MY NINE LIVES: CHAPTERS OF A POSSIBLE PAST. By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Shoemaker and Hoard. Hardcover, 224 pages, $25.
At the age of 77 and with her first book in nine years (!) Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is still creating masterful stories igniting the imagination. Or, perhaps, giving a peek into her own life. Fact and fiction blend beautifully in My Nine Lives, but where one ends and the other begins is something the reader may never know, nor needs to know. In the collections “Apologia,” Jhabvala writes, “These chapters are potentially autobiographical: even when something didn’t actually happen to me, it might have done so. Every situation was one I could have been in myself, and sometimes, to some extent, was.” There is a consistent feel to the stories, the themes of dislocation, family, exotic and not so exotic locale, and the necessity of art in one’s life that makes dissonance bearable, are replayed over and over, but to a satisfying and entertaining objective.
Jhabvala seems to be playfully teasing the reader, but not at all in a deceptive way. The nine stories have glimpses of India, New York, London, and Hollywood and as well both the resignation and sadness of a life lived, but sparks of hope still somehow burning for a possible life, a life that still holds possibilities. Thwarted love, illicit sex, intellectuality, and spiritual quest lie side-by-side as themes of existential loneliness pervade nearly every story.
The book is enriched by the beautiful pen-and-ink illustrations of C.S.H. Jhabvala, which give the stories a sort of sepia-toned tinge.
Perhaps the guiding light, if one is needed, to these stories is Jhabvala’s own “Apologia,” which is a poignant reminder of the necessity of being able to imagine worlds and the pleasure that is wrought from the exercise. As well, the idea that what has passed, who we were, and what we have become, or who we might still become, all exist on the same plane:
Although I soon felt at home wherever I happened to be, at the same time I held back, almost deliberately, from being truly assimilated. It was as though I wanted to feel exiled from some other place and to be free to go back to or in search of it. But then these quests turned out not to be for a place after all but always for a person. This may have been a person I have looked up to, or been in love with, maybe even for some sort of guru or guide. Someone better, stronger, wiser, altogether other … Does such a person exist, and if so, does one ever find him?
Perhaps not, but after reading the stories the reader will be reminded that ultimately it is the journey, not the destination, that matters most. —Michelle Reale