In the twentieth century, many classics were only 200-300 pages long. Think Barbara Pym, Eudora Welty, and Peter Taylor.
Then, suddenly, in the twenty-first century, books started getting longer. I love Hilary Mantel, but her historical novels are doorstops. And, according to a study by James Finlayson of Vervesearch, the length of books has increased by 25 percent, from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014.
And hence my inauguration of a new “Short Book of the Week” feature: today’s post is on the underrated writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s A Backward Place.
Jhabvala (1927-2013), who is best known for winning the Oscar for her screenplay of Howards End, also won the Booker Prize in 1975 for Heat and Dust, a luminous novel that alternates the story of a young English woman in India in the 1970s with that of her grandmother, Olivia, a rebellious English wife of a civil servant who caused a scandal by challenging the mores of colonial society.
A Backward Place, a brilliant comic novel published in 1965, is another masterpiece. Set in Delhi, it delineates the connected lives of several expatriates and their Indian friends and spouses. Every beautifully-crafted sentence is evocative of character and place.
At the center is Judy, the English wife of an aspiring Indian actor. Judy rather harriedly works as a secretary to support Bal and their two children. While she struggles to pay the bills, Bal hangs out in coffeehouses and dreams of becoming a movie star. They share a house with Bal’s brother and his wife, Shanti, to cut expenses. And they have taken in an impecunious widowed aunt, who has moved from family to family.
Judy is content in India: she doesn’t miss her life in England, where her father worked in a factory. She fell in love with Bal at 17. She hangs on fiercely to her job at the Cultural Dais, a society that sponsors lectures by writers and academics. (Jhabvala’s witty descriptions of the tedium are hilarious.) Judy is an assistant to the General Secretary, Sudhir Bannerjee, who conspires with her to cover up her mistakes. When Sudhir, an intellectual who thinks he is wasting his life, talks about leaving Delhi, she is terrified. She doesn’t think she could keep the job without him.
Many of her expatriate friends are richer, more urbane, and more carefree than she. The novel opens with her sophisticated Hungarian friend, Etta, eating a cream cracker in bed and lecturing Judy on why she should leave her husband. (Etta has had a few husbands and many lovers of her own.)
“My dear Judy, you’ve made a mistake… but if you would only face up to it and get out before it’s too late.”
Judy loves Etta . Still, there are limits, even when you have a sense of humor.
Judy was tempted to say that it was already too late (after all, she had been here nearly ten years and had two children) but she refrained, because she knew Etta didn’t care to have her assertions contradicted. And anyway, as far as Judy was concerned, the discussion was purely theoretical, so she didn’t mind much what was said.
Etta has some money and a beautiful European apartment, but her relationship with a rich Indian hotelier is waning and she is panicked. Clarissa, an English expatriate, scorns her upper-class family in English and lives in a filthy little room in Delhi, but frequently visits rich friends. She, too, is terrified when she learns she is about to be evicted. Mr. and Mrs. Hochstein, a German couple who are living in India for only a couple of years, have a secure perspective: they don’t expect too much from India, because they don’t have to stay.
Much of the novel revolves on the founding of a theater group. Bal had the idea, but lost interest after a visit from a film star friend from Bombay. And so the theater group comes into being without Bal, and with a minimum of talent..
It is, oddly, the Indians who want to leave Delhi, while Judy wants to stay. Bal wants to be a film star in Bombay, and Sudhir wants to teach in a backward place. It is English security vs. Indians’ dreams and taking chances. Who in the end is right?
Really a stunning novel, with an unexpected ending! The details are minuscule, unexpected, and crystalline. And the theater group’s production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is quite droll.
I loved it. I look forward to reading more Jhabvala!