Sun, Mar 20, 2005 - Page 18 News List

Author records the several pasts that she might have lived

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's short stories are less than gripping in themselves but interesting in the implications they hold

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

My Nine Lives
By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and John Muray
277 pages

The premise on which this book is constructed is curious and interesting, but the tales themselves have a glumness that makes them rather depressing.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala will probably be known to most people these days as the screenwriter for films of classic novels by E.M.Forster such as Howards End and A Room With a View. But she's also a prolific novelist and short-story writer, and won the UK's Booker Prize in 1975 with her novel Heat and Dust.

My Nine Lives, rather than attributing to the narrator any cat-like persona, instead tells the story of a girl's childhood and adolescence nine times. All the stories are different -- different narrators, different cities, different situations. Yet in a preface the author tells us that they are all in some sense autobiographical. How can this be?

She is "trying out fictional destinies," Ruth Prawer Jhabvala writes, not, as novelists usually do, using fictional characters, but this time constructing unlived destinies for herself. These, then, are youthful lives the author feels she might have lived, or, in the words of the subtitle, "Chapters of a Possible Past."

The real Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born in Germany of Polish parents in 1927. Presumably because of their Jewish ancestry, the family fled to England in 1939. After studying at London University, the author married an Indian architect by the name of C.S.H. Jhabvala. From 1951 to 1975 -- in other words from the age of 24 to 48 -- she lived in Delhi. Nowadays she and her husband divide their time between London, Delhi and New York.

So the real autobiography of the author shows a childhood spent in Germany, an adolescence spent in London, and an early married life in India. New York is added to the brew later and provides an American dimension.

These nine stories, however, tell of young girls being brought up in India, in London or in New York. The three territories are not rigidly demarked, however -- there are people of Indian ancestry in the American narratives, and non-Indians in the Indian ones, for example. But if the author is to be believed, there is a sense in which the young girls at the center of all nine tales are in each case, and in some way, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

There are certain similarities, to be sure. None of the girls are pretty, for example. All of them are interested in art, and are more thoughtful and observant than their parents and siblings. Even so, all are separate creations, with different names, different kinds of parents, and different social backgrounds. These, then, are fantasy autobiographies, fictional dreams of how things might have been.

India is a constant presence. In the opening tale, Life, a retired woman has moved back there from America. In another, Gopis, where the female narrator is a middle-aged New York executive, the focus of interest a young girl, Lucia, who is trying to learn Indian dance and longs to travel in the subcontinent -- an ambition she succeeds in, with less than happy consequences. And in the final story, Pilgrimage, a young girl who has moved to London from Austria teams up with a charismatic lodger in her mother's house, named only C, and with him travels overland to India in search of a guru. By the time the tale ends she is visiting C in a Texas jail.

The penultimate story, Refuge in London, also tells of a refugee child whose mother, having managed to buy a house with money brought into the UK from Germany, lets out rooms to other refugees, people of distinction and even wealth in pre-Nazi Germany who are now experiencing relative poverty in their new circumstances.

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