INTERVIEW / Heat, dust and a woman with a New York view: Jonathan Freedland meets Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, novelist, Oscar winner and exile

SHE SITS small, like a sparrow who's found a new perch. Her face is little, her features tiny, her arms and legs spindle thin. Tucked into a corner of a plain beige couch, she looks as if her clothes might be pale enough, and her hair grey enough, to fade away and disappear into the fabric. Not that it's a big couch. Like everything else in this apartment it is modest, neat and basic. Only the Oscar stands out.

This is the Manhattan home of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, novelist, Oscar-winning screenwriter, and Queen of Indian letters. She's lived here since 1975, the year she left Delhi and bagged the Booker Prize for Heat and Dust. In these spartan rooms she made film scripts of A Room With A View (for which she earned the statuette) and Howards End (for which she won a second Oscar, still, apparently, at the engravers), and wrote Poet and Dancer (John Murray, pounds 14.99), her her first novel for six years.

You can see how the book felt at home here. It, too, is lean and spare. Adjectives are rationed, sentences are bald. 'Hugo was married but he never brought his wife. Usually she was somewhere far away, like Iran or India, or she was sick. He didn't speak of her much . . .'

It tells the story of a destructively dependent near-love affair between two female cousins, one a sort-of-poet, the other a sort-of-dancer. It is compelling, despite its bleak expression of a favourite Jhabvala theme: people's powerlessness to escape their fate or to deviate from their essential character. The book has muscle, and its focus is intense - which is why Jhabvala is convinced it could never be turned into a film. 'Films usually have a much broader base, a broader background,' she says quietly.

She has an accent that would confuse Henry Higgins. Born in Germany, of Polish-Jewish parents, educated in England, she spent 30 years in India, with her architect husband C S H Jhabvala, before becoming an American citizen - fittingly, one who lives just around the corner from the United Nations.

As the writing arm of the Ismail Merchant-James Ivory film-making team, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has a good idea of when and how literature can become cinema. She has written more than a dozen screenplays, all of them for Merchant Ivory - 'We've been together 32 years,' she says, like a wife speaking of her wedding anniversary. The trio, all of whom have apartments in this building, are currently at work on a film of Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day.

Her knack, she claims, is irreverence toward the text, regardless of the author. 'Forster's dialogue is wonderful, as is Henry James's - but I can't use it as it is,' she says, almost whispering. I have to strip it down somehow, so that the actors can put in what is implicit on the page.' Any attempt to be directly faithful to the original is bound, she says, to result in a 'very literary film'.

She is happy to keep the two worlds separate, albeit with a foot in each. She admits to a much closer and more possessive attachment to her novels than to her screenplays, living and breathing their characters, feeling reluctant to let them go. 'I hate publishing, I hate it when the books come out,' she says. 'I like to keep them longer.' (Part of the explanation for the six-year time lag between Jhabvala's last novel and this one is that Poet and Dancer has been published two years after the author finished writing it.)

But fiction has its price. 'Novels are much, much harder' than movies, insists this woman who lists writing film scripts under 'hobbies' in her entry in Who's Who. 'You have to make the characters come alive, which the actors do for you in a film; you have to paint their background and see what they would wear, which the set designer or the costume designer does in a film. In a novel you do the whole lot.'

Like many of those involved in American letters, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is prone to worry if it's all worth the effort. 'No one reads new books,' she says. 'If anybody's together, even writers, all they talk about is films. No one talks about the latest novel.'

Her soft, melancholic tones combine with the economy of the apartment, which could be packed up and moved out in an afternoon, to give Jhabvala the faraway air of a woman in exile. She jokes that for years people assumed she was Indian - she looks as if she could be - but she has no alternative label to put in its place.

'I don't think I'm anything particularly,' she smiles. 'Born in one country, brought up in another, gone to live in a third and resettled in a fourth. I'm just like everybody else in New York: come from somewhere else and quite happily living here.'

For all that, it seems India remains at the heart of her identity, if only as a writer. The twisted relationship between the two protagonists of Poet and Dancer is mirrored by that between two brothers, members of an Indian family living in New York. These characters do not shed any peculiarly Indian light on the novel's narrative; they're there, she says, because she writes only about people she knows.

Perhaps she simply cannot get India out of her system. 'India has a strong effect on people. For many years it wiped out everything for me: I just wrote about India.' Her current, American surroundings, by contrast, seem barely to have made an impression. The Manhattan of the new book is misty and elusive, its buildings, streets and restaurants unnamed throughout. 'I really don't look much around me anymore,' she says. 'I don't really look at the present much. I live more in the past now, my own past memory or past history.'

Somehow a less frequently discussed aspect of the Jhabvala biography seems to hover above that comment. Her father's family were all murdered in the concentration camps of Poland - she estimates that 40 of them died - and her father took his own life three years after the war. Maybe hers is that familiar contribution to the literature of the refugee, dedicated to describing a society which she always knew as an alien. She seems comfortable enough with that. 'If you're a refugee once you can always move about,' she says. 'And I like being in exile.'

Hugo was not lonely. Many women took an interest in him, and avoiding the very high-strung ones his work tended to attract, he formed relationships with married women who were motherly and pampered him. His sister Helena was very happy to have him back again. She was proud of his fame and read his books - there were several by then - but if she tried to talk to him about them, he turned the subject aside, usually with a joke. When she wanted to join one of his groups, he told her to go to a weight-loss one instead. He had been startled by the change in her appearance, and in the beginning kept looking at her as though trying to pick out the former Helena from among the mass that now embedded her.

Angel, too, had read his books, and while she, too, was proud of his fame, the theory on which his work was based repelled her. Of course she never admitted this to anyone, not even to her mother, and when his books were mentioned, she always had some sentences of neutral praise, such as about his style. She was relieved that he himself never cared to discuss his work with his family. Once or twice he asked her about her poetry; she said she never wrote any. This was a lie, for she had started again, but in what was a neurotic secrecy. He said, 'That's a pity, you used to be good.' 'Yes, at five years old,' Angel smiled. He agreed that children were able to express themselves with a directness that was no longer possible for them as adults; although, he added, it could be induced again by means of certain exercises - well, he wouldn't go into any of that now. She knew these exercises were part of his method and was grateful he didn't urge them on her. She didn't know what they did for other people, but for herself she feared them: that is, for her poetry, insofar as she had any to write. Angel's room was now on the top storey. It was narrow and rectangular, nd on one wall were her books - not very many, for she discarded them once they had, as she put it to herself, entered her bloodstream. On the opposite wall was a bed and a reproduction of a dim, shy, mild Madonna she had liked and bought in a museum. Inside the window stood a table and chair from where she looked up at the surrounding apartment buildings. At night, points of light swarmed up their sides, like stars scattered over a range of dark mountains.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'