The New Yorker Reader: “The Teacher”, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

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07/24/2008 2:27 PM |

In the trees! It’s coming!

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is/was a longtime collaborator of the Merchant/Ivory Great Books on Film factory, and there is perhaps the slightest whiff of the pedantically tasteful in her prose style. It’s a faultless story — an open-ended parable about spiritual needs and how, and by who, they’re met, with reasonable characterizations and a couple quite resonant images and set pieces — but, I dunno… here’s the first paragraph:

It was the girls who first brought him here. I call them "girls" because of their girlish temperaments, though they were almost middle-aged. Maeve was by far the more emotional of the two, with a habit of turning her pale-blue eyes upward like a saint or a martyr. Betty was sturdier, with a square muscular body to anchor them both. They shared an old house in the town, one of those run-down, peeling places that smell of mold inside. During the two or three years I had known them, their goodness had made them take up several needy causes in the town: pregnant teens, abandoned families, boys caught stealing for drugs. One time, they sheltered a suspected sex offender, which made them very unpopular; when he turned out to be guilty, they remained unrepentant, unshaken in the faith that they had done the right thing.

It’s clean, patient, telling and detailed — so why does it feel less natural than affectedly classical?

I think it’s that first sentence: we all know that well-constructed stories start with a simple, grabbing sentence. So does this one, but it’s a bit of a reach — what the narrator says when she’s starting with that pure, fabular statement isn’t quite accurate, so she has to qualify it, explain it to us, and then there she is, holding our hands and leading us through it.

I suppose that this sense of compromised serenity (innocence tarnished? with the girls being sort of arrested grown-ups?) could be the point. But mostly I just feel like this story leads us along the path, pointing out every root and pebble as we step over them.