Quick: Name a writer of Polish roots who immigrated to London, learned English on the fly, wrote about hard-to-parse, faraway places, and became one of the most distinguished English novelists of the 20th century.
Joseph Conrad? Well, yes. But you might have said Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a prodigious talent who has brought India alive on page after page of remarkable fiction in the course of the past 60 years. Ironically, Jhabvala is far better known for bringing alive not India, but England and America in the Merchant Ivory films “A Room With a View,” “Howards End,” “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,” “The Remains of the Day” — a phenomenally successful run of movies for which she was the lead screenwriter. Known for her resonant dialogue, emotional subtlety and deadeye aim, she is a master of narrative no matter what the medium, plucking her stories from a vast store of life.
In her latest book, “A Lovesong for India,” Jhabvala returns to two passions that ignited her career: India and the short story. Here is a collection to remind us why, at 84, Jhabvala stands tall among her contemporary cohort: why she is so much like Forster (with a more discerning eye on India), Austen (with a more global sensibility) and Conrad (with a feminine touch).
She was born in Germany of Polish-Jewish parents. Forced to flee the Nazi onslaught in 1939, her family took refuge in London, where she landed as a 12-year-old girl with no knowledge of the language. All the same, she was — as so many transplanted children can be — alert to the world around her. She excelled in school, graduated from London University, married a young Indian architect and went off to spend 24 years in Delhi.
It was there that her imagination took seed. Jhabvala published her first novel about India — “Amrita” — as a young mother, at 29. Almost immediately, her stories began to appear in the New Yorker. When, in 1963, she was asked to adapt her novel “The Householder” to film, a lifelong romance with the screen was kindled. Ever since, her writing has been eminently filmable: highly visual, vibrantly so, with brisk verbal volleys that ring true.
The short stories in “A Lovesong for India” reflect her mastery. “Not you, of course,” one of her characters says at the end of a long diatribe against thieving, lecherous Indians. “ ‘This is not personal,’ and he flashed me one of his smiles in which both his teeth and his glasses participated.” The story, like most in this book, is about the clash of cultures. But Jhabvala’s work is not easily categorized. She is far too good at turning tables on a reader: A work that begins as drama can soon veer into satire. Throughout this fine little volume, Jhabvala’s writing is stylish, unpredictable, singing with humor. East is East, and West is West, and whoever is passing through is bound to be fleeced by the locals.
In the title story, an English wife and her Indian husband struggle to raise a son who seems completely alien to them. He is dark-skinned, although they are fair; morally crimped, whereas they are utterly scrupulous. He is, in sum, an incomprehensible warp in the fabric of their family, an enigma they cannot explain. In the end, his immoral bent — so baffling to them — comes slamming home in the most surprising way.
And so it goes. A Teutonic professor falls in love with her favorite Indian poetess; a drifting New Yorker marries a Bollywood star’s son; a Greenwich Village talent scout takes on a vagrant singer. Center stage are the artists — filmmakers, actors, writers — oddball eccentrics, struggling to make their mark. Critics try desperately to become novelists. Wallflowers stumble into fame. Nobodies become breathtaking messiahs. From cover to cover of “Lovesong,” India is a rich, bubbling stew, spilling messily into England and New York.
An old axiom among book critics has it that story collections are impossible to review. The characters are too various to render, the settings too random to convey. But Jhabvala’s “Lovesong for India” is as cohesive and thematic a body of work as you will ever find in a single volume. Its characters are either outsiders peering in or insiders pawing frantically for a way out. In this gallimaufry of misfits, everyone is a dreamer.
So it is that Jhabvala never loses her sense of the universal. India is here in full Technicolor, but so are Piccadilly and Park Avenue. This writer’s genius — unlike Conrad’s or Forster’s or even Austen’s — is that she points out how essentially similar insiders and outsiders can be.
Arana, a writer at large for The Post, is the author of “American Chica” and “Lima Nights.”
a lovesong for india
By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Counterpoint. 276 pp. $26