Henry James’s injunction to the novelist was ‘Dramatise! Dramatise!’ Ezra Pound advocated ‘the presentative method’. A dozen lesser but important voices have urged that modern fiction must enact, not tell. The strongest intellectual pressures on the serious novelist in this century have all been, that is to say, in the direction – the ultimate direction – of the playscript or the screenplay and away from the elaboration of prose as prose. But what does the writer do in her novels who finds herself engaged outside them in writing screenplays? Does her fiction push back in the opposite direction, against the flow of history? Does the novel become a space for the kinds of writing which screenplays forbid – a large loose bag into which she can pop odd pieces of narrative embroidery?
Such questions may help to explain the unsatisfactoriness of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s recent novels. Or simpler explanations may be more pertinent: waning energy, for example, and the loss, or abandonment, of her real – her serious – subject.
Polish-born, English-educated, married to an Indian, and living, at least until the Eighties, most of her adult life in India, Jhabvala has been a writer with a subject. She has been able to put India into Western drawing-rooms in a way that made it almost intelligible. She has belonged to India, but not entirely. In an essay she once described the three stages of a Westerner’s reaction to that country: ‘first stage, tremendous enthusiasm – everything Indian is marvellous; second stage, everything Indian not so marvellous; third stage, everything Indian abominable.’ For some people, she says, the cycle goes on: ‘I have been through it so many times that now I think of myself as strapped to the wheel.’
The result has been a special kind of detachment. All her views of India are provisional. She can present its manners and people comically without mocking or demeaning them; she can present them tragically, while preserving a few grains of irony. And there has been a gradual sense of deeper understanding. The view from the outside has become (especially, perhaps, in the short stories) a view not just from within Indian society but almost from within the Indian temperament and sensibility.
Her subject has been, of course, not so much India as India in Westerners’ perceptions of it; and there are certain things which she will not let us forget. It is ‘a backward place’ (the title of one of her novels) where poverty, violence and injustice exist on a scale too huge to be corrected, are impossible to escape from and depressing to the sensitive soul, not least because in time they come to be accepted. It is also a place of great physical discomfort, especially of ‘heat and dust’ (another title). It is a society which baffles the Western mind, combining a terrible passivity with a mysterious and even dangerous power. It is a place of contrasts – ugliness and beauty, sensuality and spirituality.
I suppose it was inevitable that as Jhabvala’s life changed (she now divides her time, the blurb tells us, between New York and Delhi), the fiction would change too; and Three Continents, the novel before the last, signalled that it was to be a change entirely for the worse. Shards of Memory continues along the same lines. What is lost, I suspect, is the discipline of trying to represent India truthfully, accurately, in all its complexity. Without that effort, Jhabvala’s imagination appears to have few clear reference points and little ballast. The Indian novels impressed because they were real, truthful, observant, conscientious, witty and plausible. Three Continents and Shards of Memory seem by comparison like a child’s game of ‘let’s pretend’.
The new novel is set mostly in New York with some scenes in London and a few flashbacks to Delhi. It covers an ill-defined but considerable timespan which, given the generations passed through, ought to be even greater than the novel’s few defining points allow. American Elsa, daughter of Dorothy Kopf, while visiting London in search of a guru known as the Master, meets and marries an Indian poet, Hormusji Bilimoria, known as Kavi. Their child, known throughout the novel, even in her old age, as Baby (she has a name but unlike her father’s it is not divulged), tells the opening 40 pages of the story, after which it continues in the third person. Elsa leaves Baby with her mother in New York and returns to London to live in a warring lesbian relationship with Cynthia Howard, another devotee of the Master. So there are two households: in New York, Kavi with his mother-in-law and daughter; in London, Elsa and Cynthia.
In the flip of not many pages (with sections beginning, ‘Several more years passed ... ’) Baby has grown up and married English diplomat Graeme, a nephew, as it happens, of Cynthia. These two stay together only long enough to engender a daughter, Renata, after which Graeme goes on his philandering way, and Baby on hers. In not too many more pages Renata has grown up and gone to London to stay with her grandmother Elsa and great-aunt Cynthia. There she meets and is almost imperceptibly (in the sense that neither he nor she seems to notice) impregnated by Carl, a young German who carries about with him a manuscript entitled ‘Education as Elevation’, attempting to interest people he meets in the street in its ideas. This he will continue to do without success for the novel’s next 20 years and 40 pages – long enough for Henry, his child to Renata, to grow up in New York, receive terrible injuries in a car crash in London while visiting his great-grand-mother Elsa and great-great-aunt Cynthia, and learn that he is the spiritual child of the Master. This is so, it seems, because it was the Master who, while idly touching Renata’s breasts and belly during her first visit to him, perceived that she was pregnant – something she had not guessed; and also because the Master’s death (he chokes on a piece of meat) and Henry’s birth are more or less simultaneous.
Parallel to this blood-line, which passes through five generations in 100 pages while losing only great-great-grandmother Dorothy, there is another, that of Madame Richter, a Russian immigrant piano teacher in New York, and her female descendants. Madame Richter lives with her daughter in one room in a rundown house on the West Side; and with the appalling and implausible stasis which afflicts the characters in this novel, ‘she lived there for years, her granddaughter was born and brought up there.’
By page 47 the granddaughter is giving the piano lessons, but Madame Richter is still present, making sure it is done right. The old lady ‘seemed not to have changed, except that she had only a few strands of her white hair left and almost no teeth. Even her black coat looked the same, green with age and threadbare.’ Here one must feel sympathy with the novelist labouring under contradictory pressures. Madame Richter is ‘hardly changed’ because she has only been around for forty pages; but the passage of time, which is considerable, has robbed her of hair and teeth. This seems to me only just short of saying someone was hardly changed except that she was dead.
Much further on in the novel, in a retrospect on this female line, we learn that Madame Richter’s daughter Sonia was almost certainly fathered by the Master. Sonia’s daughter Irina was in turn fathered by Madame Richter’s landlady’s son, who then went to jail and was not seen again. And Irina’s daughter Vera was fathered by an itinerant Irishman beside whom Irina carelessly came to rest one afternoon in Central Park. Thus when Henry inherits the Master’s papers and takes Vera as his assistant to work on them, there is an appropriateness in that she is the great-granddaughter and he the spiritual son of the papers’author.
What is in these papers? Not much, it seems, since the Master gave little away, and perhaps had little to give. In any case such esoteric truths as gurus deal in are difficult for the novelist to invent – they have to be suggested rather than presented. But we have to accept that there is enough to make it necessary for Henry to need an assistant – this, of course, because the plot needs Vera – and enough to keep Henry and Vera occupied while Jhabvala jams into the bag, or tacks onto the patchwork, one or two fictions that she perhaps had no other place for. One of these, in two parts, is extraordinary; and not surprisingly it takes us back to her old subject, India.
Cynthia’s nephew Graeme appears first on page 35, marries Baby on page 39, fathers Renata on page 42, and having done the service which is the males’ sole, or chief, function in this novel, disappears until page 92, by which time he is already retired: ‘Now, fifty years later and at the end of his career, Graeme came [to Cynthia’s and Elsa’s house] every Sunday for the traditional roast beef lunch.’
But a hundred or so pages further on Jhabvala decides to bring him back into the story. He suffers a heart attack and is returned to Baby, who looks after him until the final page. By this device he is made the source and revealer of information and reminiscences, some of which concern the Master and are thus part of the story, others of which are there simply for their own sake.
Two of these are from Graeme’s varied love life. One concerns a single sexual encounter with a woman in a poor quarter of Delhi; the other is a prolonged affair of the mind with the niece of an Indian leader who herself rises to fame and leadership in later years, and is assassinated. Coming close to the end of a novel in which the sense of real life, real human character, is so thin, these fifteen or so pages are a fatal mistake. They leap out and take one by the scruff of the neck, and become the measure by which all the rest is found wanting. They confirm for the self-doubting reader that it is not he but the novelist whose batteries have needed recharging.
Stories are commonly designed to make us hope for a particular ending; sometimes our wish is granted, sometimes not – either outcome, the happy or the sad, is equally conventional. In this novel the conventional hope is that Vera and disabled Henry will declare their deep but secret feeling for one another. The hope is disappointed on the final page. But if you care to reread, you will be rewarded with (more or less) the hoped-for ending, which will have meant nothing when you first encountered it – a brief jump into the future on page 40. ‘Henry checked with everyone else still alive – his parents, and also Vera (Mme Richter’s great-granddaughter), though that was not until several years had passed, after Vera’s marriage broke down and she more or less came back to him.’