My Nine Lives is a book filled with invented memories—of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and the life she may have or may have wished to live. Nine vignettes are linked to portray a rich life filled with searching, from London to Delhi, from Hollywood to New York. Each chapter gathers a different cast of characters, some new and some vaguely familiar, and the linked assembly is as exciting and illuminating as an artist’s first show at a Soho gallery or a new play at the Studio Theater. “Sinewy with compressed emotion and intellectual energy, as well as the poignancy of a thwarted search for love” (Publishers Weekly), Jhabvala’s late work further cements the award-winning writer and Academy award-winning screenwriter’s acclaimed reputation. As lauded by Booklist, “Jhabvala name-drops Chekhov, and this is no pretension given the grace of her spiraling plots, the depth of her psychology, the elegance of her humor, the subtlety of her eroticism, and her masterfully concise descriptions of imperiled households, eccentric personalities, sexual enthrallment, unexpected alliances, and transcendent love.”
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I have gone back to live in India, partly for economic reasons. It's cheaper for me here than in New York, and that has been a consideration during these last years. Of course I no longer live where I used to when I came here over forty years ago — with Somnath and his family in their crammed flat in the crammed house in a maze of alleys leading off the bazaar. The house is still standing, though a part of it, cracked and crumbled during a particularly heavy monsoon, has had to be propped up. Another family is occupying Somnath's old flat, which has been divided into even smaller sections; the whole house is now a warren of subdivided living spaces let out to large families sharing sanitary facilities.
After my return, the first place I moved to was in a suburban middle-class colony. Although newly built, it was already overpopulated and not so different from the inner-city area where I used to live in Somnath's house. The streets were crowded with hawkers and pushcarts and homeless dogs and cows and an occasional pig snuffling in the gutters for discarded food. I rented a room built on the terrace roof — it was small, but enough for me and with its own toilet and shower. It also had its own staircase at the side of the house so that I was independent of the landlord's family living downstairs. At first they were very friendly to me, and once when I was sick with flu, they sent up food. I knew that they referred to me as the "budiya" — the old woman — up there. It is difficult for me to realize that this description fits me as it used to fit Somnath's old mother: she had a hump and a chronic bad knee that she clutched all the time while groaning and calling to God for release. But I spend my days in the same feckless way I used to forty years ago — and, I must admit, with an even lighter heart. I have no responsibilities and am always alone.
Being alone is nothing new to me — from childhood I've always preferred it, except for being with my mother, and with my father, Otto. The only years when I felt my aloneness as loneliness or friendlessness — I really had no friends — was during my teenage years, from sixteen to twenty; and then it was not so much because of my own expectations and desires as those of my parents for me. My father had remarried but was in an apartment around the corner from where I lived with my mother, Nina. On Saturday nights she invariably went out whereas I invariably had nowhere to go. "Will you be all right?" she would ask me; she felt bad about leaving me and that was what made my eyes fill with tears. To hide them, I would lower my head over the book I was reading — "Oh yes," I said, "this is fascinating;" the moment she left the tears would fall on to my fascinating book and I would have to wipe them off. But by the time I had entered more deeply into my studies — I was in the oriental department at Columbia — my books really were more interesting to me than anything offered elsewhere; and my parents, though still anxious about me, could reassure one another: "Rosemary is an intellectual."
During my first visit to India, in my early twenties, I changed my name to Shanti (meaning Peace, which I was anxious to pursue and, if possible, possess). But on my return to New York I changed it back to Rosemary — which did not suit me, never had done, but was all that was left of my parents' expectations for me. Even the room that Nina had so lovingly furnished for me in her apartment — in all her apartments, whether we were in Los Angeles or in New York — had been overlaid by my own interests. Oriental texts and Sanskrit grammars filled the closet that should have held rows of pretty dresses; the vanity table with its frilly skirt had to bear my brass statues of Hindu deities; a mandala featuring the cycle from birth to death eclipsed the rosebuds on the wallpaper chosen by Nina as suitable for a young girl's bower (or "Mädchenzimmer," as she and Otto called it).
All through my childhood, I tried to live up to my name Rosemary. I knew how hard it was for Nina that I was not pretty, let alone beautiful as she was. She would buy me frocks that would have looked lovely on some other little girl and I put them on eagerly. But it was Nina herself who said, "Take it off, darling," and she would turn away — in tears, I imagined, so that I ran after her and clung to her. Then she would say, "Never mind, darling, what's it matter?" But that only made me more miserable because I knew how much it mattered to her.
Nina herself had been a spectacular beauty. In Germany in the 1930s, before they were forced to emigrate, she had begun a career as a film actress that might have led to stardom. Nina left because she was married to a Jew — my father, Otto Levy; she herself came from a Catholic family of modest means (petit-bourgeois, she said, but only just). The Levy family had sufficient influence to arrange for visas to America; also sufficient funds to start a New York branch of their prosperous business in fine leather goods, with Otto as the managing director. Nina and I did not stay with him for long. By this time they fought a lot, and I believe Susie too had already attached herself to them. But mainly it was because Nina felt that her place was in Hollywood, and following up some leads and promises, she boldly packed us up and left. Her stunning looks, her courage, her perseverance, and maybe to some extent Otto's money with which he was always generous to us even after their divorce, all these helped us through. She did have some success in Hollywood, though never on the scale she might have expected in her native Germany. She always played foreigners, for though her English was fluent and even racy, her accent remained heavily German; and with this accent, and her sultry, pouting looks, she was inevitably cast as the bad woman — during the war years even as a Nazi — in contrast to the wholesome American heroine. They were not good parts, nor were they good films, and she spoke of them disparagingly, pretending to shrug them off as merely her, and my, bread and butter. But in fact she worked hard at her roles, however small and unworthy they were, analyzing them, researching the background, extracting possibilities of depth that may have been in her but were not in the characters she was called on to play. And after a while, when she got older and heavier — she always had a weight problem — the parts that came her way were smaller and fewer, until finally she decided that it was not worth staying in Hollywood but that she might as well go back to New York, to allow Otto a share in my upbringing.
It was Otto who found the Upper East Side apartment in which Nina and I lived for so many years. He and Susie, whom he had since married, were just around the block, so we became one fairly harmonious family. He and Nina no longer fought the way they used to; they had far too many interests in common and were eager for each other's company. Susie did whatever they did, but since she had less stamina, they preferred to leave her at home for their more strenuous activities, such as their "antiquing" expeditions. Both loved buying objects and both had the same taste. Nina had a flair for picking up bargains, and they always returned flushed with victory and loaded with vases and clocks and tapestries for Nina's and my apartment. Susie didn't care to have too many things in her and Otto's place — they only collected dust, she complained, and that was a problem for her who could never keep household help for more than a few weeks. But she joined them on their visits to museums and private openings at galleries; on Sundays they attended chamber music concerts, on Wednesdays they had subscription seats at the Metropolitan Opera; and of course there was always the theatre, classical theatre, where Nina sat far forward in her seat with clasped hands and bright eyes, imagining herself as Hedda Gabler or Madame Arkadina. Otto loved to arrive at these events with a woman in furs and jewels on each arm, himself impeccable with his white silk evening scarf and his Clark Gable mustache.
Otto was very correct, very German, in the tradition of his family who had, until told otherwise, considered themselves entirely, patriotically German, reveling in every German triumph, which they regarded as their own. But there was one strain in their ancestry at odds with these characteristics. Of course as Levys they were of the priestly tribe — which they treated as a joke, worldly uncles bantering about it over their pork cassoulet and their lobster mayonnaise. But there was one item of family memorabilia, dating from the seventeenth century, that filled them with pride, even as they joked about it. This was a letter — a farsighted uncle donated it to the Hebrew University in 1936 (before himself emigrating to Argentina where he too did well in the leather business) — written by a Rabbi Mordechai Levy who had been sent by his Frankfurt community to Smyrna to inquire into the authenticity of a self-proclaimed Messiah. The letter he sent back home to Frankfurt confirmed every claim — yes yes yes, it is He, the Messiah sent to redeem us; and we must do His bidding immediately and sell all our goods and properties and go to Jerusalem to await our redemption. But my ancestors Were too hardheaded and cautious for that, and anyway the Messiah later turned out to be false. Otto always kept a copy of the letter from Smyrna, in its German translation — the original was in Hebrew, which he could not read — and later he had an English translation made. That was the one I read and I suppose somehow its expectations entered into me; that cry of yes it is He! He has come! though I never seriously expected a real Messiah to enter my life.
As a small child, I asked the usual questions that children like me ask about God and Death and Time, and Nina did her best to answer them. Even when she was on the point of going out, looking over her shoulder to check if the seams of her stockings were straight, she would pause to find some suitable reply for me. But later, when I reached my teens and should have been asking other kinds of questions, she became impatient. I know she and Otto discussed me — "Why doesn't she have any friends — any boy friends?" Nina would ask. "My goodness, at her age —" She rolled her eyes heavenward at the thought of herself at my age.
Finally, she had to resort to giving me the answers to questions I hadn't thought to ask. She made a solemn occasion of it: we went for tea at the Plaza — I loved that, because I knew she often met friends there and they talked about Life, which was such an overwhelmingly important subject for her. And now she was here with me, in the crowded, scented, opulent room, among banks of hothouse flowers and the string orchestra playing and the waiters with their trolleys of giant pastries oozing chocolate and cream. It was with me that she was discussing the human condition in its weightiest aspects. She talked the way I had seen her do with others — with men, all of them artists and intellectuals — her elbows propped on the table, her sleeves pushed up from her creamy, rounded arms with bracelets tumbling down them. Her eyes vague and dreamy through the smoke of her cigarette, she informed me what it was that men and women did together. This information, though entirely new to me, did not engage my interest; and the only question I asked was why they did it. She opened her eyes wide in surprise (her eyes were green but looked dark because of her lashes, black as patent leather). Then she laughed: "But darling — because they love each other." "The way I love you?" I asked — sometimes, I have to admit, I was deliberately childish with her, to amuse her, but that time I was serious. However, I had succeeded in amusing her and she responded in the way I loved most: with a burst of laughter, her lips parting to reveal her still perfect teeth, her healthy tongue, and she leaned forward to kiss me, enfolding me in the warmth of her breath, her perfume, the smell and taste of the good strong coffee she drank all day long, even at tea-time.
Although in the years ahead she and I often talked about Love, she hardly ever again brought sex into it. When she did, she was dismissive: "What is it, after all? Just technical." And whenever she broke up with a lover, her invariable verdict against him was: "All he cares about is sex. Men are swine." Only Otto was exempt. They had long ago ceased any sexual relation but were bound by other, stronger ties: myself, their past, their conception of the importance of experience, the course of life, of Life — das Leben. But what was for her the highest, finest part of it she shared not with Otto but with me: it was with me that she discussed Love as she understood it, as something entirely, overwhelmingly other, breaking into a different dimension altogether. And that's how I understood it too — perhaps influenced by her, certainly by my feeling for her, which was my first indication of what love could be.
I was sent to very expensive private schools, gladly paid for by Otto, where I was miserable because all the other girls were so much smarter, in the fashionable as well as the intellectual sense, than I could ever hope to be. I worked hard but the results were far from encouraging, and it was doubtful whether they could ever be good enough to get me into college. Fortunately, during my last two years in High School, my interests became focused on oriental studies, where I discovered the same questions I had been asking since I could remember and even some approximate answers to them. It was when I entered the oriental department at Columbia that Otto and Nina began to say — with pride, for they had a tremendous respect for intellectuals — "The child is intellectual." Neither of them had had a college education. Otto had gone straight from school into the family business, while Nina hadn't even finished school but at fourteen, to her everlasting regret, had begun to model, act, flirt, and generally have a good time. For the rest of her life she tried to make up for this by reading books. She read avidly, indiscriminately, with passion. She adored the classics — Tolstoy, Chekhov, Thomas Mann — but also the latest bestsellers, swallowing everything with the same ravenous appetite, her eyes racing down the page as though devouring the print.
And she adored intellectuals, male ones, that is — she hated "bluestockings," turning down the corners of her mouth in pronouncing the word. Her lovers were all writers, musicians, philosophers, philologists, even a theologian — sometimes several of them together, so that she would quote from the works of one to the other. Most of them, in Los Angeles and later in New York, were European refugees. She didn't care for Anglo-Saxon men, whom she characterized as sexually puerile and stingy with money ("Can you imagine! He wanted to go Dutch treat! Dutch indeed — it's a purely American invention"). Whatever their line of intellectual pursuit, all her refugees were of the same type: suave, cynical men who gave the impression of a difficult past stoically borne. Some were handsome, others extremely ugly, but whatever they were, Otto was always jealous. Even when Nina and I were in Hollywood and were communicating with him only by telegram and trunk call (daily, and often several times a day), he could sense the appearance of a new lover across the entire continent. Not that she ever kept him guessing long — he was always, apart from myself, her first and most intimate confidant: a role that, however much it made him suffer, he could not have lived without. But none of these affairs lasted long, and when they ended, Otto and I would have whispered conversations over the phone. He instructed me to hide her sleeping and blood pressure pills, for she had twice tried to take an overdose.
In spite of their respect for my studies, my parents regarded me as very naive. "The child knows nothing about Life," they would tell each other. It was true that life at first hand only began for me with my visits to India, and this would not have qualified as Life for Otto and Nina. In the earlier years, I usually stayed with my friend Somnath's family, sleeping on a mat in a corner of their verandah, which was also a general passage. Somnath was a sales clerk in an old established firm of drapers and outfitters in Connaught Place, at that time a fashionable shopping center. I don't think he could ever have been a forceful salesman, he was much too reticent for that; but he was courteous and obliging and spoke nice English, so that customers sought him out. He had a large family to support and from time to time was forced to ask his bosses for a raise. This was always an embarrassing task for him, for he respected his bosses and could not bear to see the disappointed look that came over their kindly faces while he stated his request. Finally his wife, a more forceful character and also responsible for balancing the family budget, would put on her good sari and shoes and come to the shop to clinch the matter.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "My Nine Lives"
Copyright © 2005 Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
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Table of Contents
5. A Choice of Heritage,
6. My Family,
7. Dancer With a Broken Leg,
8. Refuge in London,