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In Remembrance: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

In Remembrance: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Author: Victoria Brownworth

April 4, 2013

Award-winning novelist and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala died April 3 in New York from complications of pulmonary disease. She was 85.

A prolific novelist and short-story writer, Jhabvala was still writing at the time of her death. (One of her new short stories appeared in the March 25 issue of The New Yorker, for which she had written for decades.)

Well-known for bringing the queer sensibilities of E.M. Forster and Henry James to the screen as the writer of the Ismail Merchant-James Ivory queer period-piece film-making team, Jhabvala always considered her screenwriting a hobby, while fiction was her true passion. Yet it was her lush, sensual language and her keen ear for smoldering restraint in dialogue, her nuanced sensitivity to the class conflicts and consciousness in the Merchant-Ivory films that drove the big, romantic productions which became perennial award-winners. The threesome won multiple Oscars among them and Jhabvala won two for her screenwriting.

It had been Merchant’s idea to enlist Jhabvala. An Indian native, he was an early fan of her work, which many considered the perfect evocation of modern British life in India in the 1950s and 60s.

(Merchant died in 2005 at 68. He and Ivory, 84, were partners and also one of the longest creative film partnerships on record, completing 40 films together. Jhabvala wrote the screenplays for 23 of them.)

Jhabvala was the token heterosexual in the group which began working together in 1963 after Merchant and Ivory traveled to New Delhi to buy the rights to one of Jhabvala’s early novels, The Householder. According to Ivory, she was asked to write the screenplay in eight days–and did.

Thus began their intensive partnership. The Householder was the first production of Merchant-Ivory and the trio’s work together. It was also the first Indian-made film to be distributed internationally by a major American studio, Columbia Pictures. It was the first of four Indian-themed films the trio did in succession.

Their first big film together was The Europeans, for which Jhabvala adapted the novel by Henry James. That was followed by the dark and queerish Quartet, adapted from the novel by Jean Rhys and the lesbian-themed The Bostonians, also from a novel by James. A theme had begun to develop in the Merchant-Ivory pictures as set by Jhabvala’s superbly crafted screenplays: class and caste in a just-past era where mores for women and queers were intensely fraught, as in The Bostonians and Maurice.

Jhabvala won the Booker Prize–the most prestigious British literary award–for her 1975 novel Heat and Dust. In 1983 Merchant-Ivory produced it. Jhabvala was nominated for an Oscar for her screenplay. The following year she won a MacArthur genius grant.

In 1985, she adapted E.M.Forster’s A Room with a View for Merchant-Ivory, for which she won an Oscar and the Writer’s Guild of America Award. She then stepped out with a different gay director, John Schlesinger, writing the screenplay for Madame Sousatzka.

In 1992 she won a second Oscar for her adaptation of another Forster novel, Howard’s End. The film was a triumph for the Merchant-Ivory team, winning Best Picture and Best Director as well. Jhabvala also won the Writer’s Guild of America’s Screen Laurel Award. In 1993 she was nominated for but did not win the Oscar for her screenplay ofRemains of the Day. In 2000 she wrote the screenplay for yet another James’ novel, The Golden Bowl. In 2003 she and Ivory co-wrote the screenplay for the last Merchant-Ivory film before Merchant’s sudden death, Le Divorce. That same year she won the O.Henry prize for fiction for Refuge in London. In 2008 she and Ivory co-wrote the screenplay for his film of Peter Cameron’s novel, The City of Your Final Destination.

Jhabvala wrote more than 20 books as well as two dozen screenplays. She said the best part of her day was her morning writing ritual.

A German Jew born in Cologne of a Polish father and German mother, she and her family fled the Nazis in 1939, when she was only 12. The family emigrated to Britain and she became a British citizen in 1948. Her father committed suicide in 1949 when he discovered that more than 40 members of his family had been slaughtered in Nazi-occupied Poland in the Holocaust, leaving no one.

Jhabvala lived in England until 1951, when she moved to India with her husband, Cyrus Jhabvala, an Indian architect she met in her last year of college.

In India, Jhabvala began to write about the cross-cultural experience of being a British/German Jew in India. It was her intense relationship with India that first drew Merchant to her, although all her India-based stories are explicative of the outsider status she held there in newly post-colonial India. Jhabvala, whom most assumed was Indian, said she only wrote about India because that was where she was–she hadn’t fled there like Forster and she asserted that her interest was specifically in her experience there. In her later years, she said she was too conflicted about the country to either write there or of there.

Jhabvala’s personal writing as well as the screenplays she did were inevitably about the role of the woman or gay man as outsider–often fragile and always marginalized–as epitomized in film after film she worked on with Merchant-Ivory. She said in several interviews over the years that she always felt like a refugee, even though she settled well wherever she lived.

Jhabvala divided her time between New York (she lived a block from Merchant and Ivory) and New Delhi, but said that New York reminded her of her youth because of its multi-cultural aspects and its reminders of the Europe of her childhood. She said she met the “people of Cologne” there. Still, she never called New York her home and said she did not really have a home, that she had been “blown about from country to country, culture to culture, till I feel, till I am–nothing.”

Her true home was her writing. It was there she explicated a life that was as intense as it was extraordinary.


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About: Victoria Brownworth

Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and A Room of Her Own, a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review and a columnist for San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. Her reporting and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, Ms Magazine and Slate. Her book, 'From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth' won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her new novel, 'Ordinary Mayhem,' won the IPPY Award for fiction on May 1, 2015. Her book 'Erasure: Silencing Lesbians' and her next novel, 'Sleep So Deep,' will both be published in 2016. @VABVOX

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