Quick: Name a writer of Polish roots who immigrated to London, learned English on the fly, wrote about hard-to-parse, faraway places and became one of the most distinguished English novelists of the 20th century.
Joseph Conrad? Well, yes. But you might have said Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a prodigious talent who has brought India alive on page after page of remarkable fiction in the course of the past 60 years. Jhabvala is far better known for bringing alive not India but England and America in the Merchant Ivory films A Room With a View, Howards End, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge and The Remains of the Day — a phenomenally successful run of movies for which she was the lead screenwriter.
In her latest book, A Lovesong for India, Jhabvala returns to two passions that ignited her career: India and the short story. Here is a collection to remind us why, at 84, Jhabvala stands tall among her contemporary cohort: why she is so much like Forster (with a more discerning eye on India), Austen (with a more global sensibility) and Conrad (with a feminine touch).
The short stories in A Lovesong for India reflect her mastery. "Not you, of course," one of her characters says at the end of a long diatribe against thieving, lecherous Indians. " 'This is not personal,' and he flashed me one of his smiles in which both his teeth and his glasses participated." The story, like most in this book, is about the clash of cultures. But Jhabvala's work is not easily categorized. She is far too good at turning tables on a reader: A work that begins as drama can soon veer into satire. Throughout this fine little volume, Jhabvala's writing is stylish, unpredictable, singing with humor. East is East, and West is West, and whoever is passing through is bound to be fleeced by the locals.
An old axiom among book critics has it that story collections are impossible to review. The characters are too various to render, the settings too random to convey. But A Lovesong for India is as cohesive and thematic a body of work as you will ever find in a single volume. Its characters are either outsiders peering in or insiders pawing frantically for a way out. In this gallimaufry of misfits, everyone is a dreamer.
So it is that Jhabvala never loses her sense of the universal. India is here in full Technicolor, but so are Piccadilly and Park Avenue. This writer's genius — unlike Conrad's or Forster's or even Austen's — is that she points out how essentially similar insiders and outsiders can be.