A posthumous new collection of selected short fiction, “At the End of the Century: The Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala,” showcases her darker cadences. The stories — all of them elegantly plotted and unsentimental, with an addictive, told-over-tea quality — are largely character studies of people isolated, often tragically, by custom or self-delusion. In “The Widow,” a woman in her prime, Durga, finds herself surrounded by grasping relatives following the death of her much older, impotent husband, who leaves her with a fine house and a sense that “somehow, somewhere, she has been shortchanged.” Disastrously, her dormant maternal feelings — mingling with erotic longings — are awakened by her tenant’s teenage son. “Expiation” movingly depicts a cloth merchant’s Job-like devotion to his prodigal younger brother, who rapes and murders an upper-class schoolboy, stealing his roller skates. In “Desecration,” a privileged young bride, Sofia, pursues a debasing affair with a thuggish local official. These vivid, unsparing portraits are leavened with the kind of humanizing moments that evoke a total world within their compression, as when the cloth merchant delivers last rites to his brother or when Sofia realizes that the person who knows her best is the chauffeur. In such moments, one feels very far from that poppy field.
[ In 1983, Jhabvala told The Times about her first impressions of India: “It was paradise on earth. The sight of the sky, that vast sky, the light, the colors. I loved the heat, going around with few clothes, the stone floors.” ]
In contrast, Jhabvala’s stories about Westerners, many of them blank young women who fall prey to burning-eyed gurus or other spiritual grifters, tend to blur. Their pursuit of borrowed meaning — “an Indian experience” — is styled as farce, the satire too on the nose: One wan disciple urges another to submit to “the beauty of surrender, of not having a will and not having thoughts of your own.” The authorial disdain is palpable, as is, perhaps, an echo of Jhabvala’s own outgrown illusions. When she does deviate slightly from this template, it can be tantalizing: In “Two More Under the Indian Sun,” a sympathetic young Englishwoman happily married to an Indian man pays a social call on her widowed older friend, a congenial busybody who staves off loneliness with meditation workshops, charitable causes and “holy men from the Himalayas.” One longs to revisit the younger woman, in whom one detects a germinating seed of ambivalence, in middle age.
After two decades, Jhabvala felt ill at ease living in material comfort in India, describing her adopted country as “a great animal of poverty and backwardness,” and writing, in a rare autobiographical essay, of the mercurial intensity of her feelings for it — “I think of myself as strapped to a wheel that goes round and round and sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m down.” Contemporary readers might wish for a memoir in this vein, a less oblique take. The closest she seems to have come was her 2004 story collection, “My Nine Lives: Chapters of a Possible Past,” which she describes as “alternative destinies” — one of which, “Ménage,” in which a writer looks back on a love triangle involving her mother and aunt, is included in this book. But Jhabvala thrived in the more densely screened confessional of fiction.
If her stories have fallen slightly out of fashion, it may be in some part because of this resistance to the soul laid bare. Her characters have little interiority or agency; the fates they run up against tend to feel inexorable, especially in her later stories, in which the ironic distance cools into cynicism. Certain types — charlatans, wastrels and freeloaders, many of them Indian — accumulate troublingly, as does the kind of servant who pines for the good old days when they wore white gloves to serve dinner. Exploitation is a constant theme, and the psychopathology of power and domination: She seemed to have even less confidence than Forster in the possibility of true connection between colonizer and colonized. In later stories, after Jhabvala had moved to New York, the gurus morph into another type of charming fraud: the male creative “genius” surrounded by female acolytes. She would have had no end of material today.
Jhabvala’s stories are also, of course, unfashionable for another reason: their unabashed ventriloquizing of another culture, an inhabiting of India and Indians that a contemporary author might take pains to artistically justify, all the more so now that our bookshelves are filled with Indian authors writing in English. But this is what surely gives Jhabvala’s work its rare gleam: the undeceived clarity of the eternal outsider, immersed yet apart. In the collection’s final story, “The Judge’s Will” — published in The New Yorker 10 days before her death — she returns to India with a setup worthy of Singer or Chekhov: A dying judge reveals to his wife his wish to provide for his mistress after his death. (In a move Jhabvala might have appreciated, the story is being transplanted to Chicago for a film written by James Ivory and directed by Alexander Payne.) In a few pages, Jhabvala executes a deft reversal of marital power, touching, along the way, on sex and class, duty and desire — and the surprise, across all barriers, of empathy.