Ruth Prawer Jhabvala | Critical Review by Claire Messud

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
This section contains 845 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Claire Messud

Critical Review by Claire Messud

SOURCE: "Tainted by Misery," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4698, April 16, 1993, p. 20.

In the following review of Poet and Dancer, Messud claims that Jhabvala's depiction of New York City is less compelling than her portrayals of India in her previous works, and ultimately regards the novel as a failure for its inability to persuade the reader to care about its tragic characters.

Unlike her past fictional triumphs, such as Heat and Dust or The Householder, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's first novel for six years, Poet and Dancer, is not set amid the beautifully conjured complexities of India. It is, rather, a New York novel, but one in which location is important only in so far as its protagonists—Angel, the poet of the title, and Lara, her cousin, the dancer—refuse to engage with it.

New York appears a disordered place, where "there were Japanese businessmen moving in shoals, and stout blond Israelis who ran around on short legs with speed and purpose"; but it is a city where (as in the actual New York) characters glide between apartments or brownstones or restaurants, indoor oases of significance where the world outside does not enter or matter. This is a novel about people rather than about a place—about people's existence despite a place rather than because of it. There is no better setting for such a novel than New York.

Angel and Lara are first cousins. Angel, who has always lived with her mother Helena in a cosy brownstone belonging to her grandparents, the Manarrs, is contented, reclusive, plain and adored by her family. Lara, the daughter of Helena's brother Hugo, spends her childhood being taken round the globe; when she surfaces in New York, she is glamorous, dazzling, beautiful and mysteriously tainted by misery.

Jhabvala captures Lara's nature perfectly when she writes of her as a child visiting the Manarrs in New York:

"She threw herself into her performance. To help the audience, she called out 'Now I am a flower!' 'Now a princess!' 'See the deer!' Although her movements were always the same … her audience obligingly saw what she wanted them to see. She was pleased, she ran faster, she attempted to spin around; her tread was not light and she was flustered and breathing hard …".

As the reader might expect, Angel, to whom Lara appears an exotic and precious butterfly, devotes herself adoringly to her cousin; but Lara proves dangerous and ultimately mad, and the result of their closeness is their mutual destruction. Up to a point it is a familiar scenario—the intimacy between doomed creatures of beauty and devoted observers is a powerful literary convention, from Brideshead Revisited or The Great Gatsby to Donna Tartt's The Secret History—although in most cases side-kicks do not perish alongside the objects of their affection.

Angel, sadly, is not as fortunate as most, and though an observer, she does not survive to narrate the novel (had she done so, it would presumably be called simply "Dancer"). Rather, the narrative is framed by a prologue, in which an unnamed writer explains how she has pieced together the tale that follows from the outpourings of Angel's grief-stricken but now deceased mother, Helena, and from snippets told by Roland, a former bellhop in a hotel Lara inhabited, and her sometime lover.

The prologue's failure is, ultimately, the failure at the heart of the novel; despite Jhabvala's precise and often lovely prose, the premiss does not persuade the reader. Helena is too murky a figure for us to comprehend the narrator's obsession with her story. The dispassionate tone (for example: "Unfortunately it was impossible to tell whether the daughter ever developed as a poet, for there was nothing beyond the juvenilia I had seen on the park bench") does not bring any urgency to Angel and Lara's bond.

That the relationship at the book's core does not come alive is all the more disappointing because of the emotion and skill with which Jhabvala draws the surrounding figures: the Aroras, an Indian mother and son who befriend Helena and Angel, overflow with intriguing detail; the book follows Grandmother Koenig, Angel's paternal grandmother, through a decline into senility (which parallels Lara's descent into madness, but is more affecting); and Rose, the maid who tends her, is rendered charming in her slovenliness. Even the thumbnail sketches of Hugo, Lara's father; of Peter, Angel's father and Lara's lover; of his wife Lilian; and of Roland, the bellhop, suggest more complexity and animation than do the poet and dancer themselves.

It is, on one level, inevitable that this should be so; the bond between any couple is unknowable from the outside, and as long as it is imagined from a distance rather than told from within, it must lose focus and immediacy. It is not mere coincidence that Brideshead Revisited, The Great Gatsby and The Secret History are first-person narratives. Perhaps Ruth Prawer Jhabvala intended to convey the mystery, puzzlement and dissatisfaction about Lara and Angel's relationship with which those characters around them were left. But she seems unaware that her readers are likely to share those sentiments.

(read more)

This section contains 845 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Claire Messud
Follow Us on Facebook