My Nine Lives: Chapters of a Possible Past, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

This is not a memoir. Memoirs are nonfiction, and Jhabvala makes it clear that these stories are fictional. Each features a different cast of characters, different conflicts, different settings. As she says in her “Apologia”, “The central character—the ‘I' of each chapter—is myself, but the parents I have claimed are not, or hardly ever quite my own.” However, she does say that these stories are tales of a life she might have lived. “Every situation was one I could have been in myself, and sometimes, to some extent, was.”

It's an intriguing premise. Perhaps we all wonder what other lives we might have lived given a different decision casually made long ago. I'm reminded of the alternate paths the children follow when they go through the mirror in A Diamond in the Window and of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead where the two courtiers wonder when and whether they made a choice that thrust them into their current predicament. I, myself, have derived great entertainment from the Google Alert set up on my name, which enables me to follow the careers of a jazz singer, a professional hockey player, and someone in Yorkshire who competes in sheepdog trials.

In one sense, then, we can listen to the resonances between Jhabvala's stories to discover where they chime, teasing out the person who has sent out these messages to us. In another sense, though, every story written is a possible life. Writers imagine ourselves into our characters, imbuing them with some sliver of ourselves, or our possible selves.

It may be that these stories are a joke pulled on those earnest readers who pull apart novels looking for the author, who interpret fiction by way of the author's life. I sometimes do that, not on the first reading which is for pure enjoyment or the second which is for reading as a writer, but on the third or fourth because I'm curious as to how other writers conjure stories from all the bits and pieces of our lived lives. I also like to read a favorite author's entire oeuvre, not so much to hear the books in conversation with each other—though that may happen, just as poems change when placed next to each other in a collection—but to see the author's development as a writer.

The stories themselves bear up well under this burden of expectation. I enjoyed all of them, whether sad or happy. The first, aptly named “Life”, is narrated by an elderly woman who has returned to India. Rosemary, a name she never felt suited her, first ventured there while working on her PhD thesis about an Indian woman poet, in company with Somnath, a clerk she met in her native New York City. This is a story of family, her film-star mother Nina and sturdy father Otto, Otto's second wife Susie, Somnath's family in India. Rosemary struggles with the conflicting demands of family and desire; even when she is in “the remotest part of a remote province, trying to decipher the inscription on a Sufi poet's grave,” a phone call makes it through to the single phone in the village, located in the hut that serves as the post office, with a plea from Susie that she return immediately. Somnath's great gift to her is “that sudden leap of recognition—as when listening to poetry or music—that this is how life could be and maybe, somewhere else, really was.”

In “Gopis” Diane, a successful New York publicist, befriends young Lucia who is studying Indian dance over the fierce objections of her WASP parents in Connecticut. Lucia says that Indian dance is about “love in spite of, love in absence—all that Krishna and gopi stuff.” She wants her new friend to persuade her father to send Lucia to India, but then Diane's former lover, the larger-than-life Vijay arrives for a visit. A shopkeeper in New Delhi, Vijay also seems to be involved with “murky politics”, a past that catches up with him, reaching halfway round the world to Diane's apartment.

Other settings include London, a country estate outside New York City, and a remembered Germany. Many revolve around the unexpectedly persistent influence of someone from the past or the complicated relationships with parents and siblings. Jhabvala's prose is wonderfully clear and, as one would expect from the screenwriter of films such as Howard's End and A Room with a View, she builds drama effectively. From the first page I felt myself in the hands of a storyteller who knows what she is doing. She doesn't reveal too much; by the end of the book I had some sense of her preoccupations but not of the author's own life. I'm still intrigued by the idea of these stories that she says are “potentially autobiographical”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>