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.