Award-winning novelist and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala died April 3 in New York from complications of pulmonary disease. She was 85.

A prolific novelist and short-story writer, Jhabvala was still writing at the time of her death. (One of her new short stories appeared in the March 25 issue of The New Yorker, for which she had written for decades.)

Well-known for bringing the queer sensibilities of E.M. Forster and Henry James to the screen as the writer of the Ismail Merchant-James Ivory queer period-piece film-making team, Jhabvala always considered her screenwriting a hobby, while fiction was her true passion. Yet it was her lush, sensual language and her keen ear for smoldering restraint in dialogue, her nuanced sensitivity to the class conflicts and consciousness in the Merchant-Ivory films that drove the big, romantic productions which became perennial award-winners. The threesome won multiple Oscars among them and Jhabvala won two for her screenwriting.

It had been Merchant’s idea to enlist Jhabvala. An Indian native, he was an early fan of her work, which many considered the perfect evocation of modern British life in India in the 1950s and 60s.

(Merchant died in 2005 at 68. He and Ivory, 84, were partners and also one of the longest creative film partnerships on record, completing 40 films together. Jhabvala wrote the screenplays for 23 of them.)

Jhabvala was the token heterosexual in the group which began working together in 1963 after Merchant and Ivory traveled to New Delhi to buy the rights to one of Jhabvala’s early novels, The Householder. According to Ivory, she was asked to write the screenplay in eight days–and did.

Thus began their intensive partnership. The Householder was the first production of Merchant-Ivory and the trio’s work together. It was also the first Indian-made film to be distributed internationally by a major American studio, Columbia Pictures. It was the first of four Indian-themed films the trio did in succession.

Their first big film together was The Europeans, for which Jhabvala adapted the novel by Henry James. That was followed by the dark and queerish Quartet, adapted from the novel by Jean Rhys and the lesbian-themed The Bostonians, also from a novel by James. A theme had begun to develop in the Merchant-Ivory pictures as set by Jhabvala’s superbly crafted screenplays: class and caste in a just-past era where mores for women and queers were intensely fraught, as in The Bostonians and Maurice.

Jhabvala won the Booker Prize–the most prestigious British literary award–for her 1975 novel Heat and Dust. In 1983 Merchant-Ivory produced it. Jhabvala was nominated for an Oscar for her screenplay. The following year she won a MacArthur genius grant.

In 1985, she adapted E.M.Forster’s A Room with a View for Merchant-Ivory, for which she won an Oscar and the Writer’s Guild of America Award. She then stepped out with a different gay director, John Schlesinger, writing the screenplay for Madame Sousatzka.

In 1992 she won a second Oscar for her adaptation of another Forster novel, Howard’s End. The film was a triumph for the Merchant-Ivory team, winning Best Picture and Best Director as well. Jhabvala also won the Writer’s Guild of America’s Screen Laurel Award. In 1993 she was nominated for but did not win the Oscar for her screenplay ofRemains of the Day. In 2000 she wrote the screenplay for yet another James’ novel, The Golden Bowl. In 2003 she and Ivory co-wrote the screenplay for the last Merchant-Ivory film before Merchant’s sudden death, Le Divorce. That same year she won the O.Henry prize for fiction for Refuge in London. In 2008 she and Ivory co-wrote the screenplay for his film of Peter Cameron’s novel, The City of Your Final Destination.

Jhabvala wrote more than 20 books as well as two dozen screenplays. She said the best part of her day was her morning writing ritual.

A German Jew born in Cologne of a Polish father and German mother, she and her family fled the Nazis in 1939, when she was only 12. The family emigrated to Britain and she became a British citizen in 1948. Her father committed suicide in 1949 when he discovered that more than 40 members of his family had been slaughtered in Nazi-occupied Poland in the Holocaust, leaving no one.

Jhabvala lived in England until 1951, when she moved to India with her husband, Cyrus Jhabvala, an Indian architect she met in her last year of college.

In India, Jhabvala began to write about the cross-cultural experience of being a British/German Jew in India. It was her intense relationship with India that first drew Merchant to her, although all her India-based stories are explicative of the outsider status she held there in newly post-colonial India. Jhabvala, whom most assumed was Indian, said she only wrote about India because that was where she was–she hadn’t fled there like Forster and she asserted that her interest was specifically in her experience there. In her later years, she said she was too conflicted about the country to either write there or of there.

Jhabvala’s personal writing as well as the screenplays she did were inevitably about the role of the woman or gay man as outsider–often fragile and always marginalized–as epitomized in film after film she worked on with Merchant-Ivory. She said in several interviews over the years that she always felt like a refugee, even though she settled well wherever she lived.

Jhabvala divided her time between New York (she lived a block from Merchant and Ivory) and New Delhi, but said that New York reminded her of her youth because of its multi-cultural aspects and its reminders of the Europe of her childhood. She said she met the “people of Cologne” there. Still, she never called New York her home and said she did not really have a home, that she had been “blown about from country to country, culture to culture, till I feel, till I am–nothing.”

Her true home was her writing. It was there she explicated a life that was as intense as it was extraordinary.


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4 Responses to “In Remembrance: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala”

  1. 8 April 2013 at 2:58 PM #

    The terminology ‘slaughtered in Polish concentration camps in the Holocaust’ is incorrect. The Nazi Germans established the ‘concentration camps’ on occupied Polish soil. The camps were not Polish as implied by the comment. Please correct the error.

    • 8 April 2013 at 4:09 PM #

      You are correct. The post has been updated.

  2. 8 April 2013 at 3:42 PM #

    The terminology “Polish concentration camp” is incorrect and offensive. The camps were established and operated by Germany on territory they invaded and occupied. Please refrain from distorting history and confusing your readers as to who were the victims (including Polish Christians) and the perpetrators.

  3. 8 April 2013 at 4:40 PM #

    The use of the term “Polish concentration camp” by mainstream media has long been established, but it is a source of contention among many who argue,as Jim Przedzienkowski does above, that the camps were not established by the Polish government, but by German Nazis. Others also note that there was a pink triangle with a P in the center that was the symbol in the camps for non-Jewish Polish victims. I understand the grievance inherent here–that it shifts responsibility from the Germans who perpetrated the Holocaust and “Final Solution” to the Poles. And no one should ever forget that the Nazis began the Holocaust, they also invaded Poland and that they were the arbiters of one the worst genocides in human history. That said, however, I would also recommend to all a viewing of “Shoah,” the iconic film by Claude Lanzmann. More than half of all Jews murdered by the Nazis were killed in Poland. Three million Jews–there were only 3.2 million in Poland in 1939–perished in the concentration camps in Poland. More than 90 percent of all Jews were officially wiped out of Poland. In addition, the most notorious of the concentration camps were in Poland: Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau, Birkenau. Those in the Warsaw ghetto were annihilated slowly. Revisionist history presumes that in all occupied countries there is massive resistance and no collaboration. But the Auschwitz trial in 1947 made clear that the Polish government, Poles themselves and of course, Polish officers were among those involved in the extermination of Polish Jews. Pogroms existed in Poland both before and after the Holocaust, even though Poland had one of the largest and most culturally expansive Jewish populations in the world at the time of the Nazi invasion. Sadly, Yad Vashem and the U.S. Holocaust Museum catalogue the sheer volume of Polish citizens engaged in the collaborative and overt genocide of Polish Jews. The camps were not Polish, they were Nazi. But at the time of the occupation of Poland, it certainly seems from actual, not revisionist, history that the non-Jewish Polish citizenry was participatory in the slaughter of their neighbors and colleagues–among them Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s family. History is a sad reminder of complicity as well as bravery. Sixteen million people were annihilated by the Nazis and their collaborators. A third of the world’s Jews were killed. As queers we need to remember that we were among those targeted for genocide, and not just Jewish queers. There were precious few “righteous Gentiles” in the lexicon of the Holocaust and the U.S. has its own shame with regard to the Holocaust, failing the Jews at nearly every turn. The population of Poland today is close to what it was in 1939–38 million. But the Jewish population is so small that it does not register among the top 30 populations of Jews worldwide. There are currently more Jews in Iran than in Poland (9,000). Nationalist extremism is what caused the Holocaust and other genocides. We should all keep that in mind when we have knee-jerk reactions that seek to revise our national histories. The shame is not in what our history may reveal. The shame is in denial that it ever happened. Every nation has its horrors, every citizenry its collaborators. It’s essential that we never count ourselves among the latter.

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