Ruth Prawer Jhabvala - Interview

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.'

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