BASS 2014: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: “The Judge’s Will” from TNY, 3/25/13

Marcel Duchamp, "Portrait of Chess Players," 1911

Marcel Duchamp, “Portrait of Chess Players,” 1911

After his second heart attack, the judge knew that he could no longer put off informing his wife about the contents of his will. He did this for the sake of the woman he had been keeping for twenty-five years, who, ever since his first attack, had been agitating about provisions for her future. These had long been in place in his will, known only to the lawyer who had drawn it up, but it was intolerable to the judge to think that their execution would be in the hands of his family; that is, his wife and son. Not because he expected them to make trouble but because they were both too impractical, too light-minded to carry out his wishes once he was not there to enforce them.

I don’t insist on likeable characters (or I’m trying not to), but I find it’s helpful to feel some kind of empathy for some character in a story. I felt none here. With the exception of one powerful scene, this story (available online) seemed to me to tread the space between farce and melodrama, leaving me somewhere in the vicinity of soap opera.

The Judge – for once, we have an unnamed male character, though I suppose his title is more imposing than a name would be – seems unconcerned about wife Binny’s reaction to his revelation, or even his admission that he’s put his paramour in the will. Binny isn’t concerned, either; she seems concerned only with son Yasi, who’s relation to her is so overwhelmingly incestuous in tone (though not in deed, relax), it’s hard to focus on anything else. Not only does she refer to him as a gossip-partner, as a substitute for the friends she dropped years ago, and as her closest confidante (including, presumably, her husband), she almost literally “left” her husband for her son when he was just a baby:

Although this bedroom had meant nothing to Binny for many years, now her thoughts were concentrated on it, as they had been at the beginning of the marriage. The judge had been an overwhelming lover, and those nights with him had been a flowering and a ripening that she’d thought would go on forever. Instead, after about two years, the judge’s presence in their bed was changed into a weight that oppressed her physically and in every other way. It had been a relief to her when Yasi was born and she could move with him into her own bedroom.

Again, I’m torn between looking at this as spoof or pathos. It doesn’t hit the sweet spot of funny, funny-in-a-sad-way, or sad-in-a-funny-way. Or even weird-in-an-interesting-way. I suppose I should look at my own need to categorize everything, but for me, it misses the mark, which is to impact me in some way. It’s a rather bizarre set of relationships, yet with the overdramatic judge and his paramour, and the strangely detached Binny, their situation doesn’t intrigue me as much as I’d expect.

The judge has been keeping Phul, sheltering her, since she was fifteen, and so she has only learned one thing: keeping him happy. Hence her concern about his impending death, leaving her without means, a reasonable concern; and also hence his concern to provide for her after his demise, a laudable intent though generated by a distinctly un-laudable root. In many ways, she’s the underside parallel of Binny: they’re both dependent on the judge, though Binny has the official claim and thus legitimacy.

Complications to the judge’s efforts to ensure Phul’s security ensue as Yasi starts out as the emissary but is soon replaced by Binny herself. I suspect there’s some important thematic development here, but it all seems a little overcomplicated to me, yet trivial at the same time.

Until the chess game, when things get interesting. Don’t they always, when chess is involved. It’s all very rich and powerful as Binny and the Judge finally relate to each other: an overwhelmingly understated move, followed by a dramatically overstated reply. The chess game seems to reflect the marriage: just who is in charge in this relationship, emotionally? Is Binny’s seeming indifference a gambit? It’s quite a nice climactic scene. Maybe that’s the point: a sudden rush of intense emotion and intimacy.

When I don’t invest emotionally in a story, I tend to pay more attention to mechanics, so there’s an up side to everything. Yet, here again, I’m left puzzled. The first two paragraphs are clearly from the judge’s point of view, and there’s a smooth and clever transition to Binny, his wife, in the third, using the opportunity created by her departure from the room. But since the narration remains with Binny for the rest of the story, I’m left wondering: why these two paragraphs? There must be a reason. Granted, POV-hopping isn’t the major sin it used to be, but it’s usually still done for a reason, and I’m not sure what the reason is here.

I’ve lately been thinking more about what my reaction to a story says about me, than what it says about the story. I’m not sure what my overall indifference to this one (in spite of the moments of brilliance) says about me. But I think I need to keep wondering.

Addendum: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala passed away just yesterday; she leaves a rich legacy of work as a remembrance.

Second addendum:The above post (and addendum) was written in April 2013 when I first read the story in The New Yorker.

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3 responses to “BASS 2014: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: “The Judge’s Will” from TNY, 3/25/13

  1. Karen:

    Doesn’t sound like you didn’t exactly have a great experience with this short story.

    I was introduced to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala after seeing the movie Maurice (based on the E.M. Forster Novel “Maurice”) – if I’m not mistaken, Jhabvala was the screenwriter.

    From what I’ve read of her, she’s a very sensitive writer.

    And in this short story in particular, call it implausible, call cookie, weird, whatever, there are some great dynamics at play here.

    In the beginning it seems that Binny hates Phul, but in the end we see Binny going to Phul’s home, risking infection, to care for Phul.

    And the judge, who has been a hateful person to Binny for so many years, finally, in the last few paragraphs, says “sorry” for knocking over the chess board of all things.

    He has treated Binny poorly for so long, and then in the last paragraphs he looks at her (lovingly, perhaps) one last time. I guess this is implied by the, “he looked at her, considering her…”

    Just so nuanced and poignant. Yeah, sure, maybe everything doesn’t pan out the way one might expect, but this is a highly dysfunctional family, so, pretty much anything is possible.

    I was moved by the story, especially the final section.

    Also, you’ve been picking some good stuff lately … thanks to you, I also read Colm Toíbín’s story critiqued … while not as good as Jhabvala in my opinion, still good.

    As far as why a story does or does not resonate with you, that’s an interesting questions. But I wouldn’t beat yourself up over it. Too many good stories out there.

    • Hi Dwayne, really good to see you again.

      I’m afraid I can’t take credit for “picking” these stories – I just read what The New Yorker puts out. Like with the BASS, Pushcart and PEN/O.Henry prize volumes, as well as my beloved One Story, it’s a great way to read a wide variety of high-quality stories from a wide variety of writers – one week it’s a young MFA’s first published story, the next, Jhabvala.

      I always want see what I was missing when I don’t connect with a good story by an excellent writer- and Jhabvala was definitely a great writer. I’ve always been pretty content-driven when stories don’t play with form, so I have to keep that in mind. She wrote the screenplays for a whole bunch of spectacularly wonderful movies – Howard’s End, Jefferson in Paris and Remains of the Day among many others – but I don’t think Maurice was one of them.

      Don’t ever worry about typos around here – sometimes I go back to old posts to refresh my memory and I’m horrified to find a glaring error. And that’s after spell-check plus several rounds of proofing!

      Are you writing?

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