THIS IS Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's first novel set in the United States. (Her others have been placed in India). It is a satirical novel, about German refugees living in New York, beginning with their first years there in the 1930s and ending about 40 years later. It is about three generations of one family: Louise and Bruno, their daughter Marietta, her children Mark and Natasha, and mostly it is about their never-ending love for and fascination with Leo Kellerman, a charlatan turned therapist-guru. Leo preaches ultimate serenity through orgasm, physicial and spiritual--" 'Long ago. Before Reich. After Reich, well--' he shrugged, disposing of Freud."
Leo, one of the most repulsive characters I have encountered in recent fiction, is the pivot around whom the characters of the novel revolve in their macabre dance, adoring him, housing him, supporting him, sleeping with him. "The air vibrated with her feelings for him," is what Louise, in her seventies, experiences. Jhabvala does not try to convince us this should be so: she describes everybody's antics with an admirable technical brilliance and a subtlety of wit, which makes us wish even more for more deserving and wiser characters, people who would not only think endlessly about their souls, but who would have souls.
Bruno, the most sympathique of the lot, is accorded very little room in the novel. We are never really certain at which part of the game he mercifully and conveniently dies. Considering that it is his home, his bed, his family (and presumably his money) who are taken over so thoroughly by the irresistible Leo, we feel that he has been denied the love and beauty he deserved. Natasha, the adopted granddaughter, although Russian and full of feeling for others, has little about her of a Chekhovian heoine. She is clumsy of body and mind, passive and pitiful. "Hours passed, and she really couldn't have said what she was thinking, if anything. She sat with her hands folded in her lap, her eyes fixed on the landscape outside though usually without seeing it. . . . She felt reluctant to move, as if in moving she might be displacing, disturbing something. There was a peculiar sensation of being attentive and waiting and yet at the same time having already received what she was waiting for." We feel like shaking her, telling her to get away while she still can, to stop being a parasite like all the others.
There are excellent cameo descriptions of minor characters (Eric, Mrs. Cross) and places (the Cafe Old Vienna, the ashram Marietta visits in her endless search), but we want to watch from a distance, not get involved with any of them. There are many casual couplings (a distasteful but excellent scene where the little girl Marianne/Marietta watches her mother and Leo at play), everybody is sleeping with everybody, and in the end we are thankful that at least we were spared an erotic encounter between mother and son. Why were we spared? Because the son likes boys better, although the boys themselves don't seem adverse to courting the mother sometimes.
The juxtapositions of time and place and points of view do not quite work. Often we are not certain of how old various characters are at given points in the novel. (Is Marietta still a young woman here? No, she can't be, because Natasha is over 20 on this page. But then, how old is Mark two pages later, when he upsets his mother so by suddenly leaving for London? Wasn't he in his thirties, a successful real estate tycoon just a while ago?) We are always guessing, trying to puzzle out the sequences. And as this is a novel about the passage of time, the need for constant rechecking leaves us with a faint feeling of irritation.
The irritation mounts: this is a novel about German refugees making it in New York and in the bucolic landscape of the Hudson River Valley, and still there is not a word anywhere about what goes on beyond the perimeter of their own small lives. Surely their money, which "they managed to get out," could not have shielded them altogether from noticing that abysmal changes were taking place all around them? Shouldn't the war which they escaped (and which some of their friends and family presumably did not escape), and the quarter- century following it be at least mirrored in some of their thinking?
No, all they talk about is Leo, or their relationship with Leo. It is one rare moment of self-critical insight in which Louise says to her friend: "You're a selfish woman, Regi. You always have been, you always will be. . . . Not that I'm any better . . . sitting here like this . . . with my hands idle, not even knitting. . . . A useless old woman with useless thoughts about an old man who doesn't even want me."
Only after we finish reading this novel do we begin to sense the inner landscapes, the subtle interweavings, the workings of self-absorbed minds. But by then we are disenchanted with all of them, because they really are, in spite of their good taste in decor, clothes and patisseries, quite boring people, easily forgettable.