Ruth Prawer Jhabvala dead at eighty-five; Iain Banks suffering terminal cancer

April 3, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Ruth_Prawer_JhabvalaSad news comes in threes, or so we are told. Yesterday, Canadian poet, travel writer, and editor Kildare Dobbs succumbed to kidney failure and congestive heart failure. Today, the Guardian reports that novelist and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is dead at age eighty-five. Jhabvala is best known for her screen adaptations of novels by E.M. Forster and Henry James, written for producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory.

Although she won two Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay – for her adaptations of Forster’s novels A Room with a View and Howard’s End – the Guardian obituary claims that she considered her film work a “hobby”:

Her own fiction was what mattered to her, whether or not it did to anyone else. This was how it had been since she began writing novels in India in the 1950s, feeling: “I was at the bottom of a deep abyss. No one read them. But I enjoyed it.” The films were fun, but: “I live so much more in and for the books,” she wrote to a friend.

She was a brilliant storyteller. Her work darkened towards the end of her life: she wrote of deception and self-deception and of time’s revenges, the twists and turns of an implacable fate that her worst charlatans could manipulate to their advantage. Her vision was bleak; her tone austere. But her supply of complex characters and subtle, vivid scenes was inexhaustible and she caught the ambiguities of human behaviour and the pleasures of the senses in precise, perfect words.

Although Jhabvala had struggled with ill health for some time, she continued to produce fiction, with a new short story, “The Judge’s Will,” appearing in The New Yorker as recently as March 25. That story, about a judge in India who suffers a second heart attack and must confess to his wife that he has had a mistress for twenty-five years who is cared for in his will, engages themes of illness and death: Binny, the judge’s long-suffering wife, thinks “that all of the family diseases – both physical and mental – were bred in the very roots of the house,” and considers the appearance of the mistress “as if she were already a widow.”

Iain_BanksMeanwhile, fans of the Scottish novelist Iain Banks were shocked to find out that the fifty-nine-year-old author is suffering from late-stage gall-bladder cancer and does not expect to live more than a few months. In an open letter posted online, the author of The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road says that he is “officially Very Poorly.” The location of the tumours make them inoperable “either in the short or the long term.”

“The bottom line,” Banks writes, ” … is that as a late stage gall bladder cancer patient, I’m expected to live for ‘several months’ and it’s extremely unlikely I’ll live beyond a year. So it looks like my latest novel, The Quarry, will be my last.”

Banks says that having received the diagnosis, he asked his partner, Adele, if she would do him the honour of becoming his widow: “we find ghoulish humour helps.”

Writing in the Guardian, author and friend Val McDermid pays a poignant tribute to Banks and his work:

When The Wasp Factory was published in 1984, the critics didn’t know what to make of it. They tried to recoil in horror from the grotesquerie of its imagination and the grand guignol of its execution (and executions) but the quality of the writing and the power of its narrative drive grabbed them by the throat and made them read on.

I bought the paperback when it came out in 1985 and can still remember the excitement. I’d never read anything like it and my head swarmed with possibilities. I’d grown up with the Scottish sense of humour, so I had no trouble with the notion that something so dark, so disturbing and so bleak could also be laugh-out-loud funny. I’d just never seen it written down before.

That brio, that joie de vivre, has characterised all his work. Even in the darkest corners, there is always a shred of optimism, a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously. He’s a storyteller whose faith in humans can embrace the worst of what we are capable of and still refuse to lie down and die.

Nothing contrived, nothing evaded: Kildare Dobbs, 1923-2013

April 2, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

kildare_dobbs_et_al“I do not invite misery by thinking about the end at the beginning, and complaining because the end is always lamentably the same. … A saying of Jesus, preserved in the Muslim tradition and written over the great gate of the deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri, strikes me with the force of a revelation, ‘Life is a bridge; build no houses but pass over.'” So wrote Kildare Dobbs, the respected Canadian poet, memoirist, travel writer, and editor, in his 2005 book Running the Rapids: A Writer’s Life. For Dobbs, the end he refused to complain about occurred on Monday, at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. Dobbs succumbed to kidney failure and congestive heart failure at the age of eighty-nine.

Born in Meerut, India, and educated in Ireland and England, Dobbs came to Canada as a schoolteacher in 1952. By 1953, he had been hired as an editor at the Macmillan Company of Canada, under legendary publisher John Gray. While at Macmillan, Dobbs worked with such canonical writers as Sinclair Ross, Morley Callaghan, and James Reaney.

In 1955, Dobbs championed a young writer named Adele Wiseman, whose first novel, The Sacrifice, would go on to win a Governor General’s Literary Award and become a Canadian classic. In her book, The Literary Legacy of the Macmillan Company of Canada: Making Books and Mapping Culture, Ryerson University English professor Ruth Panofsky writes that “Dobbs was among Wiseman’s finest readers.” Panofsky quotes the reader’s report Dobbs wrote about The Sacrifice for Macmillan: “Its richness and complexity defy reduction to a mere summary of outstanding events. If it is slow in starting it is all firmly realised and the characterization is flawless. Nothing is contrived, nothing evaded, but its seriousness doesn’t at all preclude humour and (in a good deal of it) there is a masterly restrained irony.”

In The Perilous Trade: Book Publishing in Canada 1946–2006, Roy MacSkimming points out that Dobbs also went to bat for Sheila Watson, although her novel, The Double Hook, was deemed too strange for Macmillan; it ended up at McClelland & Stewart where it remains in print to this day.

Calling Dobbs “one of the more renowned editors to serve Macmillan throughout its history,” Panofsky goes on to write, “The literary works discovered and advanced by Dobbs became inextricably linked with Macmillan’s house identity, and his regard for excellence reinforced, in no small measure, Macmillan’s profile as one of Canada’s premier literary publishers.”

After leaving Macmillan, Dobbs went on to co-found, with Robert Weaver, the Tamarack Review, and served as managing editor at Saturday Night and books editor at the Toronto Star. An obituary that appears in the latter paper quotes Dobbs’ former colleague George Fetherling as saying, “He had a cosmopolitanism that wasn’t too common in those days.”

An accomplished writer and poet himself, Dobbs won a Governor General’s Literary Award for his 1962 memoir, Running to Paradise, and was invested into the Order of Canada as recently as this past January. (Because Dobbs was too ill to travel to Ottawa, Governor General David Johnston went to Dobbs’s Toronto residence to present him with the medal – a clear indication not only of Dobbs’s importance, but of the esteem in which he was held.)

As a poet and editor, Dobbs had a keen ear and a sensitivity for technique. In the preface to his 2010 collection, Casanova in Venice, Dobbs writes: “Contemporary poetry, especially in North America, tends to be in free verse. That is, it takes a form in which the words are arranged on the page to look like metrical verse. This makes it more difficult to succeed at, except for the rare poets with well-tuned ears. Unluckily, free verse is also vulnerable to fraud.”

Dobbs’s couplets at the close of Casanova in Venice could serve as a fitting summation of his literary approach: “Listen to what the Muses sing, / nothing is lost – or everything! / Our words, for better or for worse, / resound throughout the universe.”