I was slightly embarrassed to tell about my recent story-listening, because of the time of day I’ve chosen for the vicarious experience, of living in India, caught up in the web of dysfunctional families and disordered souls.
It’s when I wake in the middle of the night and am unable to go back to sleep; I find I am not up to praying near as long as my mind might be wakeful, so I listen to stories. I have run through all that’s available of my latest favorite storytellers, and lately settled on a collection by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, because she is very good, I already know that. It won’t do to listen to writing that is likely to annoy me for any number of reasons, in the wee hours.
It’s the sadness of the stories that makes me think they might not be the best fodder for my mind, which I’m trying to lull back to sleep. But — you could say that sad feelings and events play a part in all human stories, and Prawer Jhabvala’s are not dark in a modern way; many people point out the humorous and kind aspects. I won’t try to assess how this author’s point of view differs from others who are skilled at drawing characters and pulling you into their worlds, but many of the stories end suddenly with disappointment or a feeling of hopelessness. She wrote about this:
“I think most of my novels do end on a deep note of pessimism. Shadows seem to be closing in. The final conclusion isn’t that life is wonderful and everything is bright and cheery and in the garden.”
Whether or not you recognize the name of Prawer Jhabvala, you might be very familiar with her work as a screenwriter for Merchant Ivory Productions. From their beginning she worked with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant on more than 20 films, including “Room With a View” and “Howards End,” and adaptations of several of her own novels, such as Heat and Dust, which was the first of her works I ever read, with amazement, quite a while ago.
Her early life was full of drama and suffering. In 1939 Ruth the adolescent fled with her Jewish parents from Germany to Britain, and lived through World War II and the Blitz in England. After the war, when her father learned that 40 members of his family had died during the Holocaust, he took his own life. About this trauma she said, “All my stories have a melancholy undertone. That’s probably why.”
Ruth Prawer married an Indian architect and raised three daughters with him in India. Later she moved to New York and became a U.S. citizen; she died in 2013 at the age of 85. She was a shy and quiet woman, which I imagine contributed to her powers of observation. “I’m more interested in other people than myself.”
I have had only happy dreams since beginning to listen to this collection of her stories, At the End of the Century… until last night. If it weren’t for the dream I had, I wouldn’t try to tell you anything about someone whose writing I hold in such high esteem. And at first I did not connect the dream to my reading material; I just thought it hilarious. But then, thinking about it as I woke, it made me (a little) sad in a way that these very human stories could never do.
The presenting problem of my dream was that I could not find my “favorite emoji” on my phone. I ended up at a big warehouse store where one could browse extensive catalogs of parts that were somehow both physical and digital, from which to concoct one’s own emoji, such as faces that had been “discontinued,” because only the most popular emojis were part of the default options on the apps. The dream ended before I ever managed to restore my old emoji habits, and I’m not sure but I was about to give up and just do without. But which emoji do you think I felt so in need of? The simple “crying face.”
Isn’t it odd, what the mind will do with all that goes into the mix throughout the day (and night) to produce dreams? (For the record, I do not have a favorite emoticon.) Our prayers of Compline and Prayers Before Sleep lead us to pray that God would “quench the flaming arrows of the evil one” and “lull to sleep all our earthly and material reasonings,” that we may be granted “a tranquil sleep, free of every fantasy of Satan.”
Truly, over the last few years when I’ve been living my own story of loss, which might have been full of flaming arrows and bad dreams at any hour of the day or night, I have been well protected from darkness of the spiritual kind. And I do not claim that God gives me my dreams, but they are often quite amusing, the way they capture some crazy truth.
The contrast between Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s nuanced and exquisite writing, with — an emoji? Well, if that’s the best the “forces of evil” can throw against me in the night, I should be grateful. But I also feel amused and insulted, to have waked with those simplistic images and a self-service version of an Apple Store in my thoughts. The whole experience confirms what I just shared yesterday, about being fed up with screens. And of emoticons? I’m considering a boycott!