Merchant and Ivory, normally working with the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, were one of the most dominant cinematic forces of the late 20th century, rolling out luxuriously appointed adaptations of E.M. Forster and Henry James novels, with the occasional more contemporary anomaly like Tama Janowitz’s “Slaves of New York.” Merchant died in 2005; Jhabvala in 2013. After decades conjuring the Anglo-American aristocracy clinking cups in gardens and drawing rooms, Ivory, the survivor, is ready to spill the tea.
He spills it not in the typical big autobiographical splash but in dribs and drabs: letters, diary entries, tumbling sense-memories of fashion, food and furniture (and the other F-word), with scores of appealingly casual photographs sprinkled throughout. An established master of the slow reveal, Ivory serves gossip with a voile overlay. Contrasting with the homages to men that got away, “argyle sweater, erections and all,” are the chapters devoted to Difficult Women like the bombshell actress Raquel Welch, who had the temerity to resist a forceful lovemaking scene; the politically active and litigious Vanessa Redgrave; and the intellectual Jhabvala, whom Ivory saw as a civilizing “preceptor” but never forgave for dissing Merchant-Ivory’s adaptation of Forster’s homosexually themed novel “Maurice.” It also seems to irk the author that Jhabvala (a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and mother of three) didn’t do housework — “Ruth never lifted a finger, except to her typewriter” — which, excuse me, but: goals.
I kept thinking that “Solid Ivory,” which was edited by the novelist Peter Cameron, amounts to more of a scrapbook of finely wrought prose sketches than the fully carved self-sculpture suggested by its title, whose touching origin story I won’t spoil. Then, after a little night Googling, I discovered that the bulk of the material was originally published — bound in antique silk, naturally — by Cameron’s private press, Shrinking Violet. About a quarter of the material also previously appeared in various publications, from Sight and Sound magazine to a Christie’s catalog.
It’s all very effectively spliced together here, but with occasional lapses in continuity, as they say in the movie biz — like a journal entry about The New Yorker writer Lillian Ross that fails to footnote her death, in 2017, as if she is still filing “Talk of the Town” pieces from heaven (honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised). Ivory’s account of hanging out with Ross at her son’s christening is one of the more enjoyably chaotic in the book, with cameos by a cranky J.D. Salinger, that annoying friend who refuses to pose for pictures commemorating the occasion, and William Shawn, the famously subdued editor and Ross’s longtime lover, who convulsed with sobs during the ceremony.