Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’

Well I have finished reading The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark my second book for the 1965 club, but as I am currently away, I don’t think I will get it reviewed before Sunday. So, I have taken a little look into the archives – and it does seem as if 1965 was a pretty good year all round.

A Dedicated Man by Elizabeth Taylor

Undoubtedly one of my favourite writers, this is one of four collections of stories published during her life time. As well as a gifted novelist, Taylor wrote extraordinarily good short stories too, and this collection is no exception.  In these stories Elizabeth Taylor considers the relationships between mothers and daughters, and husbands and wives, between neighbours and that terrifying creature the Englishman/woman abroad. She reveals small snobberies and the selfishness of the truly callous. Several years after reading them, I find some of these stories remain quite vividly in my mind. Taylor explores her characters with such precision that we understand them immediately – whether her characters are likeable or not – her cool observing eye is quite merciless.

The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme

I only read this Persephone book last year – a title I had continually overlooked in favour of others. Yet it proved to a rather lovely little book, which has some delightful illustrations. Written in the 1960s, The Carlyles at Home portrays the home life of writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane, during the thirty odd years they lived at Cheyne Row in Chelsea. Thea Holme; the author, wrote it while she and her husband were living in the house as custodians. She confines herself to everyday matters in the Carlyles lives, staying well away from the nature of the Carlyles marriage for example, Thomas Carlyle’s work is mentioned almost in passing. Small domestic concerns, problems with servants, home improvements and noise from neighbours. Each of the eleven chapters focus on a different aspect of the Carlyles lives at Cheyne Row.

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was someone I was fascinated by in my late teens. I bought this pretty little hardback edition so I could reread these poems a few years ago.

Ariel; published posthumously two years after Plath’s suicide – was her second collection of poetry – and it is deeply personal, often intimate, and frequently challenging. Her themes are those of marriage and motherhood, sexuality, depression, death and suicide. Plath’s poetry is lyrical and though often dark there is a strange luminosity to many of her images.

Friends and Heroes by Olivia Manning

Just the other day I forced my mother to buy the omnibus edition of The Balkan trilogy while browsing bookshelves in a charity shop – telling her it was so good I have read it twice. This is the third book in the Balkan trilogy – and this novel finds us in Greece – after the Pringles were forced with other ex-pats of their acquaintance to flee Bucharest. In Friends and Heroes, the peace that Guy and Harriet think they have found in Athens is destined to be short lived, and soon the war which is raging across Europe creeps ever close to their door. Again, Manning is superb at recreating the testing times in which she herself lived while abroad during the war. She writes so well.

Slaves of the Lamp by Pamela Frankau

Slaves of the Lamp is also part of a trilogy. It is the second book in Frankau’s Clothes of the King’s Son trilogy. The title; Slaves to the Lamp refers to those who take comfort in their belief in spiritualism, faith healing and other mysticisms. Faith healers and their followers form just one strand of this slightly unusual – though enjoyable – novel. In true Pamela Frankau style – the canvas here is large, set in both England and the South of France, Slaves to the Lamp follows the stories of several characters, which inevitably weave together. While this isn’t my favourite Frankau novel – it is enormously readable, and I have yet to read anything by her I haven’t enjoyed. The best thing about this novel is Thomas, such a lovable character.

A Little Love a Little Learning by Nina Bawden

I love Nina Bawden – regular readers will know that. A Little Love, A Little Learning was published more than ten years into Nina Bawden’s long publishing career – it is a great example of all she does well. She understands the dynamics and difficulties, and here she brings her knowledge of step-families to this revealing portrait, which shows just how fragile happiness can be. This is one of those novels where in a sense not a huge amount happens – and yet it remains very compelling, and perfectly told. I think Bawden is at her best when portraying middle-class families, especially children within those families.

Three more recommendations from 1965 – books I don’t have copies of it would seem.

Stoner by John Edwards Williams

Well everyone seemed to be reading this at one time. A novel which enjoyed a huge renaissance a few years ago. In my mind I categorise Williams with writers like William Maxwell – and of the two I prefer Maxwell. Stoner is a beautifully written, poignant novel, a novel about love and the disappointments dished out by life. Stoner – is the story of an unremarkable man – and yet he is a kind of hero. This is a story of love – but it is not a love story, but about the love William Stoner has for the women in his life, for literature and the university, and the great love he had for his job. Stoner’s life is just like that of most of us – we have our loves, disappointments sadnesses those daily routines that go unremarked for years and years. William Stoner enjoys some small quiet victories in his life, but after he is gone there remains little to prove that he ever lived.

A Backward Place by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

I borrowed this book from Liz I think, and really loved it. I am reminded I haven’t read Prawer Jhabvala for ages – and there is plenty of her work I have never read. A Backward Place is a kind of comedy of manners centred on a group of westerners living alternative life-styles in Delhi. Judy an Englishwoman is married to Bal – living in a small house and courtyard with his family. Clarissa is a dishevelled artist, claiming to appreciate a simpler life, while Etta is an ageing Hungarian beauty determined to keep hold of her Parisian chic and mysterious allure. Dr and Mrs Hochstadt are a German couple on an extended though temporary visit to experience India.

The Red and the Green by Iris Murdoch

It’s eleven years since I read The Red and The Green so my memory of it is a bit shaky, so not linking to my review as it only amounts to a few sentences – though I do know I loved it. The setting is Dublin in 1916 as rebellion looms. An Anglo-Irish family provide all the main characters, the relationships between all these people are complex and frequently unorthodox.

Have you read any of these? What have you been reading for the #1965club?

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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – birthday 7th May

According to the synopsis of this novel on Goodreads – The Householder is a witty novel. There is certainly a kind of bittersweet comedic quality to some of it – but I’m not sure I’d call it witty exactly. I’m just being pedantic perhaps – for me, while The Householder is a comedy of manners – I found myself indulging in an occasional wry smile, rather than chuckling into my book. Nonetheless this is a charming touching novel which I found by turn, sad and heart-warming. Jhabvala beautifully depicts 1960’s Delhi society – particularly of the low waged educated classes. The dusty crowded streets and cramped living conditions, hoards of indolent young men, inattentive in large college classrooms – the difficulty of making ends meet, the strangeness of new responsibilities, Jhabvala captures it all perfectly.

Prem is a young teacher at a second (or even third) rate college – he knows he is not particularly good at his job and that his salary is barely sufficient to keep himself and his new wife – who is already pregnant. Life is not easy for Prem, he is shy and has no real friends in Delhi. His wife Indu is something of a mystery to him, theirs was an arranged marriage – and he is daunted by the responsibility of a wife and a home, and embarrassed by Indu’s pregnancy. When Prem’s mother announces she intends to visit her son, Indu reveals she is intending to go home to visit her mother. Prem doesn’t want her to go – but has no idea how to make her stay. Finding his salary too small, and his rent too high, Prem needs to pluck up the courage to speak to his employer and his landlord, tasks he finds himself quite unequal to. Invited to a college tea party Prem is desperate to create the right impression – the thought of a salary rise always at the back of his mind.

“He watched her drinking her tea and noticed regretfully that she was not doing so with the refinement which would be required at Mr Khanna’s tea-party. He brooded about this for a while, then got up and followed her into the bedroom. She was lovingly dusting a picture of Mother and Baby which she had recently acquired and hung up on the bedroom wall. Baby was very stout, with big fat folds in its legs, and Mother had a simpering expression and held a sunflower in one hand.
‘When you drink tea’ Prem said, ‘You must hold your little finger up in the air, like this.’ He demonstrated, and she watched him in amazement. Suddenly she gave a very strange sound and continued quickly with her dusting. ‘What is there to laugh at?’ he said crossly. “

Once a week Prem meets Raj – his one friend from his pre-Delhi life in Ankpur, Raj has been married longer than Prem, already has a child, works in a government office but lets Prem pay for their tea each time they meet. Poor Prem longs for the intimate confidential chat the two of them had enjoyed before their marriages – desperate to talk to someone about his difficulties at home and at work, but is unable to open up to Raj – who clearly has his own preoccupations. When Prem meets German tourist Hans he is embraced for his supposed Indian spirituality – and enjoys meeting the Swami that Hans has discovered.
When Indu does go to visit her mother, Prem is amazed at how he misses her, yet he seems unable to write and tell her so – embarrassed should any of her family read the letter – and having his mother around again is not quite as he had imagined either.
As Prem finds his way in his new way of life – he begins to feel differently about the bewildering array of responsibilities he has. Prem is one of life’s innocents – and for a time, in trying to please the people around him, he only serves to make himself less happy. We see Prem mature as he begins to understand his wife and the reality of his life and how to manage it. Jhabvala certainly manages to portray the lives of ordinary people in India faithfully, and in such a way that the reader instantly loves the characters.

This was the second of the Jhabvala books that Liz loaned me to read during my month of birthday reading. This charming novel then brings my birthday reading to a close. I know May has not quite finished – but I needed to get on with the next book in the Hardy reading challenge – my re-reading of Wessex Tales which I’m already enjoying very much.


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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – (birthday 7th May) – was a German born British woman, her family coming to England in 1939 she became a British citizen in 1948 – Jhabvala later married an architect and moved to India with him. In the 1970’s she moved to the US where she lived until her death last month. This is the fourth of her books that I have read – and I am reminded of how good a writer she was, and I am glad I still have two others TBR. In her writing Ruth Prawer Jhabvala naturally used her experiences of 24 years living in India, and she brings the people and places of India brilliantly to life.

A Backward Place is a kind of comedy of manners centred on a group of westerners living alternative life-styles in Delhi. Judy an Englishwoman is married to Bal – living in a small house and courtyard with his family. Clarissa is a dishevelled artist, claiming to appreciate a simpler life, while Etta is an ageing Hungarian beauty determined to keep hold of her Parisian chic and mysterious allure. Dr and Mrs Hochstadt are a German couple on an extended though temporary visit to experience India. Judy’s husband Bal, is a dreamer, he sees himself as an artiste and has aspirations of fame in the Indian film industry. While Bal spends all day hobnobbing with his friends and dreaming up new schemes, Judy works with Sudhir Bannerjee at the Cultural Dais. This was the one job Judy had been able to land after having gone door to door begging for work to support herself, her husband and their two children, along with Bal’s elderly Aunt who lives with them, in the lower half of the house also occupied by Bal’s brother and wife and children. Clarissa and Etta meanwhile don’t do much of anything; Clarissa involves herself in one of Bal’s latest schemes infuriating Etta by involving Guppy – Etta’s latest boyfriend. Etta is a sorry figure indeed, longing to get back to Europe, she knows she has lost touch with it and fears being a nobody, in Delhi at least she more or less maintains a glamorous image.

“Etta entered the restaurant and stood poised within the door. She saw Clarissa immediately, but nevertheless hovered there a moment longer and pretended to be searching round. She liked entering restaurants and having everyone look at her. And everyone did look at her, and eyes followed her as she tripped smartly on her high heels, head held high and slim hips swinging, to the table where Clarissa sat waiting for her.
Clarissa was sprawled on a velvet sofa, with her things – her sketching pad, a few grubby parcels, the big checked cloth bag which served her permanently as handbag and shopping bag – scattered round her.
‘Late as usual’ said Clarissa.

Following a row with Etta – who is frequently vicious to her so called friends – Bal turns his back on his scheme for a local theatre group and decides instead to move his family to Bombay to try his luck in the film industry. Judy is not too thrilled with the idea, although she is charmed by her husband’s enthusiasm. Unlike Etta, Judy likes her life, her job at the Cultural Dais and her friendship with her sister in law, she is nervous of change.

“Judy felt no gratitude. On the contrary, she was critical of Bhuaji who appeared to her as irresponsible as Bal. In comparison with the two of them Judy felt herself to be very adult and sensible, and very English. English people didn’t behave like that, they didn’t on the whim of a moment give up everything they had and go wandering off in search of no one knew what. That might be all right for people like Bhauji and Bal and those holy men in orange robes one saw roaming about. But it was not all right for anyone English and sensible; not all right for Judy. She was determined to hold on tight to what she had, like her mother, like her Aunt Agnes, like all those other stubborn dwellers in little houses among whom she had grown up and who, she now decided, were her kind.”

In A Backward Place Jhabvala gives us a humorous and engaging novel of contradictions and cultural differences. India is a vast country and yet the canvas for this novel is small, the everyday concerns of this small group of people and their associates, their hopes fears and aspirations are presented amid the hustle and bustle of a large city. There are several wonderfully observed scenes, like one in which Judy and her colleague Sudhir go to the home of the culturally ambitious Mrs Kaul who is in the middle of firing a girl – a girl sullen but stubborn, who obviously is desperate to keep her job.
This novel has certainly wetted my appetite for more by Jhabvala – I hope to read at least one of the other books I have this month but will have to see how it all pans out. I must say a big thank you to Liz – for lending me A Backward Place and another Jhabvala novel for my month of birthday reading.


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