Jhabvala, Ruth. At the End of the Century. Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2017. F;2/19.
I came across this collection of short stories and their author through my usual pattern of reading periodicals and chasing down the original work. In the January 7, 2019 New Yorker, Maya Jasanoff reviewed Jhabvala, a German-born eventually American Jewish writer who married an Indian architect and lived many years in India. Jhabvala is often taken to be Indian, but her work shows all the influences of her varied background. She is best known for collaboration with James Ivory and Ismael Merchant as a screenwriter for many of their films. She won an Academy award for Room with a View, and we are told she is the only person so far to have won both the Booker prize and an Oscar.
Jasanoff suggests Jhabvala’s short fiction is better than her novels. In this collection, published posthumously by her heirs, there are 17 stories, and a couple of the early and middle ones are wonderful. Venues jump from India to the United States, the author clearly familiar with both, and the themes usually critically treat Indian morality, culture, religious leaders, and family money, as well as Jewish life and culture in New York and Los Angeles.
Loss of Faith had for me a Kafka-like darkness behind its stark personalities presented in primary-colour caricature though all too impressionistically real. We see their greed, ambition, fear, diffidence, misogyny, and eventual financial ruin as their flawed personalities run blind against the world’s contingencies. In A Course of English Studies, a self-absorbed pretty Indian girl seduces her English teacher and we infer without its being described completely his poverty, banal and hopeless arranged marriage and his family life, and his ambivalence over the affair. Another barren arranged marriage drives a rich beautiful educated woman to the point of suicide over her affair with a violent misogynist military officer in Desecration. Great Expectations makes I think the most devastating attack on Indian family money, empty promises, and a blind eye to harm being done to others to keep a false reality from collapsing. That false reality here is an ethereal religious narcissism that is according to Jhabvava endemic to India.
She seems more comfortable in the United States judging from the tone of her stories based there, Ménage and Pagans. There is never any doubt about the power and paradoxical emptiness of great family wealth, but Ménage especially has a roundness and charm that caught my attention, while it maintained the Teutonic and maybe Jewish transparent objectivity that scowled over the India-based stories. Shock at her husband’s culture’s moral and social horror sets this author apart from native writers of India like Jumpa Lahiri and Karan Mahajan.
Ruth Jhabvala died in 2013 at the age of 86. I had not heard of her until I read the New Yorker review, but she had quite spectacular and well-recognized success both as a fiction- and screenwriter. That review commented that her later stories didn’t have the same impact as others, and I agree. I was left in those last two or three with an even greater impression than I had with the others of a still photo of characters, lives, families, and moral circumstances set onto a background plot that ended without having moved or changed much.
Good and at times great writing from someone with a unique point of view and determined self-reliance. Recommended, selectively. 8.6/8.8 at its best.