A trunk in the attic unexpectedly coughed up a fascinating body of material ... In an exclusive interview, Vikram Seth talks about Two Lives, and agrees that his latest book would not have happened if he hadn't stumbled on the cache.
PILGRIMAGE OF GEOGRAPHIES: Here, Vikram Seth is no detached biographer. PHOTO: SHAJU JOHN
IN 1994, when Vikram Seth had already published A Suitable Boy and was unsure about what kind of book he wanted to do next, his mother suggested he write about his maternal great uncle, Shanti Behari Seth. "Shanti Uncle", who was then 85, had lived an interesting life. He left for Berlin as a young man in the 1930s to study dentistry, moved reluctantly to London when it became clear that Nazi regulations would prevent him from practicing, had his right arm blown off during the War at Monte Cassino where he was enlisted in a British army dental unit, and married Henny Caro ("Aunty Henny"), a Jew who fled Germany for England and whose family had taken Shanti as a lodger while he was in Berlin.
Seth's interviews with his ageing great uncle, which were conducted when his great aunt was already dead, may have added up to make a book but not this one.
Two Lives is the extraordinary book it is because of an accidental discovery the following summer. Aunty Henny's trunk in the attic, which had been untouched for decades, unexpectedly coughed up a cache of letters, poems, photographs, financial papers a fascinating body of material that throws an unusually personal and extremely revealing light on what it was like for ordinary people to live under the shadow of the Third Reich and in post-War Germany.
Gives it character
Seth agrees that the book would not have happened if he hadn't stumbled on the cache. Without them, he suggests he may have settled for "a short family history not for general distribution." It was the forgotten trunk, particularly the large sheaf of letters in it, that gives Two Lives which is part biography, part memoir, part history and part random rumination its many-sided character. Section III, Henny's story, is heart of the book. Of course partly because it covers an extraordinary period in history and the most moving events (including the tragic story of Henny's mother and sister who were deported to concentration camps and killed). But also because it is where Seth's technique of letting the material speak for itself is the most evident. (The material here being chiefly the letters exchanged between Henny and her friends in Germany following the War.)
It is a modest and unobtrusive technique, one that jells perfectly with a prose that is free from all artifice and startling in its very simplicity.
For the most part, Seth is content to step in now and then to offer an explanation, advance a tentative hypothesis, brush in some historical background. However, he makes it a point of showing he is no detached biographer. While researching Nazi documents in a library, an emotionally fraught Seth angrily rejects a German schoolboy's offer of help ("the very accent embodied sickness and evil").
Aunty Henny's book?
So would it be fair to say it is really Aunty Henny's book? "I can see why you think so," says Seth. "I lived with her letters for years, getting to know people who I had never even met. Even more importantly for me, getting to know Aunty Henny, whom I thought I knew. These letters describe her in a way that even Shanti Uncle didn't know. But it's not really Henny's book. The whole of the last part is only Uncle." Uncle bitterly disappoints Seth in the end as a result of which the first drafts of Two Lives were "raw and bitter." But time brought about a reassessment of Shanti's last years, which were spent in sickness and insecurity, and Seth realises that the bitterness was linked to his reverence of his great uncle as a man of "great grit, intelligence, affection and family feeling."
When he is not playing biographer, Seth is chiefly either being memoirist (the book begins with his departure to England as a boy of 17, where he lived with Shanti and Henny in London) or historian (laying out the setting in a way that helps to understand the characters better). There is one lengthy and atypical digression where he turns social and political commentator, his attention on Germany's place in history and its possible role in the future. The tenor in these passages is definitive and assertive, quite at odds with the unassuming, almost diffident, tone of the rest of the book. It would have stood up perfectly as a separate essay, but doesn't really sit well in this book.
After having completed the "voyage" of Shanti and Henny's histories, Seth concludes Two Lives by making a "pilgrimage of their geographies".
He revisits Biswan (Shanti's hometown) Monte Cassino, Berlin and London in what is a remarkably touching end to a splendid book. His prose as if unburdened of the restraint and self-control required for biography takes on a poetic luminosity as he ruminates about the chance events that cleave us together or apart, about the "complex trace they leave: so personal as to be almost incommunicable, so fugitive as to be almost irrevocable."
"I am not trying to be contrary"
On whether his genre-hopping is accidental or an aversion for sameness
THERE may be some part of me that enjoys variety, though there is one genre that I have repeated again and again and that is poetry. I have seen myself, or certainly used to see myself, more as poet than anything else.
As for the rest of it, there is no particular credit attached to jumping from genre to genre. But there is no particular disadvantage as long as the books are true to themselves and to the characters in them. When an idea comes to me in a particular style, or in some cases in a particular meter, it makes sense for me not to question the gift too much. But to try at least to attempt this form.
On the view that he loves sailing against the tide of literary fashion
I am not trying to be contrary, but I don't particularly care about fashion. But if I was inspired by something and then found myself at the cutting edge of trendiness, I would be perfectly happy to adopt that. Of course, some people would say, "Where is our wonderful conservative rhyme and meter man?". But the fact is that one shouldn't argue with inspiration when it comes. It is a rare thing.
On why labels really do not matter
Take the Golden Gate. Some people say it is completely reactionary because it is in rhyme and meter and that it's got this antiquated stanzaic form etcetera. Some people say it is too modern because it talks about the anti-nuclear movement and because it has a gay love affair. I am not particularly concerned about this. Whether it is ultra-modern or ultra-conservative is neither here nor there. As long as the characters and the story come out and the world in which they live in are displayed truly... . that's where I get my pleasure.
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