Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Chameleon on the Page and in Life

The acclaimed author and Academy Award-winning screenwriter made up for not really having a world of her own by absorbing the worlds of others.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the prize-winning novelist and screenwriter who died on April 3 at age 85, lived on three continents and inhabited multiple worlds. She was a natural chameleon, donning saris and dissecting Indian society with a local’s intimacy, immersing herself in the works of E.M. Forster and channeling his sophistication for moviegoers to iconic effect.

Yet she also spoke of herself as a perpetual outsider, one who switched countries as restlessly as others flit between lovers. This rootlessness suffused her work, providing its themes and many of its strengths, though she spoke of its origins rarely and wrote about them only obliquely. In a public lecture in Edinburgh in 1979, she termed this condition her “disinheritance.” “I stand before you as a writer without any ground of being out of which to write: really blown about from country to country, culture to culture till I feel – till I am – nothing,” she said, adding: “As it happens, I like it that way.”

Ruth Prawer was born in 1927 into a Jewish family in Cologne, Germany. Her mother was the daughter of a cantor at a large city synagogue. Her father, a lawyer by training, was originally from Poland. Both her parents were arrested after the Nazis rose to power but it wasn’t until 1939 that they finally fled to London with Ruth and her brother. Almost a decade passed before they learnt the fates of those left behind: they lost some 40 relatives in the Holocaust, and many more besides. For her father, whose entire Polish family was murdered in the concentration camps, the knowledge proved too much and he committed suicide.

“All my stories have a melancholy undertone. That's probably why,” Jhabvala said in a 2005 interview.

Prawer studied English literature at university, graduating in 1951, the same year she married Indian architect Cyrus Jhabvala and moved to Delhi. A central European with a British education, she was nonetheless able to write so acutely about India and the foibles of its middle class that many readers assumed she herself was Indian when her first novel, a spry comedy of manners titled Amrita, appeared in 1955.

“I’m absolutely passive, like blotting paper,” she wrote in her essay “Myself in India.”  

She made up for not really having a world of her own, she explained, by absorbing the worlds of others. All the same, in India, where she raised three daughters, she found traces of a world that might have been hers had history taken a different course. The Indian attitude to food, for instance, seemed to her far more aligned with Jewish culture than with Anglo-Saxon culture.

India’s poverty and social injustices increasingly rankled with her, and in 1975 she bought an apartment in New York with the profits from her Booker Prize-winning novel, Heat and Dust. By then, she was already more than a decade into her friendship and collaboration with film producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory. They had approached her in 1961 to make a film of her novel The Householder, giving her eight days to write a screenplay. She went on to write 23 screenplays for them in all, including adaptations of two Forster novels, A Room with a View and Howards End, both of which won her Academy Awards.

In New York, Jhabvala found herself closer to the world she’d lost when the Prawers escaped from Germany in 1939. She even met people she’d been to school with in Cologne. Her fiction came to reflect this. Her 1983 novel In Search of Love and Beauty, for instance, was peopled by German and Austrian refugees on a spiritual quest in New York.

In her story “A Birthday in London,” a group of émigrés sits in gathering dusk over apple strudel and coffee. They all have had to start over in a country where no one knows their names or what they stood for, but they know better than to dwell on the past. If they do glance back, it's with heartbreaking irony. As one guest says of their fate, so markedly opposed to their friends and relatives who stayed put: ‘Yes, there we were all different people… Still, here we all are, no bones broken, eh?’

So many of Jhabvala’s dozen novels and eight short story collections chart inner journeys. Her protagonists are materially comfortable yet culturally or nationally or even simply emotionally exiled within their own lives.

In person, Jhabvala’s accent was impossible to place. Her voice was equally unique on the page, most often likened to Jane Austen in its comic tartness. Though she claimed to be able to trace no influence of her Jewish background in herself or her writing, it’s hard not to detect a distinctly Jewish sensibility in her social conscience, in her characters’ constant questing for spiritual enlightenment, in the pathos that underpins her crisp social observation.

She is survived by her husband and their three children and six grandchildren.

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