Michael Arditti

A scrapbook of sketches: James Ivory’s memoir is slipshod and inconsequential

Aged 93, the director looks back on his life in films, but the wit and elegance of Merchant-Ivory productions are sadly missing

James Ivory filming The Bostonians in 1983. [Mikki Ansin/Getty Images]

James Ivory and Ismail Merchant formed the most successful cinematic partnership since Michael Powell and Eric Pressburger. Between the founding of Merchant Ivory in 1961 and Merchant’s death 44 years later, the company produced 42 films, more than half of which were directed by Ivory himself.

Although its range was wider than is often allowed, the company’s fame rests on its adaptation of late 19th- and early 20th-century novels, among them Henry James’s The Europeans, The Bostonians and The Golden Bowl, E.M. Forster’s Howards End, A Room with a View and Maurice, and Jean Rhys’s Quartet. Even their detractors — and there are many — acknowledge the wit, elegance and literary sensibility of Ivory’s direction — qualities which are sadly lacking in these memoirs.

Ivory is now 93 and the book, edited by the distinguished American novelist Peter Cameron, whose The City of Your Final Destination Ivory filmed in 2009, gives the impression of having been dictated. What else can explain the clumsy inconsequentiality of sentences such as: ‘Her speciality was chicken pot pie; it is not one of my favourite dishes by any means, but the crust was light and flaky — the mark of a good chicken pie, or any pie for that matter’?

Childhood, often the most vivid part of a celebrity memoir, is here both sketchy and dull. When Ivory was ten his mother told him that he was adopted, but he evinces no interest in his birth parents — and precious little in his adopted ones. He writes more about his Irish and southern ancestors than about his immediate family. Despite hints of childhood rivalry, reignited when he assumes his dead father’s place at the head of the table, his sister merits barely a handful of mentions.

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