A Suitable Boy, the book that made Vikram Seth famous, is a grand, 1,349-page novel of newly independent India, religious intolerance, four families drawn into a quest for a proper marriage, and love's imperative. Upon its publication, Seth was declared Tolstoyan by many critics, but in conversation he conceals his gravitas behind an impish wit. At once quick and thoughtful, deadpan funny and reflectively poetic, Seth approached the perhaps dreaded author interview with enthusiastic focus. His intensity and bemusement ran electric across the miles between his place in London and mine in Chicago as we spoke on the phone a few weeks before Two Lives (HarperCollins), a family memoir and a portrait of a marriage, was released in the US.
Born in Calcutta in 1952, the oldest of three children, Seth has roamed far and wide, but his bonds to his family remain strong. His mother served as a judge, his father was a shoe company executive, and both encouraged Seth to write, providing him with shelter and support during the seven years that he worked on the enormous manuscript that became A Suitable Boy. Prior to that epic undertaking, Seth had been a precocious student, traveling to England when he was seventeen to prepare for his application to Oxford. He stayed with his great-uncle, Shanti Behari Seth, and his German wife, Henny, and it is at that juncture that Two Lives begins.
At Oxford Seth studied philosophy, politics, and economics and began to feed his burgeoning interests in music and, serendipitously, the Chinese language. He chose Stanford University as the site of his graduate studies in economics, but he found himself writing poetry more than studying, and he was awarded a literary fellowship. Mappings, a poetry collection published in 1980, was his first book. Anxious for a change of scene, Seth secured a place at China's Nanjing University and from there conducted economic and demographic research in nearby villages. He then hitchhiked across four provinces and the Himalayas and on into Tibet and Nepal. When he returned home to Delhi, his father prompted him to write about his adventures. The result, From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet, won the 1983 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.
Back in California, Seth became captivated by Pushkin's verse novel, Eugene Onegin, and tried his hand at this demanding form, creating The Golden Gate (1986), which received critical acclaim. Homesick and weary of graduate school after ten years, Seth returned to his family home to write a novel set in India. While he was working on A Suitable Boy, Henny took ill. Seth flew to England and reconnected with Henny and Shanti in time to be part of the last phase of their lives.
Seth has since published two more poetry collections, a book of translations of Chinese poetry, a collection of fables in verse, a libretto, and An Equal Music (1999), an elegant novel of obsession, romance, and loss. He has now circled back to nonfiction with Two Lives to tell the story of the unlikely marriage of two remarkable and resilient individuals. The man he calls Shanti Uncle left India to study medicine in Germany. He boarded with Henny's Jewish family in Berlin, became a dentist, and set up a practice in England, where Henny landed all alone after escaping the Nazi scourge. After Shanti's stint in the British army, during which he lost an arm in the grueling Italian campaign, he resumed his work in spite of his handicap, and Henny kept her feelings to herself after finally learning that her mother and sister had perished in the Holocaust. As close as Vikram Seth was to his great-uncle and great-aunt, there was much he didn't know until after their deaths. Their lives then became his legacy, and he tells their story with conviction and panache. —DONNA SEAMAN
Bookforum: Do you feel haunted by critics and readers harping on the length of your novel A Suitable Boy?
VIKRAM SETH: Not really. It's a natural enough thing. I suppose if I hadn't written it, that's the sort of thing I might harp on. Especially if I hadn't read it. People do tend to harp on things that they can encapsulate in numbers, whether it's the length of a book, the distance between your eyebrows, the amount of your advance.
BF: Poetry was your first literary love. How did you make the leap from the precision of poetry to the abundance of prose?
VS: It was more a fording than a leap. I was helped across. Had it been a leap, it would have been much more startling or courageous. But the fact is, my first novel was a novel in verse, The Golden Gate. And I never thought I had either the taste or the stamina for a long fictional work. But once I read Pushkin, I was so inspired by it, out went my dissertation, and in came the various characters, including an iguana, that all figure in The Golden Gate. As the result of having written a fictional work, albeit in verse, I went to a prose novel, and that was a leap.
BF: Did you complete your dissertation?
VS: Will a deep sigh do? "No" is the answer.
BF: You were studying Chinese economic demography.
VS: Yes. I did quite a lot of research in several villages in China, and luckily, the Chinese did copy my data. And then used it, needless to say, without acknowledgment, in one of their own publications. But the fact that they used it, well, I was happy about that.
BF: You must enjoy doing research. You did a great deal for A Suitable Boy, and Two Lives involved an enormous amount of reading and sleuthing in several different countries.
VS: I don't know that I enjoy it exactly. I feel that it is absolutely necessary, because I think that not only is it good to get the facts, the feeling, and the ethos of the place right, but also that it's very suggestive. Ideas come to you that wouldn't have come to you otherwise, had you simply tried to spin things out of thin air. So research isn't a question of constraint. It's actually a question of stimulus.
BF: I was curious about the idea of constraint versus freedom in writing nonfiction versus fiction. I wondered if you felt constrained writing Two Lives as opposed to writing An Equal Music.
VS: That's an interesting question. My view in general of constraint is that if it's an absolutely absurd form of constraint, then it acts as a check on creativity. But if it's something like a verse form, which prevents you from saying certain things in certain meters and allows you to say other things in other meters, it adds its own flavor. I could have written The Golden Gate in prose, but I chose what might be seen as a constraint, to write in verse, but doing that gave it a kick and a zest. Similarly, I was constrained in my imagination in writing nonfiction. I couldn't just visualize three different scenarios and say, I wonder which one will be more fun or more interesting or more stimulating to pick. No. The facts are the facts. So, to that extent, yes, it was constraining. But it also meant that you had these sometimes surprising, sometimes unlikely and intransigent facts, and it's for you to make sense of them.
BF: One gets the impression in Two Lives that you started out intending primarily to tell the story of your great-uncle's life, and you do, and it is an incredible tale. But Henny takes over once you discover her hidden stash of letters.
VS: That's right. And the credit goes to my father. He found the trunk in the back of the attic, where Uncle hadn't been able to get to it. Had he been able to get to it, it wouldn't have existed, because he destroyed all Henny's papers. So my father saw all these papers in German, and he thought, "I'll show these to Shanti and Vikram," and immediately it occurred to me that this was something quite astonishing. And I realized a short time after that that what had begun with a series of interviews with Uncle was not just going to be a family archive but a book that I could not not write.
BF: How did you establish the form and when did you decide to include yourself as a figure in the book?
VS: I suppose if I were writing about the lives of people who were well known—famous writers, famous generals, famous politicians, sportspeople, whatever—then for someone to interpolate themselves in their lives would have been kind of pointless, not to say intrusive. But in this particular case, here were two people who were very important to me but who made no great official mark on the world. I felt it was fine to introduce someone who played an important part in their lives—namely, me. And not just that, but it gave the story a kind of intimacy. A sense of what life with them was like. And at the end, when Uncle is alone, it gave a personal sense of his physical and mental decline and his legacy.
BF: Your being present enables the reader to be present, to listen to conversations and read the letters from your vantage point. We see the connections between the lives you chronicle and feel connected to them too.
VS: For instance, take Lola, Henny's sister. Now, if one hadn't known her and their mother, Ella, from a few glimpses in the Shanti part of the book when he lodges with the Caro family in Berlin in 1933, then when one describes what very likely happened to them it would be horrendous enough. But this way one knows that Lola is the shy young woman who is very good at mathematics, who is very gentle, who typed Shanti's dissertation, who was probably secretly in love with him. And one realizes that the Holocaust it isn't just about innumerable shocking numbers but about ordinary people living their lives.
BF: I'm glad that you brought Lola up. You write that it would be presumptuous to try to describe what she's thinking as she is being killed in the camp, and yet then you do just that. And you explicitly describe how she most likely died. Was it a tough decision to make to write that passage?
VS: Yes, it was. There is a danger of appearing voyeuristic in this matter. But I don't think that one should avert one's face from it. It's part of human history, and it's one of the central facts of the history of the last century.
BF: You include quite a bit of history and analysis in Two Lives. For instance, in recounting your great-uncle's war experiences, you go into great detail about battles fought in Italy during World War II. Then, later, you embark on a detailed discussion about Germany today. Is history another passion of yours?
VS: It is, but I get hot under the collar when I talk about politics. And I don't think one should treat fiction like a tract or a lecture. This, of course, is nonfiction,
a dual memoir, so you're moving from one person to another with different historical backgrounds, some of which need explanation. And it's also partly a memoir about how the book was written. So if you are to have some history, which you must have in order to explain things, you must then ask how far you can use it as a base to move in another direction. It's a matter of judgment, I suppose. And no one really gets it right. I cut very sharply the amount of discussion of the Indian freedom struggle, the Italian campaign in World War II, Israel and Palestine, the German influence on the twentieth century—these different aspects that create a historical, speculative, and analytical discussion. I even went off into something about Iraq and thought, "Wait a second, this really doesn't belong in this book." So I don't think I got the mix right for every reader, but then of course the book was not written by a committee.
BF: I found that your analytical passages add a great deal of dimension and give the reader the sense of traveling with you as you explored all this in an effort to understand not only your family but also the greater world.
VS: There's another aspect, which is this, that these lives are what we call microcosmic. They can become macrocosmic in two ways. The first is, you can consider these lives as atypical and extraordinary and yet also as typical and ordinary in terms of the human condition, that is, old age, youth, adventure, enterprise, grief, and coming to terms with life.
The other way is to see these lives as affecting and also, more importantly,
as being deeply affected by the great historical currents and the times and the places they lived in. So the importance given to these lives, both as personal speculation about humanity in general and also as played out against the background of history, is one reason those historical and political passages occur.
BF: If that trunk of letters had come to light while Henny was still alive . . .
VS: The question is, Were she alive, would I be able to interview her about these matters? Would I have been given access to those letters? The answer to both those questions is no. How could I have asked her about these dreadful matters? Even when Shanti Uncle tried to touch the subject, she would say, "Shanti, I don't want to enter the graveyard."
The letters also contain intimate questions about whether she should or shouldn't marry Shanti, quite apart from the substance of the search for her mother and sister. I don't think Auntie Henny would have let anyone read the letters. And yet I feel this is such an important part of German history, told in the voices of ordinary people, not the brave and good. In the texture of these letters you get all the hard psychological and moral choices people have to make under pressure.
BF: It gradually dawns on the reader just how much work and feeling have gone into this book, how carefully you handle these often quietly shocking letters with their undercurrents of guilt and betrayal and hope for forgiveness. Two Lives is a mix of history, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism.
VS: Indeed! The different textures of the voices in the books have startled me, actually, because as I was rewriting the book, I realized that as far as the letters are concerned, I really did feel at one point that there was the danger that people would just think, "Oh, he's just doing an editorial job in cobbling together a few letters." But for a start, there are many more letters than those that appear in the book. Secondly, it was demanding to pick them out and tell the story, trying to not say too much or too little. Guiding people, but recognizing that no one really can tell the story as movingly or tellingly as the German correspondents themselves, as they were bound up in the question of how to help or not help their Jewish friends and acquaintances. Occasionally, I'll summarize a letter, but I was really keen on having each correspondent tell it in their own words. And I insisted on doing the translations myself.
BF: You've even incorporated documents in your fiction. In A Suitable Boy, for instance, you include parliamentary documents.
VS: Yes, they're cooked up, but that's true. And I think that part of the reason for that is that I consider work very important. People write quite a bit about love and love and love, and I write a lot about love and love and love myself. But most of the hours of our lives are taken up with work. And also we get a sense of ourselves from work. I think it's the work, whether I'm talking about how to string a particular instrument, or a shoe salesman trying to work out a credit rate, or a priest making an antinuclear speech, whatever it is— these all give different registers, different flavors, and different textures to my prose. I think emotional language is more similar in some ways than the languages of different vocations.
BF: You've mentioned different drafts and that you've cut large sections out of A Suitable Boy and Two Lives. Your work reads as though sentences really flow for you. As though you don't struggle over every word.
VS: Don't you believe it. I mean, lots of passages do come pretty easily. But what is it that Frost said? Something like, Easy reading is made from damn hard writing. The point is not that someone should say, "Oh my God, he must have done a lot of research. Oh my God, he must have sweated over this. Oh my God, look at that brilliant sentence." Nothing like that. It should feel like a stained glass window, where the effort is really to show you the world beyond. The objects, the people, the world that the writer is trying to describe. Not the work, not the sweat, not the effort, not the brilliance of each individual sentence or pyrotechnical display. Just to get the reader into the space, the minds, the emotions.
BF: Did you consider writing a novel about Shanti Uncle and Auntie Henny?
VS: The answer is yes. And who knows if it would have worked better commercially or not. But I was determined not to. I spoke to a very well-known Jewish writer who has written about the Holocaust, and I told him what I was writing about. And he said, "You should write it as fiction." And I said, "Why?" And he said, "Well, you know, there's a lot that's been written in nonfiction and people are tired of it. I think as a novelist you should do something more interesting." And I thought about it for, let's say, fifteen minutes. But then
I thought, "No this won't do." It would have been a disservice to Shanti Uncle and Auntie Henny to fictionalize their lives and have the reader speculate as to whether some particular detail was just the author's imagination or not. Here one knows that the details, strange as they are, are true. And secondly, to return to something you brought up at the beginning, one is stuck with the hard nugget of fact. You might try to skirt around the facts, you might try to come to terms with them, but you can't replace them with something else. And the way things happened, it simply behooved me to write about it as it was, or at least as I saw it as being.