Women's fiction and l'écriture-femme

East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York

by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907), Still Life (1900)

East into Upper East: Summing Up and, slightly OT, Paul Zacharia; General Thoughts; "Broken Promises" and "Two Muses:" Tales 13 & 14 from New York; Jhabvala and Begley's About Schmidt

Date: Sat, 5 Mar 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala's 'East into Upper East': Summing Up and, slightly OT, Paul Zacharia
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Though I've not had a great amount of time to post on these stories, I have been reading along and have very much appreciated reading the comments Ellen and the others have been providing.

As for me, I found there was a dismal sameness to the stories after a while. Since they were written over a period of twenty years, perhaps they were collected and put together in one volume for the very thematic similitude that began to pall on me, but I'm not sure that was such a terribly good idea.

Having said that, I quite liked the ironically significant twist Annette, that consummate hanger-on, gives to the term parasite in the story of that name, 'They don't know what they want, those parasites. We have to teach them everything - what to do with themselves, their time, their money. Even that they don't know!' She sees the rich as the ones sucking those dependant on them dry rather than the reverse.

It helped to confirm an impression that I'd been getting that Jhabvala takes a positively naturalist approach towards human relationships in this collection - all of the stories seem to deal with varying stages and degrees of mutual parasitism and symbiosis, complete with an accompanying process of infestation, assimilation and/or displacement, as if modelled on the survival strategies of the insect world. All very Darwinian, but ultimately very depressing as she offers little or no prospect of social or moral evolutionary improvement.

A new Indian course member has kindly presented me with a collection of short stories by the southern Indian writer, Paul Zacharia, and, though I've only had time to look at a couple of stories as yet, I get the impression that his, while no less socially and politically critical, are more constructive in tenor.

Since the writer was only a vague name to me before now I checked out a few websites and found that he is a very prominent comtemporary writer, who is very critical of what he sees as a dangerous upsurge of Hindu nationalism and fundamentalism, and who, interestingly enough in view of the 'Mother' in Jhabvala's story, has received death threats for his criticism of a female guru also called 'Mother' by her many followers. Here's a link to an interesting interview with the writer:


Parasitism is an image he happens to use here, too. It obviously goes with the terrain.


Date: Sun, 06 Mar 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] RPJhabvala and Paul Zacharia
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

I'd like to thank Fran for the URL taking us to an interview of Paul Zacharia. Very interesting. I can see that Zacharia is a writer who should be more widely known outside India; also that I'd like to read what he writes both in non-fiction and fiction. I append the interview below for those who are interested (and might not reach the material for whatever reason) and to have it in our archives. A few of the essays I have (I got a whole bunch through the Interloan Library system at GMU -- they are sent electronically or by mail to me so it's no trouble to get this kind of material) put Jhabvala in the context of other Indian writers: Kamala Markandaya, Narayan (not Naipaul, interestingly). We English readers are used to seeing her contextualized with Paul Scott and Forster, probably because other English readers and writers have read them and make the connection; lately she's contextualized with other (apparently or somewhat) non-western but western-educated women writers.

I see that he resembles Jhabvala in a number of ways. She too will have nothing to do with the delusions of nationalisms and idiocies of "tradition" -- many of which are recent inventions in all countries. I know the argument is these delusions count. If 90% of the world believes the earth is flat, then that it is not flat is said to be unimportant. I disagree as strongly as possible. The asserted beliefs of people are often paperthin and mostly come out of just the same posing and self-protectiveness or non- thinking words that sex and reading surveys elicit.

On parasitism: perhaps this is a reaction to the realities of social and economic life. From other books on non-western countries, particularly of the Hindi and Muslim type it's clear abysmal poverty afflicts huge percentages of the population and the only way to get ahead, get out of it is through family networking. And then it's rare: huge numbers of people simply cannot get work at a living wage and they end up living with relatives. It's an irony that communism which had the unintended results (as many systems do) of politicizing private life (a book to read about this is The Epic Struggle of the Poet to Obtain a Two-Bedroom Apartment, a Soviet farce on Soviet life) resembles pre-capitalist or "traditional" societies this way. You simply cannot get anywhere without "interest" (sucking up to someone, being related to someone who himself can or can get another to act for you on someone else). Anne Seierstad's book is eloquent on what this means for women and individual fates. Jhabvala's earlier realistic novels tell stories about this incessantly. In A Backward Glance Judy's family lives with and off Bal's brother-in-law -- he seems to be the only one to have a dependent paying job in the whole lot of them. And these people have scads of children.

Fran has noticed that Jhabvala adapts Henry James stories. Her connection to James is as interesting as the one to Austen. A fascinating poisonous part of the lives of James characters is that he repeatedly will show the reader that the so-called weak or vulnerable party to a two-people arrangement is actually the preyer, the predator. This weakness has little to do with money in James. So Fran's perceptive comment that in Jhabvala "sees the rich as the ones sucking those dependant on them dry rather than the reverse" puts me in mind of Maggie Verver. Maggie Verver and her father have sucked dry Charlotte Stant -- I know that's an interpretation of The Golden Bowl that has only recently surfaced in public, but it is one that goes far to to explain the murderous feel of the heroine and her father, Adam Verver. And yet Charlotte Stant can be seen as despicable too: she is certainly used that way by Maggie and is made to feel herself vile by the mores Maggie turns on her. She is left under the thumb of the father.

I'm into Wings of the Dove (listening to a brilliant dramatic reading by Nadia May). There in an opening scene James shows us the adversarial relationship between child and parent as no other writer I know does. Again the permutations of the relationship are the opposite of what conventional presentation usually shows.

James also shows married couples as living off one another, and one growing strong which we would not expect. This coheres with modern psychological studies of women who before marriage seemed so strong and independent becoming unable to deal with the abrasiveness and insecurities of life and dependent. (Common sense stories by Trollope, one in particular about two working girls, "The Telegraph Girl," shows us how the apparently strong girl is utterly subject to the weak one because the weak one is determined, utterly selfish, dense and amoral.)

Here's the Zacharia interview ...


Date: Sun, 06 Mar 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] RPJhabvala: General Thoughts anyone?
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

We are come to the end of these stories. Some of us have read other stories by Jhabvala or essays on her work or the work of others her work connects to. I invite general comments on any or all of this now.

On Fran's provocative general thoughts: Yes. The stories have a strong sameness. One could say they were brought together because of this, but I found that the stories in East to Upper East resembled closely quite a number of the stories in Out of India. I could read interpretations by Sucher and Yasmine of yet further stories and they threw light on the stories of East into Upper East.

One could mount a strong argument to say this is not so if you bring in the novels. There really is this strong change-over from the early novels to the say middle ones, beginning with Heat and Dust. The early ones are much more conventional on the surface; Amitra has an ending which any determined Janeite could turn into complacency: see how one must marry for money and how useful to stay in with relatives. They are thickly realistic. A Backward Glance is still this way and it uses allusion in the customary way of comparison: Jhabvala would have us see how unreal and naive is Ibsen's closing dialogue between husband and wife and Nora's leaving him for independence in The Doll House. The characters you see get involved with a production of The Doll House. Then in Heat and Dust the narrative is suddenly hollowed out, suggestive and a lot (if you start to think about it) is improbable; the conclusion is ironic and it's hard to see it as anything but pessmistic no matter how you react to the heroine's fates personally (judge them). The more recent fictions are yet more symbolic, more tenuously connected to realism, and she moves from stories set in India to stories set elsewhere with characters in them who come from or go back to visit India a good deal.

Here -- for these "New York" stories I'd offer another way of seeing the parasitism which I've not noticed in the India-setting stories: lostness, disconnectedness. The characters partake in what is found in American serious fiction: if India is a place where you must not offend any relative, America is a place where relatives and friends are trumped by the need to chase jobs and institutions wherever and however. You connect through capitalism and institutions and if you lose out there, you lose out. The immigrant nature of the society makes identification between peoples hard for the average person: the delusions of ethnicity are local. The result is what David Riesman's classic sociological study of US society called The Lonely Crowd. Pauline is utterly cut off from her relatives: the visit twice a year which she avoids wouldn't support her anyway. Oates writes about this aspect of US society continually. I should probably have begun with the reality that there is an huge disconnect or disjunction between the way US society is presented in the media and books and its reality. I've seen it contended that European society does show more about its realities than the US, and the reason for this is class is so central to US life and utterly denied, and the impossiblity of presenting real race relations. A rare attempt at real life for working women is Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed; I find Baldwin to be truthful about African-American life in the US. The result in the US is a real cruelty between peoples, a lack of intimacy or intimate knowledge which the family-centered societies cannot have as everyone lives together, on top of one another inside wide-ranging families.

Yet I do agree there is this sameness in these stories and across Jhabvala too -- at least to the discerning reader A Backward Glance anticipates these stories.

On the non-constructive nature of the stories: well I drink up melancholy the way Jacques in As You Like It is said to. I don't deny it: I've been seeing parallels between the way sex and family life is presented in these stories and Becket's Malone Dies and plays, and the general presentation of the coolness of people in the face of the appalling reminds me of Coetzee. I wish Jhabvala were put in tandem with them, but increasingly I find women's names just don't come up. I read an article in this week's New Yorker where Updike's fiction was placed in the context of today's important writes. A string of men's names and then (as an afterthought) "perhaps Didion" I counted the writers covered in another story: one woman and the rest men, and the focus on two men's work.

So I rejoice that Jelinek won the Nobel and when I saw reading through that the outlines or paradigms of her stories reminded me of the subgenre to which a slew of women writers belong from Austen through to Jhabvala, I bought two in order to compare them. I did find "Bobby" very painful reading. I thought to myself suicide is better than this. Don't let yourself be so preyed upon. But I shall womanfully read Jelinek now.

One way that women (and men) writers avoid this darkness is the historical route. Historical novels must be, are fantasy romances. They allow for qualified happy endings and much irony which doesn't feel meretricious, games like Atwood's Alias Grace and Fowles's French Lieutenant's Woman. I noticed that Barrett's book of stories hit a real nadir (and moving one) about 2/3s of the way through her volume; then she gave us an archetypal romance story, symbolic unreal and then turned to the last story, "Ship Fever" whose historical-romance nature allowed her (as I saw it) the thrust into imagined complicity/acceptance and possibilities of peace through stability. Drabble has attacked the historical novel or route on the grounds of fatuity and unreality -- it's been read as an attack on her sister's books :). But note that in her non-historical novels we have much much harder stuff -- Drabble uses the nostalgic fantasy route too.

One last posting for this morning.


Date: Sun, 06 Mar 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala: "Broken Promises" and "Two Muses"
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Penny asked early on why did Jhabvala begin with the stories which seemed unlike what was to come. I think that there is a slight upturn in these last two stories. They are also more realistic. The second startled me: I have read repeatedly how Jhabvala has until recently avoided all matter which would be rooted in her formative growing up as a proscribed and persecuted Jew in Germany, and the destruction of the lives of her family. It's said that this is beginning to change as her most recent volume of stories is partly truly autobiographical: My Nine Lives: Chapers of a Possible Past. As the title indicates, the stories have strong elements of fantasy and masking too (I have looked into them), but they include records of her earlier life. The two were equally chosen as somewhat different from what has come before. The first gave us only a glimpse of a woman and concentrated on an alienated homosexual young man and his older brother, and the second on materialistic capitalism, networking; only in the third did we reach the volume's subject: old women and the choices that women make across the board ("Development and Progress"). Now looking back I see an alternative title to the volume which does differentiate it from Out of India: Tales of older women, single and mothers. No publisher would hear of such a subtitle. Who would buy it? And then to get such stories. It would never have done.

"Broken Promises" is another painful story about a mother. Again we have this upper class white male who has his pick of young women. Perhaps this is a reflection of upper class life in Manhattan today? Some stories I know about suggest this. Si is a modern cad. Reba is the child who can't leave, who doesn't leave, whom Donna is puzzled by and made to feel ashamed of (after all Reba has no husband, no children, no job, no contacts). Ah, did this one hit home to me.

Reba is presented as possibly lesbian, but certainly presented a cool front to the mother whom she regards as just another enemy, a threat. Meanwhile she is letting herself be preyed upon by the working class young woman who works in retail. If I could I would try to convey to the members of this list the intense snobbery in New York City towards those who work in shops. A shopgirl. Oh my god. It's as bad as living in a trailer, as culturally stigmatizing as going around in a trailer after you are retired to these campsites which were presented in their full lostness and desperateness in a recent movie with Jack Nicolson where he ended up crying shatteredly. (I can't recall the title: he retires, he buys one of these caravans, his wife loathes it but she dies, and then he's alone; his daughter goes in for one of these phony modern weddings and her husband is a useless jerk; he spends his time writing to a little boy he has been deluded into thinking his money helps and loves him only to discover a nun had been answering his missives, a nun who hasn't got the foggiest understanding of modern life as he knows it. One the more painful scenes occurs when he leaves his caravan to try to make contact with a retired lower middle class couple.)

So Lisette is our preying parasite. To Reba she is the little Match Girl (from Hans Christian Anderson's utterly masochistic tale) or Cinderella.

There's a scene where Donna just sits and cries and cries and cries. Fran mentioned how Zacharia has received death threats for his depiction of elderly women gurus. Well if Jhabvala seemed cynical in her earlier stories of mothers, and unsympathetic to their eagerness for sex and appetites (and vulgar), here we see the piteous source of some of this. The doctor describes it clinically in the Becket manner:

But now he thought that maybe it was the way old women cried -- silently, having no language for all they have to say.

I've picked up -- maybe wrongly -- that among those who've read along some people have not liked, not warmed to Jhabvala, and have read against the grain. For me I would rename this volume of stories: portraits of mothers and older women. So at long last after so much erasure, here we have a volume about them. The first two were not, but the rest have been. 19th century dismissals of motherhood nclude one I've been reminded of by the group reading Shirley: a woman comes who will be seen to live silently and repressedly as a governess; we later learn she is the long-lost mother of one of the heroines who gave her up and lived this self-sacrificing death-in-life ever after. I forget the name of the character but we get this long orgasm of grief. We are expected to think there can be no other life but that of mothering. This is probably somewhat of a reflection of pariahdom and the miseries of poverty and its resorts (putting girls out to service) in the 19th century.

Then in "Two Muses" we end on people whose roots are not India, not modern New York, but their own reaction to the terrors of extermination and displacement.

Again there is sameness: we look at Netta, Lilo, and Max from the eyes of the granddaughter. The middle generation is left out. No one is idealized: Max is a parasite so we are deprived of mourning for what he has lost and his displacement. The granddaughter is not related to Netta and we see Netta from the outside mostly. The result is similar paradigms to those we've had all along except the causes are different and much of the nuanced experience is made to emerge locally from the feebleness displaced people often feel. Jhabvala's great topic is after all exile: inward and outward. The concluding pages show Max chosing the non-wife in this menage a trois and one line presents the idea of the beautiful muse as a draining preyer:

The more he struggled the tighter she held on to him, so that he appeared to be entangled in the embrace of an octopus or some other creature with long tentacles.

Fran mentioned Darwinian paradigms and imagery in the stories. We see this in the above.

But the last paragraph Jhabvala does relent. Yes she sees solace in the natural world. This comes out strongly in Heat and Dust. After all it's good to be alive in the natural world:

There was the smell of fallen leaves, and layers of clouds shifted and floated acorss the sky; the moon was dim, so that even when it came sliding out from between these veils, it didn't light up anything. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that it did illumine my grandmother's face wehn she raised it to try and identify some of the stars for me ...

The passage ends on the radiance in the old woman's face. The narrator or granddaughter had expected her to be unhappy. After all she was the loser: Max is now with Netta. And how she's outside where the lights and cake and champagne and music are. But no, she's radiant.

What constructive message can we get from these stories: only the one which tells us we live in and on ourselves and that to avoid delusions is the first step to finding fulfillment and peace. A saying or axiom floats back from an 18th century text where the satirist-sermonizer (perhaps Samuel Johnson) where in 18th century elegant antitheses the writer tells the reader never let yourself desire something which depends on the continual will or instrumentality of another; it's no good for your peace or your virtue or your tranquillity. I've often thought that's an important bit of wisdom.


Re: Jhabvala: General Thoughts

On Sunday, March 6, 2005, at 07:45 AM, Ellen Moody wrote:

I've picked up -- maybe wrongly -- that among those who've read along some people have not liked, not warmed to Jhabvala, and have read against the grain.

I don't think you're wrong there. It's not so much that I disliked the stories--I appreciated the quality of the writing, the accuracy of her observations about the human gestures and relationships--but along with Fran, I did weary of them. Too much a dismal parade--after a while, I didn't look forward to the next story anymore, and moved along. (The book came due at the town library, and I didn't feel compelled to renew it a third time.) My interest waned after the midway point, but I don't think it was the shift in setting--if the book's sections had been reversed, I think I still would have started to tire after six or seven stories, seeing that I was only half-way. I've seen this with other collections--I like short story collections, but not to read all at once, straight through, unless maybe if they're by different authors, or briefer, or more varied collections. (Not sure if this makes sense.) I did try; I read about 3/4 of the book before admitting it just wasn't a pleasure anymore.

Penny R

Date: Sun, 06 Mar 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala: General thoughts
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Yes. It's a good idea not to carry on -- and especially carry on posting -- if we find something distasteful to us or something which we dislike for principled reasons.

As Penny knows, I intensely disliked Lahiri's collection. I made an argument it's pandering, even hurtful to the woman reader they hit hard. Recently I had to give up on Ali's Brick Lane, not because it was pandering, but because it was apparently genuinely on the side of cruelty as I see it. They're fodder for the retrograde currents of our time. I did finally stop reading Lahiri and recently Ali. They did teach me something important though about what's being read and is popular today.


Date: Mon, 7 Mar 2005
Subject: Re: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala: General Thoughts
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

I agree with Penny about Jhabvala's "dismal parade". I didn't manage to lay hands on a copy of "East into Upper East", but picked up "How I Became a Holy Mother" in the library.

After reading a couple of stories I have, however, given up on it. Her view of her characters is pitilessly accurate and the writing very skilful, but they're just not people I want to spend time with - I have for a variety of reasons to deal with enough people like that in real life.

I've been hopelessly busy with real estate, then down with a nasty cold for most of the past month, which seems to have been rather well timed from the point of view of the list. I am hoping, however, to borrow "Roughing It" tomorrow

Natalie Bennett

Date: Sun, 6 Mar 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala: "Broken Promises" and "Two Muses"/Zacharia/Begley & About Schmidt
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Just thought I'd mention the film you were thinking of, Ellen, is 'About Schmidt'; the character in 'Shirley' Mrs Pryor; and that the Zacharia article at


is actually much longer than you may have noticed, you just have to click the button bottom right on the first and all the subsequent pages.


Date: Sun, 06 Mar 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala: "Broken Promises" and "Two Muses"/Zacharia&Begley & About Schmidt
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Thank you to Fran. No I hadn't noticed that there are subsequent pages on Zacharia. Thank you and also on reminding me of the woman-as-punished-mother's name in Shirley: Mrs Pryor.

On About Schmidt, again I'm grateful to know the name of the movie. This enabled me to look it up under Louis Begley (whose name is cited at the large Internet Movie Database). Begley's novel is in fact very New York and it's Jewish. He's written about the holocaust in a fiction called Wartime Lies. The novel About Schmidt does not take place in a featureless mid-American city as it does in the film: it's a Hamptons story and the values of the text are those of New York.

The film is in other words an adaptation from a New York fiction which has been disguised by changing the locale. Thus the attitudes I described are those which support the film. Begley is (like some writers) unusual in comparison to others in showing compassion where others mock. The snobbery vein in NYC -- which I would describe as not only unashamed but aggressive in its jeering and flagrant (easily seen through) hypocrisies -- is turned around into compassion. What is life like for people travelling around in caravans when they retire? Why do they do this? Bobbie Ann Mason has a novel about such a mid-American couple -- very touching. The absurdity of the wedding with all its faux-ceremonies and expense is brilliant,, but it's also a type of wedding, not your vulgar crass Big Fat Greek type but another kind of hollow (in the film) ritual.

If there were any shopgirls in About Schmidt doubtless they'd be portrayed something in the manner of Lisette through Donna's eyes. Indeed as I recall the useless husband is something like a delivery boy. This is the pits in NYC language.

It's interesting how many different veins of specific cultures Jhabvala's fictions root themselves in. Weingarten writes about Heat and Dust as a Jewish Passage to India, but another woman writes about it comparing it to the Indian writers I cited earlier.


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