The Passionate Observer : The Elegant Style of Novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Has Also Made Her One of Hollywood’s Most Successful Screenwriters

Michael Lassell is articles director of Metropolitan Home magazine. "The Hard Way," his new collection of prose and poetry, will be published by Masquerade Books next year

There is a photograph of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala taken at the inaugural showing of “The Householder” in 1963. Based on her fourth novel, her first film script, it became the first feature film of Bombay-born producer Ismail Merchant and his American partner and collaborator, director James Ivory. Thanks to Merchant’s unrelenting drive, now legendary in the film industry, this team of virtual unknowns was invited by John Kenneth Galbraith, then the high-profile United States ambassador to India, to a glamorous premiere at the Embassy. And there she sits--a small, dark-haired woman in a glistening sari--the calm at the center of New Delhi’s haute monde in high cocktail dudgeon. To her right, the dapper Galbraith is engaged in conversation with a woman whose cigarette and bouffant give her away as Western. To Jhabvala’s left on the sofa sits the impassive Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister, seeming as oblivious to the animated Merchant beside him as Jhabvala is to them both.

And on Jhabvala’s face, focused directly on the camera, is a look part haunted, part bemused and altogether absorbed, as though she is lost in a world of her own or possessed of some private knowledge: the knowledge of the perpetual outsider, the observer whose role is not to participate but to react--and to record. It would be foolish to infer too much from this one photograph, were the mood of it not so much a part of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s present.

In 1993, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (pronounced PRAH-ver JOB-vala) sits on another sofa, one in an apartment that the Merchant Ivory production company maintains in Manhattan. At 66, this gimlet-eyed, diminutive observer of the foibled East and West seems almost frail. Gray-haired, five feet tall, dressed in a royal-blue knit suit of no particular distinction and dwarfed by the dark Indian oil painting above her, she almost requires protection. But she is no wilting lily.

“Imagine the cheekiness of it,” she says of the star-studded debut that Merchant engineered at the New Delhi embassy, fondly exhibiting the framed photo that stands on a desk nearby. “I mean, who were we? Nobodies. And he was so young.” She laughs with a frosty wisdom, always partly sad. “But that’s Ismail. He can do anything.”

Merchant maintains that her skills as a writer come from her lifelong status as a woman without a country. “I’m a born outsider,” she admits. Her accent gives that away, as it shifts subtly from German (“I never speak it”) to what sounds like British-educated Hindi. There is music in the voice but little of the pain of early wounds--her Jewish childhood in Germany. It’s the one regret she will articulate, “the misfortune to be born when I was, where I was. That was a piece of bad luck.” It is no accident that virtually all of Jhabvala’s writings have involved the collision of cultures, eras, or generations abutting one another in turmoils of dislocation.


It seems as if emotion is carried not in her body but on a separate track, as if she experiences emotions without quite feeling them. It’s not an uncommon trait among the English, with whom she grew up, or among children of the Holocaust, of which she is one.

“At first,” Ivory says, “she’s this very, very quiet person, but she has a loud voice if she wants to speak up, and you can really hear her. She’s very sure in her opinions, as I am in mine. We get quite worked up in the editing room. And that laugh of hers can be mocking and derisive.”

Despite occasional creative loggerheads, the Merchant/ Ivory/ Jhabvala team has been together for more than 30 years. “The Remains of the Day,” which opened earlier this month to breathless Oscar predictions, is their 16th joint venture. An often witty, deeply nostalgic film about repressed desire and unspoken love, it seems infused by that same ambivalent longing in Jhabvala’s eyes three decades ago, the look of a child who has mastered fate by holding her emotions at bay.

Doubtlessly one of the decade’s most-often-produced woman screenwriters, Jhabvala won an Oscar in 1987 for Best Screenplay Adaptation for “A Room With a View” and received a British Academy Award in 1983 for “Heat and Dust,” based on her 1975 novel. Frequently identified by movie people as “the woman who writes the Merchant Ivory films,” her name remains an unpronounceable slur in Hollywood, which she calls “a completely alien environment.” Her career has been so singular, it’s impossible even to conjure a peer of her realm.

Although she’s best known for her screen adaptations--of Henry James, E. M. Forster, Jean Rhys and Evan S. Connell--the next Merchant/ Ivory/ Jhabvala collaboration is based on her original script about Thomas Jefferson’s six years in France. It will be for Disney and will be Merchant Ivory’s first film under its highly publicized distribution deal. The film goes into production in February with Nick Nolte in the title role. Then, for Warner Bros., another biography, another original script, this one about Picasso. After that, Jhabvala hopes, another Henry James adaptation, “The Wings of the Dove,” also with Disney.

Jhabvala’s screenplays--"The Europeans,” “The Bostonians,” “Howards End” and “Mr. & Mrs. Bridge"--are frequently described as “literary,” which is usually, Jhabvala insists, “an insult. Something that shouldn’t have got off the page, I think, is what they mean.” Seven of her films have been original screenplays (the lesser-known Indian films), including the greatly admired “Shakespeare Wallah.”

The only film she’s ever made without Merchant and Ivory was John Schlesinger’s “Madame Sousatzka,” starring Shirley MacLaine, which, the director says, Jhabvala seemed reluctant to do. Almost as reluctant as she is to do interviews. She admits that she doesn’t like talking about her work. “Before it’s finished I don’t ever talk about it, because I’d be superstitious that I’d be talking it away. Once it’s there, what is there to say?”

“She’s quite retiring,” Schlesinger says, “but she’s a forceful personality. Shirley lived in the same building as Ruth, and I called Ruth and said, ‘Please come up.’ And she said, ‘No, I don’t want anything to do with any of that.’ She’s not like writers I’ve worked with who are very much part of the process.”

“From the beginning of production until the editing,” says Jhabvala, “I have nothing whatever to do with the casting or shooting. I visit the set once. I see dailies. I spend about 10 days in the editing room at the end. That’s it.”

In addition to her Oscar, Jhabvala has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, and a Booker Prize, Britain’s highest literary accolade, for “Heat and Dust.” Although her works are not widely read (“I’ve never had anywhere near a bestseller,” she is quick to point out), she is regarded as a writer’s writer, a prestige ticket, and her 10 novels have won her comparisons to such giants as Henry James and Jane Austen. There are also five collections of short stories, most of them set in India and many of which were first published in The New Yorker. And there is a new novel--"I’ve been working some years on it,” she reports wearily, although she characteristically won’t reveal much about it. “It stretches over many years, and a few continents, as usual. All three figure in it--America, England and India--and it stretches from before the first World War to the present, but all mixed up.”

What is almost never said is that Jhabvala’s work, her screenplays and her novels, are about passion, often about sexual awakening. Such is the case in “A Room With a View,” “Heat and Dust” and a number of short stories in which young women from England or America come to India for spiritual enlightenment only to wind up experiencing the more erotic entertainments of the subcontinent. Jhabvala’s passions, however, are not those given to oratorical flights of expression. They are not actors’ passions but those of the wallflower, not wide-angle passions but those of the close-up. Her books and films are about the sometimes ludicrous and often self-generated detours, disappointments and disasters of passion as much as about life-affirming fulfillment. And although the work is not directly autobiographical, there is much in Jhabvala’s history that informs her rare writer’s voice.

UNTIL 1979, JHABVALA HAD NEVER WRITTEN ABOUT OR SPOKEN OF her childhood, usually a rich autobiographical field for writers. But most writers were not Jewish children living in the deepening shadow of National Socialism. “They should have been my most formative years,” she has written. “Maybe they were.” Despite the hardships, the child discovered her calling when she wrote her first essay in the religiously segregated school she attended--about a hare (der Hase in German): “At once I was flooded with my destiny,” Jhabvala wrote in a 1979 essay. “I only remember my entire absorption, delight, in writing about--giving my impression of der Hase. To think that such happiness could be.”

That was perhaps the only happiness she would know in childhood. It was a time when Jews were not even allowed into German cinemas. The incipient screenwriter saw her first films on family vacations in Holland: American movies translated into Dutch.

Ruth Prawer was born in Cologne on May 7, 1927. Her father, Marcus Prawer, an emigre from Poland, was a prosperous solicitor. Her mother, Eleanora Cohn, had been born in Cologne. For six years, Ruth lived the cosseted life of a bourgeois German-Jewish child, secure in her family, her school, her society. Her world was warm, its rooms filled with huge pieces of carved and plush furniture and populated by music-loving relatives singing around a piano.

In 1933, that world came to a devastating end. Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and life became increasingly nightmarish. In 1934, Jhabvala’s parents were arrested, though later released. In 1938, she herself witnessed Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” when the Nazis went on a rampage of anti-Semitic violence, desecrating temples and smashing the windows of Jewish merchants’ shops.

In 1939, the Prawers escaped to London when they could not obtain visas for the United States. They were among the last Jews allowed to emigrate, arriving in England just in time for the war. “It was just by the smallest fluke that we got away, and at the last moment,” she says. “April, 1939--we were among the last.”

The years of blitzkrieg were years of great austerity and deep deprivation. Yet Ruth Prawer took to English, and to writing, with the relish of the liberated young. “England opened up the world of literature for me,” she has written. “Not really having a world of my own, I made up for my disinheritance by absorbing the world of others. . . . I loved them: George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens . . . . I adopted them passionately.”

But the legacy of the Third Reich would dog her. The surrender of Germany in 1945 brought to light the first documented word of Hitler’s concentration camps. Every last member of the Prawer family who had been living on the Continent had been killed. Jhabvala’s survival was no longer an abstraction. “They were our family, people we grew up with, who we actually knew,” she says. Grief-stricken, Marcus Prawer committed suicide in 1948. His daughter was 21.

Jhabvala has never been back to Germany. “I wouldn’t mind,” she says, “but it doesn’t exist anymore, the Germany of my childhood. And there were so many other places I had to go. I never had the time.” She has no such inclination, however, to visit the new U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. “It’s not for us,” she says of those who managed to survive. “It’s for those who have to remember. I don’t have to remember. For me, it was real.”

In 1951, Ruth Prawer married Cyrus S. H. Jhabvala, an architect and a Parsi (an Indian of ancient Persian heritage). She moved with him to India, although, she has said, she had no affinity for the place whatever, no longing for the spiritual relief so many have sought there. “I knew nothing about it. If my husband had happened to live in Africa, I’d have gone there,” she has written.

In New Delhi, she took up the role of foreign wife, soaking up the culture, dressing in saris, and raising three daughters. She also began to write. Her first novel, “To Whom She Will” (titled “Amrita” in the United States), was published in 1955. Because she wrote so authentically of the Hindu family, she was widely assumed to be Indian. She was, however, living the air-conditioned life of a privileged foreigner, the latter-day equivalent of the memsahibs held up to ridicule not only by Forster in “A Passage to India,” but in her own “Heat and Dust” as well.

“I am the wrong type of person to live here,” Jhabvala wrote in “Myself in India.” “To stay and endure, one should have a mission and a cause, to be patient, cheerful, unselfish, strong. I am a Central European with an English education and a deplorable tendency to constant self-analysis. I am irritable and have weak nerves.”

It was in 1961, after the publication of “The Householder,” that destiny came knocking in the persons of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, who had themselves only recently met, and who had never made a film together or a feature film at all. ‘They had a project with some writer or some anthropologist,” Jhabvala remembers. “Was it about an Indian village? Something, anyway. It fell through somehow, probably no money, so they quickly had to find something else. Somebody in Los Angeles had given Ismail ‘The Householder’ to read, and he remembered it at the last moment. It was really pure chance.”

In the West, Jhabvala is widely believed to be Indian. “Even people who don’t know I’ve ever been there think I’m Indian,” she says. Perhaps inevitably, she is frequently vilified in India, for her fiction in particular. Her view of post-Raj India is considered in many quarters to emphasize the negative.

In America, however, she is treated respectfully, even when reviews are less than glowing. In a generally disappointed analysis of Jhabvala’s latest novel, “Poet and Dancer,” a complex fable about two female cousins locked in a co-dependent do-si-do of death, Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times nonetheless notes that “Mrs. Jhabvala writes with such fluency and poise that ‘Poet and Dancer’ flies by with almost no effort from the reader. Her subsidiary characters, as usual, are delineated with deft, ironic strokes, and together they leave the reader with the pleasant sense of being immersed in a convincing fictional world.”

Despite her sterling reputation, however, Jhabvala’s audience remains more coterie than populist. “Without films,” she says, “I’d be very disappointed.” What is strikingly unusual, however, is that all of Jhabvala’s novels remain in print, some of them almost 40 years after their first editions.

In India, where by her own admission Jhabvala loyalists are few (“I have no fans in India,” she says with a one-note laugh), evaluation has sometimes been harsh. Of the novel generally considered her best, the Indian critic Nissim Ezekiel wrote: “I found ‘Heat and Dust’ worthless as literature, contrived in its narrative structure, obtrusive in its authorial point of view, weak in style, stereotyped in its characters and viciously prejudiced in its vision of the Indian scene.”

Starring Shashi Kapoor and Julie Christie, “Heat and Dust” would become, in 1983, one of Merchant Ivory’s first hits and the last of the collaboration of the three set in India. By the time the film was released, Jhabvala was ready to leave her home of 25 years. Despairing of the poverty and backwardness of the country, she became increasingly discontent with her exile. With her daughters grown, she was rootless and searching for the cultural inheritance that was taken from her by the Third Reich, so Jhabvala left India and settled in New York City, alone, half a world from her husband and 3,000 miles from her nearest child.

THESE DAYS, JHABVALA LIVES A SELF-DESIGNED LIFE OF SEMI-DETACHMENT. She continues to see a few friends and spends time around the world with her family. She spends every winter in New Delhi with her husband, who spends long periods in New York City now that he is retired. One daughter, Renana, is a trade-union organizer in India; Ava is an architect in London; Firoza teaches in the Los Angeles public school system--and there are six grandchildren.

Rootless, always an alien, she continues to search for something essential that was taken from her as a child. In her 1979 essay “Disinheritance,” Jhabvala wrote about her move to New York: “I met the people I went to school with in Cologne, with exactly the same background as my own, same heritage, same parentage. Now here they were living in New York, as Americans, in old West Side apartments.

What does she do all day? She writes, from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m., a process that exhausts her. “I told my daughter once,” she says, “after 1 o’clock you might as well bury me and take me out again the next day.”

She finds writing agonizing: “I get up and do it, to what purpose I don’t know,” she says of her daily process. “I might be there, but I might not be functioning all that well. You have to take that risk, but it is difficult. And it doesn’t get any easier, either. On the contrary. More difficult.”

Because she is so private, it would be logical to assume that her difficulty in writing stems from a reluctance to reveal emotions she’d rather keep to herself. That’s not what she means at all. “It’s technically extremely difficult to get down what you really mean, not what you think you mean, or what you think sounds good, but what’s really there, what you really have to express, in words that somehow convey that meaning in an approximate way.”

She asks for a year to write a screenplay. If it’s an adaptation, she reads the book once, then once again. Then she starts. Screenplays, too, are painful for her. “I always find the first thing that really bothers me when I start a screenplay is, I have to find a different form. You can’t follow the form of the novel. It’s a different thing completely. It’s impossible. You just somehow have to find a structure for the whole thing. You have to crack that.” Just how she does that remains a mystery, in some critical ways, even to herself.

“Mr. & Mrs. Bridge,” starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and directed by James Ivory, remains one of her favorite films. It was, she feels, her most difficult assignment, since the introspective nature of the two Evan S. Connell novels that she compressed into one screenplay nearly defied the film genre. She even tore up her own “Heat and Dust” and is, according to Merchant “ruthless” in the editing room, an assessment confirmed by Ivory. “There are scenes that are so vital you have to put them in,” he says. “Even if they’re botched, you can’t do without them, but she’s the first one to say that if it doesn’t work, take it out.” Says Jhabvala of favorite scenes in her books that wind up on the cutting-room floor: “If they don’t work 100% in the film, they stop being favorites automatically.”

Actors love her, precisely because she understands the difference between pointed discourse, that is, dialogue, and the usual kind of movie talk, which is too often about plot.

“When I read the first script for ‘Howards End,’ ” says Anthony Hopkins, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in that film, “it read like a novel. And ‘The Remains of the Day’ was the same--very free, very open.’ ”

Emma Thompson, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her work in “Howards End,” deeply admires Jhabvala’s work. “The thing is,” Thompson says, “Ruth’s a genius, really. She’s a novelist, so she understands the art of adapting novels better than most anyone else. I don’t know why she does it. I’m full of awe, having just tried to adapt a novel myself.”

And Jhabvala is content with the separation of powers in a film collaboration. She isn’t interested in nudging directorial decisions into a script. She’s happy to let the actors do their own jobs and gives them a lot of room by leaving things unsaid. “She understands the process,” Thompson says, “the ‘buzz of implication’ that surrounds words, as Lionel Trilling put it, which is a wonderful phrase. Ruth understands it completely.”

Her taste in films is far more eclectic than one might think. “One of the things that might surprise people about Ruth,” Ivory says, “is the sheer number of movies she goes to--of all kinds. And her reactions to them are surprising because she very often will like something that everybody else says is impossible.”

According to Ivory, Jhabvala has praised Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” but of another recent “art” hit (the name of which, he insists with ramrod resolve, must never be revealed), “she said she’d rather sit through ‘Goodfellas.’ ” Martin Scorsese is one of her favorite directors.

Because she seems so much a woman without a country, because so much is written about her outsider objectivity, what is frequently overlooked is how very much at home Jhabvala seems with herself, despite the melancholy hiding behind the laughter. And there’s another mark of some kind of transcendent self-acceptance: She is possessed of that rare writer’s gift, not judging her characters. She creates them, sets them in motion and lets the reader decide what is to be approved of or disapproved of. It is, perhaps, a lesson learned young: not to judge recklessly.

“She’s one of the least judgmental people I’ve ever known,” Ivory says. “Even when they do bad, bad things, she isn’t apt to condemn people. And that approach to her writing carries over into her life. I get quite worked up about people; she’s much calmer.”

The characters she creates, both Indian and Western (and they are never based on individuals, she asserts) are deeply flawed, self-deluded, often craven, crass or ridiculous. “Unfortunately for me,” Jhabvala laughs, “I always see the clay feet first.” She also sees humor in the habit of Westerners seeking spiritual enlightenment in India. “I enjoyed it very much. All these people coming looking for peace, going to pieces. It was a riot.”

Frequently, as in “Heat and Dust,” her spiritual travelers are Western women who attach themselves to gurus and wind up finding sex rather than deliverance from crass materialism. “Well, that happens,” she says with a shrug, as though she were not creating these characters but only setting them down like some kind of existential stenographer. “The two (sex and spirituality) get mixed up, but then they’ve got mixed up ever since the Song of Solomon--so who are we to complain?”

Jhabvala herself claims never to have fallen under the sway of a guru. “I’m not natural disciple material,” she says. And while the holy men of her fiction are often motivated by highly secular, if not overtly carnal, appetites, she allows that she’s met gurus in India who seemed authentic. “But, you know, I don’t think I could ever follow one. I couldn’t even if I admired a person. I don’t think anybody who is simply human could ever really give me that much.”

She hasn’t found the answer for herself that she has been looking for in her New York novels --"In Search of Love and Beauty,” the virtually ignored “Three Continents” and “Poet and Dancer”; but she’s on the trail and admits to “a sneaky admiration for the quest,” even if spiritual fulfillment may not be attainable.

“It’s nice all the same, when people keep on looking,” she says slowly, her usual reflection flooded with compassionate kindness. “I mean they want something better than what’s there. Few people find it, but as long as people keep looking, that’s a hopeful sign. Anyway, it seems to me something that’s worthwhile, to go on that journey. Maybe it’s the only real subject, and maybe not only for literature. Literature is only a reflection.”