Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer (Vol. 4)

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Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer 1927–

Ms Jhabvala, a German-born novelist writing in English, has lived in India since 1951. Her fine novels examine contemporary intellectual, political, and social life in India. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

It is not often given to one to come, unprepared, upon a true and original talent. The recognition in such an encounter must always have something large and unsettling in it: And yet, there is a certainty about these things, an obviousness that seems to have leapt at one from the first page. From the outset of this novel of travelers in India [Travelers], the realization that there is an immense literary achievement at hand grows steadfastly upon the reader, and one is no more than a quarter of the way through the work when that realization becomes a certainty. It is, simply enough, the story of Englishmen and Indians, both of the well-born and the moderately poor sort, whose lives become tangled up in the course of their travels. The art that has arranged their meeting is subtle, perhaps negligible…. It is a story of random, endlessly impassioned encounters, a novel of caste and class so truly observed and so wittily reported that one must go a long way back to E. M. Forster to find the social novel that compares with it.

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 5, 1973, p. 66.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's novels of the contemporary Indian scene have for some time now been earning her a considerable reputation in England. The case has been different in America. Whether it is that India can never be quite the subject of interest to Americans it seems, eternally, to be to the English or whether it is that the leisurely play of character and observation native to this sort of sensibility falls on resisting ears here (I do not for a moment believe it), or some other thing, it is hard to tell; but she is much less known in this country. "Travelers" is Mrs. Jhabvala's 10th work to be published in America, the sort of novel that establishes itself, from the first pages, with that peculiar assurance it is sometimes given to a ripened art to have. (In considerable measure, that assurance has been there right along, notably in the story collections, "An Experience of India," "Stronger Climate," "Like Birds, Like Fishes.")

How does one know when one is in the grip of art, of a literary power? One feels, among other things, the force of personality behind the cadence of each line, the sensibility behind the twist of the syllable. One feels the texture of the unspoken, the very accents of a writer's reticence…. The quiet power is what strikes one in "Travelers" right off….

Mrs. Jhabvala's subjects are Indian, but there is an international standard for progressive social activity of the sort recorded in these pages, and Mrs. Jhabvala may well have brought off the finest literary rendering of it in this peculiar century of ours….

Given a hint of its background and of its Anglo-Indian theme, it is easy to mistake "Travelers" for a sociologically weighty book. It is a weighty book all right, in the way that psychological richness is always weighty. As for the sociology, there is not trace of it, except for the sort that comes naturally and implicitly to any novel worthy of the name. Mrs. Jhabvala's art is high comedy, woven in the most sober fashion into the characters of her protagonists. That comedy is in their very nerve and bones, but the lives they are aware of, the lives they have, are another matter: the life they know, each of them, is full of a terrible seriousness….

Mrs. Jhabvala's power as a novelist is compounded of an extraordinary mixture of sympathy, economy and a wit whose effects are of the cruelest sort: the sort that appears to proceed, not from any malice of the novelist, but from the objects of her scrutiny. One always knows what the objects of Mrs. Jhabvala's scrutiny think of themselves; there is not...

(The entire section is 2,853 words.)