Poet and Dancer

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In a famous 1817 letter to his brothers George and Thomas, John Keats praised William Shakespeare as the quintessential poet because he, more than any other author, possessed “negative capability.” For the Romantics, a true poet lacks any fixed identity of his own but instead demonstrates genius by projecting himself into a vast variety of situations, moods, and personalities. By such a definition, Angel Koenig, an artist of self-denial, was indeed a poet, though her collected works amounted to a few awkwardly scrawled pages of literary juvenilia.

The foreword to Poet and Dancer explains how Angel’s mother, Helena, entices an unnamed professional fiction writer with memories of her deceased daughter. At the time that the writer begins to try to formulate Angel’s story, Helena herself has been dead for three years. Haunted by missing traces of her beloved Angel, Helena had been tormented, the writer comes to realize, by “this silence, this blank, where her daughter had once been.” Conceding that she has even less substance to nourish her memoir of Angel, the writer explains how she produced the pages that follow:

I had no choice: having spent a lifetime writing fiction—that is, making up characters and what they would say and do in hypothetical situations-I found that, when I had to tell something that really happened, I could do so only with the same spurious methods I had always practiced.

The narrator, who is appropriately anonymous, virtually disappears from the resulting text. Like Angel, and like Keats’s perfect poet, she loses her own identity in the process of serving her subject.

India-and its images-has been a subject in most of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s fifteen previous books and in several of the screenplays on which she has collaborated with director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant. Born to a Polish-Jewish family in Germany in 1927, she fled to England in 1939. After marrying Parsi architect C. S. H. Jhabvala in 1951, she moved to New Delhi, but she has been living in New York City since 1975. Poet and Dancer is set entirely in Manhattan and—except for two minor characters, immigrants from New Delhi-it is the least Indian of Jhabvala’s books of fiction. Like its author, its frame narrator shares with the main characters a German-Jewish background.

“It is not for me to ascribe an epigraph to someone else’s life story,” insists the self-effacing narrator. Yet before proceeding with Angel Koenig’s story, she offers as a candidate for epigraph a passage from a medieval text that Angel herself had underlined twice:

And this truly is what a perfect lover must always do, utterly and entirely despoiling himself of himself for the sake of the thing he loves; and that not only for a time but everlastingly. This is the exercise of love, which no one can know except he who feels it.

Poet and Dancer is the cautionary tale of a woman who was such a perfect poet that she surrendered her identity to the dancer she loved. She was such a perfect lover that in order to appease the capricious demands of the dancer, she relinquished her personal ambitions as poet and her autonomy as a living human being. In limpid prose that deflects the reader’s attention from the storyteller to the story, Poet and Dancer imagines the collision of stasis with motion and of selflessness with self-absorption, of poet with dancer.

Angel first encounters Lara when she is eight and her cousin seven. Dr. Hugo Manarr, a famous and glamorous psychotherapist, brings his daughter Lara, who has been living abroad with his estranged wife Alice, for a visit to the East Side brownstone in which Angel lives with her mother Helena, Hugo’s sister. The divorced Helena’s beloved only child, Angel is a plain girl who is dazzled by the beauty of her cousin. Her first and permanent impulse is to surrender everything to Lara: “Angel wanted to give her cousin everything she possessed.” When the two girls spend a night in the same bed, Angel experiences her first sexual sensations.

Angel and Lara meet again fifteen years later, when, following the death of her mother, Lara settles in New York. Despite occasional classes in acting and dance, she lacks anything coherent enough to be called a career. At first Lara lives with her father, but, jealous of the many female followers, nicknamed Valkyries, he has attracted through his “psycho-evolutionary” work, she soon stalks off. Lara seduces Angel’s feckless father, Peter Koenig, a business executive who lives in an affluent suburb with his second wife and their two sons....

(The entire section is 1903 words.)