"Shards of Memory," by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. New York: Doubleday, 221 pages, $22.95
By film standards, the lauded Merchant-Ivory adaptations of E.M. Forster's novels reach relatively few people. If those millions of viewers could transfer affection from Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenplays to her novels, she would be a best-seller and a lot of people would discover the pleasures of her lucid prose on paper.
The author of 11 other novels and five collections of short stories, Ms. Jhabvala now has produced ""Shards of Memory," a slender tale of a delightfully complicated family and the spiritual movement intertwined with it over four generations. The movement is presided over by the Master, a most earthly man for a spiritual leader, robust and fond of food. He has an eye for women, too.
But this is really a story of the 20th century and the strange dance between parents and children, neatly compressed into a breathlessly small space. Elsa, an early protege of the Master, marries Kavi, an Indian poet who is not similarly enamored. They produce a child, destined to be known as Baby for the rest of her life, then take up residence on separate sides of the ocean - Elsa with Cynthia, a fellow believer, in England; and Kavi with Baby, as well as Elsa's mother, in New York City. Baby marries Graeme, an English diplomat, conceiving a daughter, Renata, after separating. Renata, as serious as her mother is frivolous, falls in love with Carl, a German student intent on spreading his philosophy to the world. They are unmarried when they produce Henry, who is born the same day the Master dies. Ultimately, all the survivors end up in New York together, where Henry has inherited the Master's papers and is trying to figure out if he is really his successor.
In Ms. Jhabvala's hands, this messy family history seems smooth and inevitable. The title proves to be an irony, for the memories Henry pieces together are not broken or jagged. Each story flows easily into the next, as spouses part and reunite, surprised by the durability of their marriage vows - or unspoken vows in the case of Renata and Carl. In a particularly lovely passage, a frightening encounter on the street leads to Carl and Renata closing the door of their room within the apartment - always a notable event.
"Baby walked in stocking feet past the door, casting a quick glance at it before disappearing behind her own. Henry too was thinking about his parents - it gave him satisfaction to imagine them together, like two aquatic mammals that had fortuitously found each other before swimming off again in opposite directions, each to a different far-off sea."
Ms. Jhabvala has an elegant, understated mastery of her craft that allows her to move gracefully from gentle satire to true poignancy. If her characters are strange or silly at times, they also are people fiercely devoted to ideas and the intellect, unusual in contemporary fiction. Sweet and sharp, ""Shards of Memory" is an almost perfect novel.
* Laura Lippman, a features writer at The Sun, writes frequently about the publishing world. She has been a reporter for 14 years. Before coming to The Sun she worked for the Waco Tribune Herald and the San Antonio Light.