At Home in the World : A novelist explores the longings for family and freedom : SHARDS OF MEMORY, By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Doubleday: $22.95; 221 pp.)

Judith Freeman's latest novel, "A Desert of Pure Feeling," will be published by Pantheon next spring

What a long and distinguished career Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has had as a writer. She is both prolific--having published 16 books--and profound, the winner of the Booker Prize (for her novel "Heat and Dust"), two Oscars (for "Room With a View" and "Howards End"), and the recipient of a MacArthur grant--the so-called "genius" award.

She remains a rather mysterious figure, one who rarely gives interviews, does not turn up at awards ceremonies and shuns publicity. One senses an immensely private person who shuttles between the worlds of New York City, London and New Delhi. It's easy to imagine her needing these diverse worlds now, as one who understands that movement itself has become the theme of our age.

Mobility, exile and displacement have long been dominant concerns in Jhabvala's fiction; the little dramas of the extended family, and gurus and spiritually starved Westerners have had their place. As she once stated in a rare interview, "Everyone is so estranged, no one is rooted. That's what I like to write about more than anything else. Everything being so mixed up. Racially mixed up, people moving from place to place, everything shifting."

To understand this interest, one has to look back, I think, to Jhabvala's own history. Her German-Jewish family fled Germany in 1939 and took up a life of exile in England; there she met her future husband, the Indian architect and artist Cyrus Jhabvala, with whom she would move to New Delhi. Jhabvala herself is emblematic of the chaotic events of the 20th Century: In both her life and her fiction she is uniquely placed, a brilliant observer standing at the confluence of the literary and philosophical streams of the East and the West.

"Shards of Memory" continues to explore these themes, now familiar to her readers, of exile, longing and family, as well as the quest for spiritual meaning. It is set in New York City, London and India. A multi-generational story, the novel features a cast of Germans, Indians and English--the Kopfs, Bilimorias and Howards--who have intermarried to create one family. As in a number of her novels, a guru also features prominently in the story, called simply "Master" here, a man of indeterminate nationality and indisputable charisma.

The story itself is rather simple, in the sense that it is driven by the memories of four generations of Bilimoria-Kopfs, all of whom have been involved with the Master in one way or another during the course of their lives. At the novel's opening the Master has died, and his papers have been bequeathed to Henry, the youngest of the Kopfs, whose task it is to sort through them.

Left badly crippled by a childhood car accident, Henry lives a semi-invalid life in New York City, sharing a large old house with his parents, Renata and Carl, his grandmother Baby, and the gentle Kavi, his Indian great-grandfather. At first indifferent to the task of editing the papers entrusted to him, Henry feels a stir of interest when he learns there is a possibility--remote, perhaps, but nevertheless intriguing--that the Master could be his real father.

What interests Henry even more, as he goes about the business of sorting the Master's papers, is Vera, the young woman he employs to help him in this task. But, like the other men and women in this extended family, Henry and Vera simply can't get together, or stay there, once the idea of intimacy is broached.

The portrayal of relationships, both romantic and familial, in "Shards of Memory" is one of the novel's most interesting aspects. Each couple is quite out of kilter. For instance, there are Elsa and Cynthia, Henry's great-grandmother and her lover, who finally die in a car accident while in the middle of an argument. Or Baby and Graeme, Henry's grandmother and her husband, who are estranged for much of their marriage. Or Renata and Carl, Henry's bloodless parents, who treat sex like an ATM transaction. "Marriages never do work out in our family," Renata says. "What disasters."

Marriages rarely work out in Jhabvala's fiction, period--and why should they? The impermanence she speaks of in the physical world--no one being "rooted," everything being so "mixed up" and people "moving from place to place"--has made coupling a tenuous business. Yet what is so striking about the couples portrayed here is their utter humanness, the way in which they manage to muster understanding, and even kindness, in spite of their alienation.

One of the things Jhabvala writes about so well is power--the power that gurus wield over vulnerable and needy acolytes, the power of parents over children--the powerful bonds of family in general, and of culture and memory and finally (and perhaps most important) the ennobling power of truth.

Nothing is simple about all this. Jhabvala is a writer of immense complexity, although her prose is stunningly clear, her narratives beautifully crafted and straightforward. Her wit is always sharp, and her sense of social nuances acute. The complexity comes from the merging of cultures and ideas, and the deep sense that more questions about human nature are being raised than answered.

Jhabvala, like V.S. Naipaul, and as much as any writer of our time, is defining a new literature--what Maxine Hong Kingston has called "the global novel"--the antithesis, really, of the "ethnic" novel of late. Her vision is large and inclusive. She possesses the sensibility of a bemused stranger, a wily observer of the human condition--one who has long since left her roots behind and now has no "home" except the world.

What seems different about "Shards of Memory" from Jhabvala's earlier novels is its tone of gentleness and reconciliation. That wry, occasionally acerbic tone--always a mark of this writer's fiction--is perceptibly softer.

The Master is a little less unctuous than other Jhabvala gurus, the failed lovers more poignant, the exiles more touchingly adrift. In the end, it may not be a happy universe she creates, but it's certainly a deeply moving one.

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