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Interview by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala with Michael McDonough
SOURCE: An interview with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 4, Spring, 1987, pp. 5-6.
In the following interview, which was conducted in New York in 1986, Jhabvala discusses her screenplays and her novel In Search of Love and Beauty, which she considers her first American novel, having written it after moving to New York City.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born to Jewish parents in Cologne, Germany on May 7, 1927. Her father, Marcus Prawer, came to Germany to escape military conscription in Poland; he met and married Eleanor (Cohn) Prawer in Cologne. Ruth Prawer's grandfather was the cantor of the largest synagogue in that city and prided himself on his friendship with Christian pastors; her grandmother studied at the Berlin Conservatory of Music and played the piano. Her family identified with Germany and celebrated all national, civic and Jewish festivals and holidays. She was raised in this solid, well-integrated, civilized atmosphere, surrounded by life-loving aunts and uncles, and the fragrance of her grandmother's tea cakes.
Ruth Prawer started school when Hitler came to power in 1933; then, one by one, all her relatives emigrated—to France, Holland, Palestine, and America. In April 1939, she and her immediate family became refugees and moved to England. She studied at Stoke Park Elementary School, Coventry; Hendon County School; and Queen Mary College, London University, where she majored in English literature and earned her Master's degree in 1951. She married the Parsi architect CSH Jhabvala that same year and moved with him to Delhi, India. While there, Mrs. Jhabvala wrote eight novels and four volumes of short stories.
American film director James Ivory and Indian producer Ismail Merchant met Ruth Jhabvala in Delhi in 1962 and asked her to script their version of her novel The Householder. Their next work, Shakespeare Wallah (1965), was based on her original screenplay. Other Jhabvala-scripted films followed, the most popular being Heat And Dust (1983), and, most recently E.M. Forster's A Room With A View. Her adaptations of Henry James' include The Europeans (1979) and The Bostonians (1984).
Ruth Jhabvala left India and came to live in New York City in 1976. Her ninth novel, In Search Of Love And Beauty appeared in 1983. Mrs. Jhabvala winters in Delhi where her husband runs an architectural firm and teaches; her brother Siegbert Salomon is professor of German literature at Oxford; her three daughters are grown and have independent careers.
In March of this year, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won an Academy Award for screenwriting. The following conversation took place in 1986 at Mrs. Jhabvala's upper East Side apartment.
[McDonough]: Your writing is not novelistic in the sense that most stories simply put up the machinery of setting; your characters seem more intuitively related to the setting—
[Jhabvala]: I'd like it to be that way. I'm not writing a literary exercise. If something doesn't matter, if it isn't real, then I want nothing to do with it. I'm not interested in anything made up.
But then the stories themselves, though they feel real, don't appear to be autobiographical.
No, they're not autobiographical, but on the other hand I like to make the situation personally authentic, as though it could have happened to me, if my responses had been those of the character in the story, like a sort of vicarious living, I suppose. I want it to be almost like nonfiction, fake biographical, fake autobiographical, but on the other hand I also want it to have form and a kind of beauty.
Intuitive structure seems important in your work. The scenes and episodes flow into each other as in Heat And Dust (1975), though my first experience was with Travelers (1973), where you had these little panel-like stories which seemed to interrupt and form a larger picture at the same time, yet you weren't aware of the structure except that it fit and was natural.
All this is, as you say, intuitive, because I can't think it out, if it doesn't happen it doesn't happen—I set up the situation and follow along slowly and see what happens.
How did Travelers start?
Travelers was at a time when I started meeting girls who were traveling all over India in buses and trains, everything that I must say that I myself have not done. I used to look at them quite enviously for traveling this way in India which is a difficult place that they had chosen to travel in.
Did you meet them in passing or were they introduced to you?
They were introduced to me. They were friends of friends—someone would say, "when you're in Delhi you must look for Ruth," so they would write me, and I was eager to meet them. And then at one point I lived next door to one of those American programs that bring people to India for a year and that was very interesting and had a lot to do with it. One of those girls got involved with some guru and there was a sort of secret report that I managed to have a look at which concerned this girl and how she got involved with this guru and got very sick, and then her family tried to get her back, and then they tried to hush it up, and that spurred me on and crystallized everything that I saw happening there in the mid-to-late '60s.
The theme of search on a very basic level seems to be a common thread in your work.
Yes, that started off quite unconsciously but now it's more conscious. Usually it's a search for something higher and better. There are so many frauds who really want to take advantage of this really rather noble streak, I mean there were these girls who had come to India and were very open and wanted to make themselves better and then there were those frauds who took the most horrible advantage of them in every way. I've seen that happen again and again, not only in India but everywhere. So many people seem to get trapped by the ignoble. So that's becoming a quite conscious theme also connected, I suppose, to obsessive passions for unworthy characters. I see something noble and beautiful in that search that's dragged down to a workaday level.
People seem to be looking for something beyond the material world, especially Americans.
I don't think Americans are particularly materialistic, I mean look how they came here in search of religious freedom. That sort of thing always seems to be with them, but in the meantime they made so much money that the society became materialistic. There seems to be this split between the altruistic soul and the desire to increase their wealth.
This search becomes explicit in In Search of Love and Beauty (1983) in which a fraudulent guru who has been donning and shedding guises for years uses his charm to start a spiritual community.
I think the guru there is more worked-out and interesting than the one in Travelers.
He's had more transformations within the world than Swamiji—
transforming himself into what a particular generation wants.
In Heat Anne is looking for her great-aunt Olivia—
and also "looking for herself," as people do nowadays or did then.
I read the character as trying to escape a materialistic world—
but most people come to India not only to escape a materialistic world but their boring English background too.
The characters in your novels seem both physically and socially displaced.
The European characters do: that's why they came to India in the first place.
There isn't that mystical tradition in Europe and America that there is in India with all the religions, the sense of rebirth and transformation, because things are in a way more set.
That's part of the boringness—religions are set because so many of them are no longer alive and people can no longer find the living fountain, they're so sealed up that they can't get anything out of them. I'm writing a new novel which is concerned with search more than ever; the working title is Three Continents: it's about two 19-year-old American twins who are very rich heirs in search of something nobler and higher and who get caught up in a world political movement which is also partly financed by smuggling drugs, paintings and art objects.
Events in your writings are framed and presented so clearly that the reader can discern how the characters relate to one another.
I go along completely ignorant of what's going to happen.
Do you re-write much?
I have to polish, and if a thing isn't working well I feel it's a kind of warning to stop and try something else, but I can't change the direction or the meaning except on the more superficial stylistic level of how to present the scene such as maybe someone else should be talking here. But on the deepest level you can't force a meaning into or out of a story or force a character into something that they're not naturally growing into. The same with a situation—if it's not developing along then, too bad. For one successful story you have to write a lot that don't work.
Are you a strict critic of your work?
I'm a bad judge and can't tell for a long time—I have to distance myself—but when the writing's really going well then I know.
Does a story ever write itself in the sense that something you've thrown away comes back and finally happens?
Something I've thrown away sometimes comes back in a different form as if it had been a practice work.
Some of the stories in Out Of India seem to be studies for your novels.
Heat was almost a companion piece to the film Autobiography Of A Princess—both had the same sort of themes—and all the guru stories went finally into Travellers; How I Became A Holy Mother (1976) was after that but I've been going back again and again.
How did you go about adapting Heat with James Ivory?
I had to do something I hate doing—I had to re-read the book which was published in '75; and in '81 or '82 I wrote the script. So I re-read the book and did what I always do—I put the book aside and tried to find a completely new form to present the story—of Anne coming to see the only survivor. I had to find a way to tell the two-level story—that was the major problem. And the novel itself was written in a very strange way. It wasn't laid-out sequentially because I wrote big chunks of 1923 and big chunks of present time and then afterwards I cut it all up and thought what scenes of present and past would best set each other off, complement or contrast with each other, so I juxtaposed them—edited them in relation to each other—more like a film. I didn't do that much juggling in In Search.
That's a sort of Central European-American novel. Did you feel you were getting back in touch with your roots with that?
Absolutely. New York would have been the place you'd logically come to from Europe, so when I came here it was what should have happened in 1939. The first time I came to New York was in 1966 when I was here for ten days and I liked it because it was like a cosmopolitan European city, so when the question came of leaving India I came here. I was also keen to write something not about India, something closer to my own background and this was the background I could write about so that's how In Search came about; I consider it my first American novel.
I'm glad you liked it because all that time I was writing in India no one was taking any notice. The reviews of In Search said my Indian work was better and I should go back and write about that and this after twenty years when nobody cared a damn about what I was writing in India. My first American thing was my script about the New York dancehall, Roseland, for the film with the same name which we did in 1977, and then there was The Europeans in 1979.
How did that come about?
I always thought that Henry James would be good for James Ivory because they had a lot of things in common—the way James viewed the world, and the characters he admired was a lot like Jim himself—so I thought they ought to get together. But the film we really wanted to make was The Portrait Of A Lady though that would be very expensive whereas The Europeans was much simpler—a smaller cast of characters, more restricted American locations, and easier to get financing for. Then The Bostonians (1984) was actually started by WGBH who wanted to do a whole series on the James family and one American-set feature film but the funding for our part of the project fell through so we got our own funding for The Bostonians.
Ivory was quoted in The New York Times as saying that your new project, Three Continents, would be similar to Portrait.
There's something very peculiar about that. Somebody said he would finance a film for us and he said what do you want to do and we vaguely had an idea about a modern Portrait—what would a modern American lady do—she wouldn't go to Europe but maybe to India on a quest in search of herself, but somehow I had the idea of nineteen-year-old twins, and so the man said OK, go ahead, but Jim said why don't you think of it as a novel and work it out in detail before you present the finished script. So I worked it out into a novel which moves from America to England to India and I'm so glad to have written what I suppose is my second American novel which is a sort of stepchild to my other work. Now after all these years the Indian novels are getting more attention, but In Search Of Love And Beauty, the new path I've turned onto seems not to have been recognized so I suppose it just does take twenty years for the work to be known and then it's there and you go on to something else. I think the film Roseland and some stories I wrote then were the beginning of a move away from India, but I hesitate to call these in any way American novels because I'm not an American though America's a mixture, as I am.
This section contains 2,396 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)