From the author of A Suitable Boy, this masterful fusion of memoir, biography and history creates an extraordinary tapestry of India, the Third Reich and the Second World War, Auschwitz and the Holocaust, Israel and Palestine, post-war Germany and 1970s Britain.
Vikram Seth – Bangladesh and England
Vikram Seth’s Two Lives is both a chronicle of a violent century seen through the eyes of two survivors and an intimate portrait of their friendship, marriage and complex love.
A childless couple living in England—Henny, a German-Jew who fled Hitler’s Germany, and Shanti from the Raj’s India—take in their grand nephew Vikram Seth.
“I cannot remember ever being quite so moved by a memoir… [Seth’s] achievement has exceeded all possible expectations”—Simon Winchester.
This interview with AsiaSource was conducted while Seth was in New York for a Meet the Author program at the Asia Society on November 16, 2005. Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of AsiaSource : Vikram Seth – Two Lives.
In an interview to The Guardian recently you have said that each of your books has “come about because it could not not have been written.” You say that your writing has announced itself to you with an urgency you could not resist. Could you elaborate on this? Is this impulse what compelled you to begin a career in writing?
Yes. Yes, to the last question. I never decided to become a writer, as people sometimes put it. I just had to write certain books, or certain poems, and then after a number of these had been written, I realized that I was a writer. In other words, it wasn’t the lifestyle that attracted me. It was specific impulses to write specific books. My first full-length book, for instance, the travel book, From Heaven Lake, came about because of a particular journey, and then, I suppose, I got rather tired of telling people about the story so I wrote a few pages by way of notes. It is interesting in fact that my father suggested I make a book out of it. Now, at that stage, it wasn’t a book that could not not have been written. At the time I just thought: a parent has asked me to do it, I will just begin writing something about it. And that is true also of this book, Two Lives. My mother suggested that I interview my great-uncle because I was at a loose end. So, so much for the two non-fiction books. They began almost as tasks to be performed, and at some stage during that, they gripped me, and I came to realize that this was not just something that I was going to do for some family archival purposes, or just to avoid having to repeat myself. I became gripped by the telling of the story.
In this particular case, in the case of Two Lives, I was taken by the narrative after the discovery of a set of letters that my great-aunt had written that gave the story a kind of depth, a perspective, an intimacy, and a kind of psychological and moral connection, in terms of decision-making in times of great stress, apart from its human interest, which was considerable. But as far as my three novels are concerned, in each case, there was an impulse. In one case because I had read a novel in verse, which inspired me to write my own, and that was The Golden Gate. In one case because I heard a snippet of conversation: “You too will marry a boy I choose,” which germinated the book, A Suitable Boy. And in the case of An Equal Music, despite its subject matter, its inspiration was very non-musical: just watching someone stare at the water of the Serpentine very intently and wondering what on earth his thoughts were.
You have written, as you have just indicated, in several different genres: fiction, poetry, translation, travel, libretto. Is there any genre in particular in which you feel more at home?
Poetry. Always poetry. I have written lyric poetry throughout my career. The books appear sporadically, but that is only because composing poems to form a book takes a number of years. I should say too that there are some genres which I have written in but have not succeeded in. I’ve written a play, for instance, but it’s really awful, so I haven’t published it, and short stories of a sort as well, which weren’t awful, but they were pretty mediocre. I would like to write a good play and a good short story. I think I’m capable of it, but so far there’s no proof of it. I was persuaded by some friends to look at these things again on the basis that I might have been too critical, or too exacting, but no, I hadn’t been too exacting. They were what they were and they weren’t much good. But I think, in answer to the question that you posed, poetry is something that I’ve always considered myself primarily, or at heart, to be at home in. And I sometimes look at my work and wonder how on earth I strayed into prose. I think the reason is that after I wrote The Golden Gate, which either you could see as a long poem, or you could see as a verse novel, I discovered that I had the taste, and the stamina, for writing novels, and I subsequently wrote two more.
(See the rest of this Interview, conducted by Nermeen Shaikh, on AsiaSource
Biography: Vikram Seth was born in Calcutta in 1952. His father Prem Seth was a shoe company executive and his mother Laila Seth served as a judge. Vikram Seth is the oldest of three–his brother conducts Buddhist meditational tours and his youngest sister serves as an Austrian diplomat. He studied at Oxford University in England, earning a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics (a PPE degree). He further enrolled at Stanford University. While there, Seth was also a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing from 1977-1978. During a period from 1980-1982, he studied classical Chinese poetry and different languages at Nanjing University, China. Seth mentions that he “never had any passion for economics, not what I felt for writing poetry“. He has travelled widely and lived in Britain, California, India and China.
Vikram Seth has published eight notable works – six collections of poetry and two novels – with a ninth novel soon to come. During the period before and after Seth published his first novel, he contributed poetic works for more than a decade. (See rest of his Biography on english emory edu).
Vikram Seth’s prose fiction debut, A Suitable Boy, sold over one million copies worldwide despite the fact that, at 1,349 pages long, it holds the distinction of being the longest single volume ever published in the English language. Now Seth returns with a far shorter, though equally satisfying novel. An Equal Music is a love story, the tale of Michael, a professional violinist who has never recovered from the loss of his only true love, a pianist whom he knew as a student in Vienna. Ten years after their affair has ended, they meet again, and despite the fact that she is now married and has a child, she agrees to accompany Michael and his quartet back to Vienna where their passion is rekindled and secrets are revealed. Seth masterfully conveys the inner life of a musician and deftly articulates the joy and pain of creating music. To be found on random house.
Vikram Seth’s Published Works:
1983: From Heaven Lake;
1985: The Humble Administrator’s Garden;
1986: The Golden Gate;
1990: All You Who Sleep Tonight;
1991: Beastly Tales from here and there;
1992: Three Chinese Poets;
1993: A Suitable Boy;
1994: Arion and the Dolphin : a libretto;
1999: An Equal Music;
Vikram Seth in Sweden: Efter flera diktsamlingar, en reseskildring från Centralasien och versromanen Golden gate, omfattande 590 sonetter, slog Vikram Seth den litterära världen med häpnad, med en roman av Balzacska och Tolstojska dimensioner: A Suitable Young Man. Den föreligger på svenska i höst, på 1239 extremt tättryckta sidor. Anders Paulrud skrev om boken den 16 september i Aftonbladet:
“Där Rushdie arbetar med att försöka skriva sig ur sitt lands öde, gör Seth tvärtom. Han ger gestalt åt sin nations första skälvande år; här finns nästan allt: generationsmotsättningar, karikatyrer, den försvinnande kolonialmaktens attityder, och här finns kärleksfulla beskrivningar av dagligt indiskt liv, allt ifrån motsättningen mellan stad och landsbygd, över ritualbad i Ganges till tillverkningen av skor. — Efter läsningen av En lämplig ung man känns det faktiskt som om man har varit i Indien, och som om man plötsligt begrep vad alla Indienresenärer talar om: det trögflytande, det stora, det arbetsamma, och den ständiga fysiska kontakten med människor.”
And in Germany, Leseprobe S. 105: Wie gut es tut, dieses Quintett zu spielen, es zu spielen und nicht daran zu arbeiten – es zu unserem eigenen Vergnügen zu spielen, ohne jemandem außerhalb unseres Kreises der Neu-Schöpfung etwas vermitteln, ohne an einen zukünftigen Auftritt, an das schnell wirkende Beruhigungsmittel Applaus denken zu müssen. Das Quintett existiert ohne uns und kann ohne uns doch nicht existieren. Es erklingt für uns, wir erklingen in ihm, und irgendwie spricht der Mann, der taub transformierte, was er so viele Jahre zuvor hörend komponierte, durch diese kleinen schwarzen Insekten, die sich um fünf dünne Linien scharen, zu uns über Land, Wasser und zehn Generationen hinweg und erfüllt uns hier mit Traurigkeit, dort mit verwunderter Freude.
audio links on BBC;
english emory edu;