. (They spend three months a year in India.) Now retired, Mr. Jhabvala works at a desk by the window; his luminous watercolors grace the covers of his wife's books.

The locales of Jhabvala's novels have shifted with her itinerary. Poet and Dancer, the story of two cousins who form a neurotic attachment to each other, belongs to her Manhattan canon; it explores the same territory as In Search of Love and Beauty, her novel of a decade ago about a wealthy, high‑strung family of Viennese refugees from Hitler. It also has the same problems. Both books are vague and melodramatic. Jhabvala somehow hasn't gotten the hang of this daunting city; her New York is a fantasy, seen as if through a cinematic haze. The East River is "dotted with barges and pleasure boats," the bridge over it a "silver arc," the water and sky at dusk "filled with a progressively mellowing light' '‑more the Paris of Seurat than contemporary New York. The prose is stilted; I can't remember when I last came across the word bosom in a novel. Instead of scenes, Jhabvala furnishes brusque summaries:

"He asked about this and that…” “She tossed words around wildly…”  What's lack­ing is the physical sense of place that makes her Indian novels so haunting, her ability to make us see the squalid cities and shimmering plains, the spirituality that shines forth out of that dark continent.

If New York has so far eluded Jhabvala's imaginative grasp, it could be that she hasn't immersed herself in it. She doesn't go out much and spends a good deal of time at the Merchant‑Ivory estate in Claverack, two hours up the Hudson, where the producers have established an art complex and editing facility on the grounds of their country house. New York isn't what it was, she notes; it's become more and more like the India she left behind ‑a third‑world capital overrun by a desperate population. The glittering city she came to less than 20 years ago, the city captured in her husband's romantic cover illustration for Poet and Dancer, is gone. "If you look up, it's still like that; if you look down, it is no longer."

I suspect that's why the literary movies she's made with Merchant and Ivory are so popular ‑they make the world look more beautiful than it is. Their films are meticulously reconstructed, almost painterly renderings of England and Italy in the days when horse‑drawn carriages trotted through the streets. Now they've entered into a potentially lucrative partnership with Disney that came about after Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of Disney Studios, saw Howards End and marveled at their ability to bring in such a lavish production for a mere $8 million. Free to make the films they want, but with increased capital and an assured distributorship, the company has ambitious plans. They've just finished filming Kazuo Ishiguro's elegant novel about an English butler, The Remains of the Day, and Jhabvala is researching a historical film about Thomas Jefferson's years in Paris when he was ambassador to France. Also in the works are a biographical film about Picasso and an adaptation of James's Portrait of a Lady ‑his most potentially filmic novel. "There's a line in James's Europeans,” says James Ivory by way of explaining their success: “Every man ought to go to school to a clever woman.” I guess you could say I've gone to school to a clever woman."

What is Jhabvala's alchemical secret for the transformation of novels into screenplays? "I read them, and then I read them again; then I make a synopsis, scene by scene; then I have to make a structure for it ‑this isn't all as conscious as I'm making it sound. "  Then she puts the book aside and writes the dialogue herself: "Of course, the best lines I do take. " She's faithful to the period; for Howards End she steeped herself in Wells and Shaw, the Fabians, the Bloomsbury group. All that's missing, as Terrence Rafferty shrewdly observed in The New Yorker, is "the elusive quality that makes Forster such a brave, moving writer: his constant striving to see beyond the story, to see through it, to transcend it. " In its stead is something else: a film that both delights and instructs. If high culture is becoming obsolete, there is still high entertainment.

The world that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has conjured up in her novels and screenplays is a world to admire: impeccably civilized, enviously refined‑and faintly unreal.