The subtitle, "chapters of a possible past", hints that this book is a memoir rather than a series of short stories. It is, according to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, "potentially autobiographical": even when something didn't actually happen to her, it might have done.
The subtitle, "chapters of a possible past", hints that this book is a memoir rather than a series of short stories. It is, according to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, "potentially autobiographical": even when something didn't actually happen to her, it might have done. The novelist explores nine possible lives against the background of her past, ranging from the London and New York of German Jewish refugees to the India of Westerners in search of a guru.
It is enticing to try and glimpse the real author through the fiction woven around the facts of her life. In all the stories there is a narrator: a young woman who may be a poet, writer or translator, whom Prawer Jhabvala admits is herself. She often has estranged parents. The woman sometimes has an affair - in one story, with an egocentric pianist, in another, with a young Indian politician. It usually ends in tears.
Several characters could have stepped out of an old Merchant Ivory film, like the flamboyant adventuress in "Springlake", who infiltrates a rich, dysfunctional family with the idea of setting up a performing arts centre in their Hudson River house. Or the fat, crooked Indian businessman in "Gopis", who is likened to Krishna, the god of love.
The nine variations follow a theme or life for a number of years rather than concentrating on one point of change. The most haunting are the first, "Life", and the eighth, "Refuge in London". In "Life", a woman leaves New York for India in old age, as the only place she can afford to live after the death of a stepmother who had exploited her goodwill. As a young woman she had lived there and written an unfinished thesis on an Indian poetess-saint. Now, nearly penniless, she spends her days among tombs in a ruined pavilion. Gradually, people are drawn to her; and in the closing years of her failed life, she begins to assume the dimensions of a saint.
In "Refuge in London", the teenage narrator lives in her aunt's boarding house among European émigré lodgers. An ageing artist falls in love with her and she becomes the innocent catalyst of a crisis with his fiery wife. It's a raw depiction of a marriage where passion has been soured, but the memory of happier days still exerts its stranglehold.
All the central narrators have in common a sense of loss of early promise, or elusive love. In "Life", songs betray anguish for "the Friend who will not come, not even now at the end of our lives of unrequited longing." It's a theme that Prawer Jhabvala echoes in her introduction - her sense of wanting to feel exiled in order to go back in search of another place, or rather, always of "a person... Someone better, stronger, wiser, altogether other... Does such a person exist, and if so does one ever find him?" It seems a strange question from an author whose life has been successful and surrounded by loved ones, and it makes one wish she would write a memoir, rather than what is almost a dance of the nine veils. In the meantime, we will have to be content with these tantalising clues.
Clare Colvin's novel 'The Mirror Makers' is published by ArrowReuse content