The poet is not a poet in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s new novel, and the dancer is not a dancer. ‘Although her movements were always the same – she waved her arms above her head, she ran now to the right of the room, now to the left – her audience obligingly saw what she wanted them to see. She was pleased, she ran faster, she attempted to spin round; her tread was not light, and she was flustered and breathing hard.’ The dancer aims to impress, but she is also self-deluded. The poet is not. ‘When she came upstairs she sat at this table and tried to write poetry. It came very hard. When she was small, words had flown out of her like birds; now they fell back into her like stones. Their hardness seemed to lacerate her, and often she had to rest her head on the table to recover before she could go on.’
These two girls, Lara and Angel, are first cousins. Angel’s grandparents, Anna and Siegfried Manarr, arrived from Germany in the Twenties to run the New York branch of the family business. ‘Every day Siegfried left for an office and Anna saw him off, helping him into his coat.’ There is an exact shade of meaning in ‘an’; they were not really interested in the business, they were interested in each other. ‘They were two separate, large, plump bodies, but in everything else they were one. Music was their principal interest,’ and though Jhabvala, with characteristic dryness, tells us that Siegfried was unable to sing a note in tune, we recognise something beautiful, a lifetime of soothing courtship of which later generations will lose the secret.
The Manarrs have two children, Helena and Hugo. Helena marries Peter Koenig, son of the formidable Grandmother Koenig, who lives enshrined with her ancient German maid among massive furniture. Angel is Helena and Peter’s only child, a bespectacled little girl who has to endure the ordeal of solitary luncheons with her grandmother, perched opposite her at a table which once seated 20. Hugo’s wife, on the other hand, always seems to be away. His daughter, Lara, left more or less to his care, is very pretty, and ‘knew the attendant obligation to be charming. She fully accepted it. She kissed her relatives with her lips thrust far forward to show the pleasure this gave her.’ If Jhabvala, the wisest and sanest of writers, ever allows herself to show dislike, it is for young women like Lara Manarr.
The relationship between the cousins is obsessive from the first time they meet, when Lara invites the plain and serious-minded Angel into bed with her and teaches her to masturbate. After Peter deserts the family, Angel lives with her mother and helps her to run her boutique. Like Anita Brookner’s dutiful daughters, she seems to have the disposition to obedience. She is prepared for slavery, but she becomes a slave not to Helena but to Lara, forgiving her everything, or rather feeling there is nothing to forgive. Lara, in fact, needs to be needed as much as her cousin does. She is promiscuous, magpie-like in her greed for jewellery, monstrous in her insecurity which takes refuge in a battery of drugs and pills, equally monstrous in her demands on Angel. She gets the expected response. ‘I’m never going to leave you alone, ever again. Wherever you are, I’ll be with you,’
Very effectively, Jhabvala shows that Angel does have some times of happiness, and even of peace, with Lara. One aimless Sunday evening they go out to the riverside suburbs to see where Peter now lives. He is out, and in the end they do nothing but drive about with a kindly young taxi-man and catch the last crowded train back to Grand Central. ‘After a while Angel and Lara were too tired to stand and they slid to the floor. Lara fell asleep, and she, too, was smiling like the other sleeping passengers.’ In this eventless interlude the dangerous friendship becomes, for a while, intelligible.
The background of Poet and Dancer is the Manhattan of the recent past, still almost as pastoral as Scott Fitzgerald makes it in The Great Gatsby. Angel gets her early vision of the city from the attic of her grandparents’ brownstone, ‘looking down into the little paved garden with the brilliant new towers rising above and round her’. All through the first part of the book she catches glimpses of mysterious points of light, the streetlights and the stars together, forming a ‘fabulously shifting panorama’ whose reflection shimmers in the depths of the East River. It is only towards the end that she perceives the city as oppressive.
For forty years Jhabvala has been respected as an interpreter of cultures and of human beings stranded or transplanted; in particular, of course, the European in India. In 1975 she left India for America. In In Search of Love and Beauty (1983) she considered the German and Austrian refugees in New York, along with her own heritage and identity. In Poet and Dancer the Germanness of the Manarrs and the Koenigs is not the most important element, but it is a very distinctive one. As she first did in A Backward Place (1965), she contrasts, or at least brings close together, the German and the Indian understanding of life in exile. Both Helena and Angel find consolation – which, it’s suggested, might have been something like salvation – in their friendship with Mrs Arora and her son Rohit. The Aroras, whose tiny apartment seems always full of visiting relations, have the insistent, engaging charm which Jhabvala has always known so well how to express. Mrs Arora, who goes into business partnership with Helena, importing Indian convent embroideries for the boutique, is sympathetic and caressing. ‘Gliding in her sari, she seemed not so much to enter a room as to insinuate herself into it; the same was true of her manner of establishing relationships, which slid subtly over the dividing line between acquaintance and intimacy.’ She makes little presents of spicy food covered with lace mats, sprinkles rosewater, withdraws instantly at the slightest hint of rebuff. Rohit, who works in an airline office, is a good boy, a devoted son, and, when she has time for him, a loyal friend to Angel. But in the Aroras’ recent memory there is a cruel scar. The elder son Vikram, a delinquent, was stabbed to death in jail while still awaiting his sentence. For that reason Mrs Arora has felt it necessary to emigrate. When Rohit at last tells the whole story of the family disgrace to Angel, sitting beside her in a cross-town bus, she feels an impulse not to go back to Lara, but to give way to ‘an opposite desire’ and to get off and walk away with him. However, the ‘moment of friendship’ passes and comes to nothing. This is the unemphatic way in which Jhabvala prefers to record tragedy.
She has suggested herself that her success as a screenwriter has had its effect on her work as a novelist, and certainly the structure of her stories, since Heat and Dust, has become more complex. Poet and Dancer begins with a detached narrator, a woman patient of Hugo Manarr’s (he is a psychiatrist). She gets to know Helena, now an eccentric old woman living in a musty apartment on the West Side – living alone, for Angel, it seems, is dead. The narrator, who is a novelist, is asked to write the truth – that is, the story of Angel’s life. It is to be (Helena insists) the life of a poet, but there are no poems to be found, except for childish verses, only a collection of Angel’s old books, in one of which she has underlined the words; ‘And this truly is what a perfect lover must always do, utterly and entirely despoiling himself of himself for the sake of the thing he loves, and that not only for a time but everlastingly. This is the exercise of love, which no one can know except he who feels it.’ This is a passage which might describe not only Angel, but Mrs Arora and her passion for her criminal son. But, the narrator reminds us, she herself has never written anything but fiction, and ‘it is not for me to ascribe an epigraph to someone else’s life-story.’
Love hasn’t much in common with other emotions – fear, anger, pride – because the question of justification hardly arises. Love for the unlovable, as we know, transforms the object from a toad into a prince. But there is no miracle for Angel. Her fate is a wretched one, and there is an overwhelming sense of waste which makes this the saddest of Jhabvala’s books. At the very end ‘her principal feeling was that a great promise had been made and broken, although it was not clear whether she herself had made and broken it, or whether this had been done to her’.
Peerless Flats, on the other hand, is an entirely uncautionary tale of urban survival. Lisa is 16. Like the heroine of Hideous Kinky, Esther Freud’s amazing first novel, she has never had any opportunity to try existence in a world without drugs and with somewhere permanent to live. In the last three years she, her mother Marguerite, and her fiendish little brother Max have moved 11 times. On the whole, Lisa likes this. Now Marguerite’s most recent marriage has foundered and the three of them come up to London as homeless persons. That is how they arrive at Peerless Flats, behind the Old Street roundabout, in one-room temporary homeless accommodation. The period is the late Seventies, the last days of the Welfare State. There are smoking carriages and youths in Doc Martins with safety-pins through their noses. Lisa’s fare to Old Street, if she passes herself off as under 14, is ten pence. A lifetime of novel-writing couldn’t teach Esther Freud how to re-create past times better, or how to place her remembered details more accurately.
Ruby, Lisa’s elder sister, is in London already, living with Jimmy, a rockabilly who has room in his flat until his father comes out of prison. Ruby impresses herself on life without difficulty, creating waves of desire and anguish. She has dropped out of her history of art course, cut off her beautiful hair, and works in a shop selling bondage trousers. ‘Lisa felt immeasurably proud.’ While Marguerite, once a teacher, lays out her Open University pamphlets on the corner of the table, Lisa is studying, not very successfully, at a full-time drama course. Her evenings are spent in pubs, where she orders Pils, because a juvenile asking for orange juice sounds suspicious. Her ambition is to look like Ruby, her main anxiety is carrying out Ruby’s instructions. Ruby, by now, is in hospital with hepatitis; Lisa has to go to dark places to get her £40 worth of heroin. ‘Ruby slipped it into the pocket of her dressing-gown without a word.’
Lisa can justly be called heroic because inspite of an enviable capacity for happiness she is all too often in a state of terror. She is afraid of drugs and afraid that all the drinks she’s offered, even a cup of tea, may be spiked. ‘She thought, I’ll know in 20 minutes ... if by twenty to eleven her mind hadn’t caved in and splintered like a sheet of glass, she’d know she was going to be all right.’ She is worried that her mother will turn up late, as indeed she usually does, she is threatened by the very shadow of the high-rise blocks towering over their flat, and she is not too keen on sex, not even with Tom, who taught her to inhale ‘with all the gentleness of an elder brother’. The life she leads is the wrong one for Lisa, but that can never be admitted. ‘She had promised herself that she wouldn’t take any more drugs or even smoke, but here in this silent room with her mother looking on, she didn’t have the courage to refuse.’ What are we to think of this mother and this kind of gentle elder brother? Freud, however, continues in her clear, spare manner, calm enough for a judge, but apparently making no judgments.
Ruby’s father (it’s not certain whether he is Lisa’s) is said to have been banned from every racecourse in Britain, but is quite often able to stand the girls an oyster dinner. He offers Ruby an unexplained luxury flat to recuperate in. And Lisa could move in with her, the offer is made, but Lisa, not quite able to abandon her mother and Max, renounces it. ‘ “I’ll have to see,” she said.’
Marguerite is now offered a choice: either a neat three-bedroomed maisonette from the Council, a permanent home, or, from a Housing Association, a tacky house in a cul-de-sac crossing the railway line at the top of Hornsey Rise. They can live there for not more than eighteen months. The garden is strewn with rotting mattresses, and glittering with discarded hypodermic needles. By the back fence there is a lilac tree which might be about to flower. Lisa sees immediately that they must reject the Council’s well-kept, tightly fitted, neatly matching home, and move into Hornsey Rise. The word ‘permanent’ seems to sting in her thoughts. No need to press her mother, the claims of the dilapidated short-stay house will be obvious to her. For Marguerite and Lisa, in dreams begins irresponsibility.