Seth's books are heterogeneous, too, in terms of their subject and setting. As a writer he draws upon his academic training as an economist and as a student of politics as well as his gifts as a poet. His first three non-poetry titles were set in China, San Francisco, and northern India; the novel An Equal Music (1999) takes us on a tour of Europe. Seth's writing has a distinctly international and cosmopolitan feel; many of his poetry collections thus include translations from a number of languages, Three Chinese Poets (1992) being the most notable example.
For all its cosmopolitanism, many critics have suggested that Seth's work is steeped in his own Indian culture. He has been labeled a "postcolonial Indian writer" and identified as a member of an "Empire-writes-back" generation that includes other British-educated Indians such as Salman Rushdie. The issue of Seth's "Indianness" is a sensitive and rather controversial one; some commentators have even gone so far as to criticize Seth for not being "Indian" (whatever that may mean) enough.
Whether or not Seth's books are typically "Indian," it is possible to make other generalizations about them. Seth is in no sense a "conceptual" or "metaphysical" writer: he is not interested in the ideas behind a person or an object but rather in people and things in themselves. His focus is usually on surfaces, textures, and quotidian details: it is the visible world of phenomena rather than the invisible world of ideas and beliefs that exists for him.
Seth is also obsessed with matters of form and style. He is a dazzlingly gifted stylist whose love of language and literary form are infectious. The style of The Golden Gate (1986), a novel comprised of almost six hundred sonnets, is exhilarating and intoxicating: it offers the reader an almost Mozartean aesthetic pleasure. Seth's writing is invariably sharp, rich, and sophisticated; it brilliantly evokes the colors and surfaces of the various societies he describes. And it is the visible and social world of appearances, manners, and conversations that fascinates him. Some of his best fictional writing occurs in set-piece scenes where his characters come together to exchange gossip. In his poetry, too, he rarely retreats from the world into a private language of introspection: his muse is invariably a public one.
The characteristic themes of Seth's writing also concern the social world. His books always acknowledge the presence and the power of society; we are continually made aware of its inviolable laws and traditions. In A Suitable Boy (1993) characters who attempt to go beyond society's limits, or who challenge its rules, invariably come to sticky ends; those who accept those rules and limits tend to live happily, or at least comfortably, ever after. The moral (and Seth's work is unashamedly moral) is that you can never escape the world or suddenly change the way things have been for centuries.
This moral reminds us of Greek tragedy: what Seth suggests is that to overstep society's bounds is to condemn oneself to madness and exile. Throughout his books we discover the Greek idea of the "golden mean": moderation is to be preferred to excess, friendship to wild passion, and the gradual amelioration of social ills to revolutionary change. It is hardly surprisingly then that Seth has annoyed the more "radical" literary critics, because his work is essentially a celebration of bourgeois values and the bourgeois way of life.
Sensual, worldly, urbane, and flamboyant, Vikram Seth can be likened to eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century writers such as Alexander Pope, Lord Byron, and Jane Austen. In his books he bears witness to the power of society and comments wittily on the foibles of its members. Above all else, pleasure is perhaps most important to him, and there is certainly a great deal of pleasure to be derived from his super-civilized and incorrigibly stylish writing.
EARLY LIFE AND EARLY POETRY
Vikram Seth was born in Calcutta on June 20, 1952, into a middle-class Hindu family. His father, Prem Seth, is a consultant to the leather industry and his mother, Laila Seth, is a High Court judge. In his youth he attended an English-style public school called the Doon School, then he read politics, philosophy and economics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.
In 1975 he moved to Stanford University in California, where he studied for a Ph.D. in economics. His thesis, on the demography of certain Chinese villages, was never completed, although he has expressed an intention to return to it and rewrite it in sestinas. At Stanford he took a course in creative writing under the supervision of the poet Donald Davie. The experience, which Seth has described in his article "Forms and Inspirations," was to be a formative one: it taught him the virtues of lucidity and readability.
At Stanford, Seth also encountered the poet Timothy Steele, who was equally influential on his poetry. (In acknowledgment of this Seth was to dedicate The Golden Gate to him). Among other things Steele taught Seth the importance of form and demonstrated that contemporary episodes and issues could be described and addressed in traditional rhyme and meter. Prior to his arrival at Stanford, Seth had regarded traditional form as artificial and constricting; his youthful poetry, which he later destroyed, had been written in free verse. Under the tutelage of Davie and Steele, Seth discovered "the way poetic form and poetic inspiration work to search each other out" ("Forms and Inspirations," p. 18).
The debate about traditional poetic form is one of the few theoretical issues Seth has commented on (it is telling, perhaps, that it should be a purely technical one). He argues that the use of traditional form leads to greater pith, pleasure, memorability, and readability and suggests that it intensifies the emotional power of verse. On a personal level Seth found that the restrictions of rhyme and meter forced him to think harder about his own writing; he also discovered that there was something miraculous about the range of emotions and ideas that one could convey in two poems of the same tight verse form. Traditional form curbed what he saw as his worst poetical excesses and ensured that he was not continually forced to come up with something striking and original. He was no longer, to use Oscar Wilde's brilliant phrase, at the mercy of genius, and thankfully, neither was the reader.
Seth's fondness for traditional poetic form is of a piece with his awareness of the weight of history and tradition. In one of his poems he describes tradition as "the soul of art," and he has remarked that because particular rhyme schemes carried resonances of particular poets |Po pouring my spirit into a cup into which some poet I admired had poured his, I found I was seized with an energy that came from outside myself" ("Forms," p. 18). It is, of course, also consistent with the public nature of Seth's writing: rhyme and meter create a sort of familiar social poetic space in which both author and reader feel comfortable.
Seth's careful observation of technical rules and limits can in turn be related to his awareness of the rules and limits of society. His comment that the constriction of traditional form is both psychologically satisfying and curiously liberating is interesting in this context. Without the safety net of a traditional form one is forced to fall back on a unique and private language; this is the fevered and incomprehensible language spoken by the characters in Seth's books that become social outcasts.
Seth's fascination with form is worth remarking upon at length because it remains constant throughout his oeuvre. Many of his books are breathtaking technical performances, and they often have their origin in some formal challenge. In The Golden Gate, Seth set out to evoke the world of California yuppies in Pushkinian sonnets; An Equal Music is perhaps his attempt to write a novel in the sonata form of classical music.
In Mappings (1981), his first collection of verse, Seth characteristically justifies his "unreasonable" use of rhyme by arguing that it is "fun"; he also demonstrates his masterful handling of rhyme and a variety of other traditional poetic devices and forms. The volume, which is comprised of poems Seth wrote in his twenties and dedicated to his Stanford mentors Donald Davie and Timothy Steele, was originally published (and sold) by Seth himself in 1980. A year later it was republished in Calcutta with a beautiful multicolored cover.
The poems exhibit Seth's love of the commonplace. The French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé once dismissed daily life as unsuitable material for poetry. "The everyday world," he loftily remarked, "smells of cooking." To Seth, however, the everyday world positively reeks of poetry. His poems are invariably occasioned by some commonplace incident: in one he describes a moth dancing around a lightbulb, another begins with the poet dipping a cookie into a glass of tea. It is a poetry that celebrates the life of the body and the social world and seeks to find a rich and subtle language for little curiosities and everyday things.
Seth's early poems are crammed full of references to food, news, and domestic objects; they frequently describe everyday episodes, such as waking up, sex, and shopping. He juxtaposes commonplace incidents with allusions to more "elevated" and "poetical" subjects, such as metaphysics and love. In a poetical parody of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy, he refers to a presidential election and the Olympic Games; a sonnet beginning "O my generous and exuberant love" contains the line "You are forgiven |Po for beating me at scrabble" (Collected Poems, p. 15). The effect is often humorous and bathetic; Seth's wordplay is equally funny. In "Dubious" he undermines the seriousness of the subject--his sexuality--with a clever and epigrammatic ending:
In the strict ranks
of Gay and Straight
what is my status?
Stray or Great?
(Collected Poems, p. 46)
This kind of linguistic trickery may strike some as facile and inappropriate; others will discover seriousness in Seth's verse precisely because he refuses to take himself too seriously. It is perhaps his lack of self-consciousness and self-indulgence that allows him to evoke landscapes and cities in short photographic poems such as "Point Reyes"; it also lends to his verse variety and a pleasing air of sociability. Seth is always kind and considerate toward his gentle reader: on no occasion does he make us feel that we have to suffer for the sake of his art.
Seth's language is invariably as direct, colloquial, and simple as the transparent prose of A Suitable Boy. He attempts to introduce subtlety to the public language of everyday conversation and cliché. This does not, however, preclude powerful emotion, and often a poem that begins with small talk opens out into a moving lyrical language: "I've spoiled your mood. I'm sorry. Yes, I will / Keep clear of you |Po / you who infuse / My music now, my sunsets" (Collected Poems, p. 57). Here, as elsewhere in his work, Seth produces surprising and unexpected effects through the mixture of tones and colors.
Several of the pieces in Mappings concern Seth's native India; the poem "Divali" is his most personal and impassioned discussion of his Indian identity. He tells us that at school he gained "the conqueror's / Authoritarian Seal: / English!," which has left him and his fellow countrymen with the sensation of being "not home at home" (Collected Poems, pp. 65-66, 68). Condemned to the live the life of an exile within his own country, he chooses to travel, and yet he also feels "abroad" when he is "abroad." A sense of the restlessness of the exile informs many of the other poems in the collection, which are typically set either in transit or in a variety of exotic locations. The few people who read Mappings would not have been particularly surprised to discover that Seth's next publication would be a travel book.
FROM HEAVEN LAKE (1983)
In 1980 Seth went to China to carry out the research for his Ph.D. thesis. He stayed there, as a student of Nanjing University, for the following two years. Wishing to visit his family in Delhi in the summer of 1981, he mapped out an adventurous route back to India through the Himalayas via Tibet and Nepal. His plan was to hitchhike for most of the journey; in the end, because of terrible floods and the appalling condition of the roads, he was forced to walk some of the way. From Heaven Lake is the engaging account of his odyssey.
Seth's journey, and the various obstacles he is confronted with along the way, provides the narrative outline of the book. Within that narrative structure there are a poems, quotations from guidebooks, pages of dialogue, and countless digressions on a wide variety of economic, cultural, and political issues. In form the book is not unlike A Suitable Boy: it seems to grow organically and to have its own rather gentle momentum. It is possible that the travel genre appealed to Seth precisely because it is undefined and capacious enough to accommodate his diverse interests; it may also have provided some relief from the formal restrictions he imposed upon himself when writing poetry.
Given the desultory nature of the book, it is absolutely necessary that Seth maintains our interest by being a fascinating companion for us along the long and winding way. And this is exactly what happens: Seth is such an amiable, informed, and charming narrator that we gladly accept him as our guide. He is witty, self-deprecating, endlessly curious, and familiar, offering us the sort of unpretentious, almost throwaway, gems of wisdom that we expect from the best travel writing. "I have often thought," he comments in one of his many asides, "that those who don't know a language properly are often most expressive in it" (p. 169).
Seth is also a keen observer. As in his poetry, he occasionally presents himself as a Romantic figure (there are several occasions when he wanders off by himself to write lyrical apostrophes to the landscape), yet he never allows the concerns of his ego to get in the way of the world around him. Rather like Bruce Chatwin, he replaces the insistent "I" of the navel-gazing travel writer with the "eye" of the detached photographer, and he evokes land and cityscapes in an economical, pared down prose: "There is a pomegranate tree, a small pavilion, a few stone tablets. |Po on the platform where the main hall stands are ceramic basins filled with mossy stones" (p. 30).
In From Heaven Lake and throughout his writing, Seth tends to be more interested in others than in himself; this in turn makes him interesting to us. He is fascinated by everything from the economic importance of yaks to children's games; he is also a good listener with a fine gift for conjuring up a character. Of all these characters (to whom the book is dedicated) the driver who takes Seth to Lhasa is perhaps the most interesting. Sui is a tough and laconic chain-smoker who spends most of his life on the road. Through his actions, mannerisms, and occasional remarks, we come to understand a great deal about contemporary China.
Seth's dealings with the Chinese authorities are equally revealing in this regard. From the moment the book opens he comes up against a wall of bureaucratic rules and regulations. In a sense he is not unlike Lata, the young female protagonist of A Suitable Boy, who continually finds herself at odds with Indian society. On a guided tour Seth is forbidden to walk outside the limits set down by his Chinese guide, and throughout the book he experiences great difficulty in visiting temples, buying goods, and obtaining visas.
At every point in his journey he is confronted by a representative of the state: thus at Germu he is awakened at 3:15 a.m. by the police and interrogated. The police appreciate that the hour is unreasonable but, they explain, Seth did not report to them on arrival and "regulations are regulations." This last phrase is repeated like a mantra throughout the book, curiously enough by people who, outside the context of their official duties, are often very kind and easygoing. Despite these problems, our hero proves to be extremely resourceful, and through a mixture of charm, pleading, and aggression, he manages to talk and then walk his way out of Chinese Tibet and into Nepal.
The picture Seth paints of Communist China is a rather depressing one. While he admits that some of its social and economic policies have been far more effective with regard to poverty and population growth than those of his native India, the effects of the Cultural Revolution on most peoples' lives (and particularly those of Tibetans he encounters) is shown to have been catastrophic. Seth's anger at the Chinese authorities was intensified by the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and in a later edition of the book he wrote a foreword in which he expressed his anger and disgust about the massacre there.
Seth's book is also a poignant lament for the history, tradition, and culture that Mao's Red Army destroyed. On entering one ruined Buddhist temple he comes across a Chinese poem, which he translates thus:
This day Zhi Xiong came to the old temple. |Po
And he saw it and wept.
This might have served as an epigraph for the book because Seth (who later translated works by three Chinese poets of the eighth century) evidently came to China with the idea of discovering something of its ancient spirit of serenity. When the book was published in 1983 it won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.
THE HUMBLE ADMINISTRATOR'S GARDEN (1985)
One section in this volume of poetry contains poems concerning Seth's experiences in China. Here he continues to bemoan the destruction, or as the Chinese state euphemistically puts it, the "renovation" of ancient temples. He also tries to capture the rare and fleeting moments of grace and tranquillity that the country afforded him. He does so in short poems such as "A Hangzhou Garden," which begins: "Wistaria twigs, wistaria leaves, mauve petals / Drift past a goldfish ripple" (Collected Poems, p. 100). These exquisite photographs, or postcards, which are infused with the spirit of Buddhism, prefigure Seth's translations of the ancient Chinese poets. The other two sections in the book concern California and India. In setting, style, and theme, they often look forward to Seth's novels The Golden Gate and A Suitable Boy.
Once again Seth demonstrates his fascination with the surfaces and the trivialities of life: one piece begins with the poet clipping his nails in a yard, another ends with an old woman contemplating how she will darn her grandson's sweater. Like Mappings, the collection is a feast for the senses. Allusions to Bach, hands trailing in water, and California poppies excite his readers' sense of sound, touch, and smell, and our visual sense is delighted by descriptions such as "beautiful light, / Heavy as honey" (Complete Poems, p. 131). There are the usual references to food: "I remember you in tastes," Seth writes of a friend, "ice-cream, garlic soup, / Cinnamon rolls, pâté" (p. 96).
In this collection we also find gentle humor, Seth's characteristically sunny philosophy, and delicate formal exercises in a wide variety of rhythms and rhymes. Sometimes Seth dazzles us with his wordplay; on other occasions, as in the two California songs in the collection, he achieves the simplicity of a ballad or pop song: "Some days I am so lonely, so content / The dust lifts up. The trees are weatherbent" (p. 124). The Humble Administrator's Garden was awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the Asian region in 1986.
THE GOLDEN GATE (1986)
In his early poetry Seth tried to invest everyday speech with resonance and subtlety rather than to startle the reader with bold linguistic trickery and formal experimentation. In The Golden Gate, a verse-novel written in 590 Pushkin sonnets, he achieved both.
Seth imitates the stanza form of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1833): iambic tetrameter with a rhyme scheme of AbAbCCddEffEgg (capitalized letters indicate feminine rhymes--disyllabic rhymes, with the stress on the first syllable). The advantage of the Pushkin sonnet over other varieties of the form is that there is no abrupt transition in the stanza from the first half (usually an octave) to the second (usually a sestet). In fact, in its quick tempo and flexibility, the form is not unlike the ottava rima stanza used by Byron in Don Juan, a poem that influenced Pushkin.
Before embarking on the book, Seth had intended to write a series of short stories set in the Bay Area of San Francisco, but he did not have a clear plot in his mind. What he began with was the Pushkin sonnet itself, the energy and the delights of which had been revealed to him when, by chance, he happened upon a copy of Eugene Onegin, "In Johnstone's luminous translation": "like champagne / Its effervescence stirs my brain" (The Golden Gate, p. 102).
The Pushkin sonnet appealed to Seth, as he explains at the start of section 5 of the novel, because it was "fun" to work with and because he regretted the decay of the "once noble" tetrameter. He later added that he was excited by the tetrameter's narrative "propulsiveness" and by the fact that the alternation of feminine and masculine rhymes gives an easy colloquial feel to the verse.
Seth was also impressed by the extraordinary variety of subjects, moods, tones, and emotions encompassed by the Pushkin sonnet in Onegin. Variety is certainly one of the distinguishing characteristics of The Golden Gate, which includes, among other things, a paean to Mozart and Tin-tin (a famous Belgian comic book character), a prayer to Saint Francis, ad copy, highway graffiti, an antinuclear speech, an art review, personal ads, witty recitative sections of colloquial dialogue, aria-like apostrophes to San Francisco, internal monologues, and intellectual disputations. The shift between themes and emotions across the book, and within individual sonnets, is breathtaking. The very first stanza begins with an abrupt invocation of the muse ("To make a start more swift than weighty, / Hail Muse"), moves to an incident in Golden Gate Park where "the ill-judged toss / Of a red Frisbee" (p. 3) nearly kills John, the poem's hero, and ends with John's rather self-pitying ruminations about his life. The next stanza starts with a number of references to electronic engineering.
It is the rather lugubrious John who sets the plot in motion by deciding, on the advice of his ex-girlfriend Janet, a Japanese-American sculptor, to advertise in the personal columns of a newspaper. This results in a date, and a love affair, with the lawyer Liz Dorati; subsequently there is a housewarming party in which we are introduced to the novel's two other main characters: Phil, a political activist who has resigned from his high-powered computer job, and Ed, the guilt-ridden Catholic who falls for the "warm, Socratic" Phil. Seth, a master of dialogue, shines at social gatherings.
Yet, rather like A Suitable Boy, the novel is not driven by the plot. The narrative pace is often slow, and its structure is cyclical rather than linear. The events take place in roughly the space of one year, and Seth brilliantly dresses San Francisco in the clothes of the four seasons: "the February weather / Lures the quince blossoms to a peak / Of pinkness on the leafless hedges." Then, after a time, "Mimosas bloom, and springtime edges / Into the city fragrantly" (p. 126). And so Seth's great hymn of praise to "the loveliest city in the world" goes on intermittently throughout the novel.
The themes of the novel can be briefly described. There is an ongoing dispute between the liberal, bisexual, antinuclear protestor Phil and the homophobic and politically right-wing John, whose work is somehow connected to the nuclear industry. Their argument epitomizes the larger debate that is conducted in the pages of the book. This is between those who choose "life" (by which Seth means friendship, tolerance, and a love of the earth and its fruits) and those who choose "death" (by which Seth means a life devoted to money, work, war, and the destruction of the environment). This may seem a simplistic configuration, but there is something simplistic, and almost Aesopian, about a book that sometimes reminds us of Beastly Tales, Seth's collection of moral fables. As an author Seth is never afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve or to take up a definite moral position: in The Golden Gate it is obvious where his sympathies lie.
The book is in many respects a celebration of California and its way of life, yet it is also a sharp critique of Silicon Valley's culture of money and work. John is rich, healthy, and attractive, yet he is also empty and lonely: "a link-less node" without family or real friends. Greed and worldly wisdom have lead him to Silicon Valley, which
Lures to ambition's ulcer alley
Young graduates with siren screams
Of power and wealth beyond their dreams
files take precedence over friends,
Labor is lauded, leisure riven.
John kneels bareheaded and unshod
Before the Chip, a jealous God.
Other themes, such as attitudes toward homosexuality and the choice between platonic companionship and passionate romantic love (one of Seth's favorite topics), are addressed and commented on, either directly or implicitly. Obviously a book that reveals its author's sympathies so transparently is going to annoy critics and readers who do not share them, and this indeed proved to be the case. Few commentators, however, were able to fault Seth's magisterial handling of the Pushkin sonnet.
The Golden Gate is a dazzling poetic performance that fully merited critics' comparison of Seth to authors such as Pushkin and Pope. His delight in the form and his sheer love of language are contagious and inspiring. In the poem he combines cheeky brilliance ("Thus the young yahoos coexist / With whoso list to list to Liszt," p. 297), funny plays on clichés ("like my dad, for heaven's sakes! / Still, that's the way the biscuit breaks," p. 75), and moving lyrical passages. Twice in the poem, in the guise of the economics student Kim Tarvesh (an anagram for Vikram Seth), the author steps in among his characters. His presence, however, is felt throughout the book as he keeps up a playful conversation with the reader and a ceaseless stream of wise and witty asides.
Seth's authorial manner recalls Byron in its swagger and self-conscious virtuosity. The contents, acknowledgments, and the "about the author" sections of the book are all written in Pushkin sonnets, and on the cover the title rhymes with the author's name: The Golden Gate / Vikram Seth. As is the case with Byron's writings, part of the delight of reading the poem is watching Seth work and play with the form and in particular the rhymes. Byronic, too, is the emphasis on pleasure. There are several epiphanic paeans to California wine, delicious breakfasts, sex, Scrabble, and Mozart.
Seth had great difficulty in finding a publisher for his verse novel, perhaps because it was a generically unclassifiable book that might in consequence be hard to sell. Eventually it was taken up by Faber & Faber in England and by Random House in the United States. It was a great success both with the public--its first American print run was 25,000 copies--and the critics. Gore Vidal called it "The Great Californian novel," and Seth was hailed as the boy wonder of literature in English.
ALL YOU WHO SLEEP TONIGHT (1990)
After the publication of The Golden Gate, Seth once again decided to combine a modern subject with a traditional form. He wrote a verse drama entitled Lynch & Boyle, which concerns the internal politics at an English publishing house. Although apparently completed, the play has never been produced or published, and one can only hope that Seth returns to it at some point. After writing the play he decided to embark upon a completely new writing project: a long prose novel set in postindependence India, which would become A Suitable Boy.
During the seven years it took to write the novel, Seth continued to compose and publish books of verse, the first of which was All You Who Sleep Tonight. At first glance this collection appears to bear many similarities to Seth's earlier volumes of poetry. In the sections "Romantic Residues" and "Meditations of the Heart" Seth is characteristically inspired by an everyday incident (in this case an experience at baggage claim in an airport) to ruminate about sex and love. The easy, colloquial, Larkinesque style is also familiar. One poem begins: "How rarely these few years, as work keeps us aloof |Po / Have we had days to spend under our parents' roof" (Collected Poems, p. 207).
Elsewhere, however, new forces are at work: in particular one can discern the influence of Seth's experiences as a novelist in the section "In Other Voices." Here we find a number of internal monologues in the manner of Browning, by various narrators from different periods and cultures. These include "A Doctor's Journal Entry for August 6, 1945" (the day of the Hiroshima bombing); a verse letter written after the Indian mutiny; and a deeply moving deathbed meditation by a modern-day AIDS sufferer.
Generally the poems do not set out to dazzle the reader in the manner of The Golden Gate. The section "Quatrains," however, is not dissimilar to Seth's great verse novel. Here he plays with another tight and traditional verse form, using it to express a wide variety of emotions and ideas. Some of the quatrains are lyrical, others are evocative or thought-provoking, and several are comic.
THREE CHINESE POETS (1992)
Seth had translated German and Indian poets in his early poetry collections, but Three Chinese Poets is his most substantial work of translation. In his introduction he discusses his fascination with the art of translation and sets out his own intentions for the book. Rather than freely attempting to distill the spirit of the original in the manner of Ezra Pound, Seth admits its primacy and endeavors to stay as close to it as is linguistically possible.
In the introduction Seth includes brief biographical sketches of the three poets: Wang Wei (701-762), Li Bai (701-761), and Du Fu (712-770). He also places their poetry in its historical context and takes us through a literal translation of one of the poems. His essay and the poems constitute an excellent introduction to ancient Chinese verse.
Wang Wei's poetry is serene and rather Zenlike. The first Wei poem included in the collection begins "Empty hills, no man in sight" (p. 223), and there are several cold but exquisitely beautiful evocations of natural scenes. The more exuberant Li Bai brings us back to the world of men. Titles such as "Parting at a Wine Shop in Nanjing" and "Bring in the Wine" give a taste of his quality, as does "Drinking Alone with the Moon."
While the Confucian sage Du Fu is less energetic and raucous, his attention is similarly fixed on the social world. Seth translates a letter in rhymed couplets written from the court as well as the "Ballad of the Army Carts," which begins with sharp, realistic detail: "Carts rattle and squeak, / Horses snort and neigh" (p. 270). Seth includes a number of notes at the back of the volume that are particularly helpful with regard to Du Fu, who makes numerous references to the Chinese court and its affairs. Three Chinese Poets added to Seth's reputation as an international writer of considerable range and originality.
A SUITABLE BOY (1993)
Seth originally planned to write five novels set in India in the second half of the twentieth century. When he began writing the first he discovered that it would by itself cover the length of five books. At 1,349 pages, A Suitable Boy is in fact the longest single-volume novel in the English language; without question, it is also the heaviest. Other interesting statistics can be mentioned: it had an initial print run of 100,000 copies, and Seth received the highest advance ever paid to a first-time novelist (the journalists didn't regard The Golden Gate as a real novel). With all the hype that surrounded its publication, Seth became one of the highest-profile authors in the world.
The central narrative concerns Rupa Mehra's search for "a suitable boy" for her youngest daughter, Lata. Lata is in love with a dashing Muslim cricketer named Kabir; she is also courted by Haresh, a foreman at a shoe factory, and the poet Amit Chatterji, who is Seth's alter-ego and the marvelous boy of modern Indian literature. The other main narrative strand focuses on Lata's brother-in-law, Maan Kapoor, who is looking for something to do with his indolent and rather charming life. These two narratives involve, and frequently bring together, characters from four families: the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Khans, and the Chatterjis. Most of the novel is set in the imaginary town of Brahmpur, where the first three of these families live, but Seth often takes his characters, and the reader, to the Chatterji house in Calcutta and to the country residence of the Khans.
The domestic action unfolds against a background of momentous political and social events. The year is 1950, and the newly partitioned and independent India prepares for its first general election and for a land act that symbolizes the passing of power from the old feudal class. The novel is a day-by-day account of the ensuing eighteen months: there are riots, political debates, cricket test matches, and religious festivals as well as private episodes such as marriages, births, and deaths. As with The Golden Gate, the structure is cyclical rather than linear; once again the rhythm of the plot is regulated by the changing seasons.
Within this cyclical structure, stories accumulate around the characters: there is little overall narrative development but instead a sort of organic growth and proliferation of subplots. In several metafictional passages, the novel is variously compared (usually by Amit Chatterji) to a raag (a traditional form of Indian music), a banyan tree, and to the Ganges, with its numberless tributaries. Critics have also compared the novel to a tapestry and a Victorian painting because it is at once extraordinarily detailed and vast in scale.
One other helpful comparison, erroneously attributed to Salman Rushdie, is with a television soap opera. What engages the reader's attention is the characters and their little trials and tribulations. We want to hear all the gossip about this or that person or family, and as in a Dickens novel, we need to know, every thirty or so pages, how our particular favorite character is getting on. The experience of reading the book is in fact very similar to the experience of reading nineteenth-century novels by authors such as Dickens. We derive great pleasure from empathizing and identifying with Seth's characters and from being a "fly on the wall" in their homes.
Generally speaking Seth's characters are not in-depth psychological portraits. In a society such as 1950s India, where social etiquette and appearances were everything, it would have been incongruous of him to have focused on their inner lives. Some of the characters are closer to caricatures: Rupa Mehra, for instance, is a rather absurd Lady Bracknell type, and her son, Arun, is a representative of the upper class of Indians who are still more than half in love with the culture of their former colonial rulers. What Seth gives us, in other words, is a collection of archetypal and exemplary figures who have little inner depth and who do not really develop in the course of the book. This is both appropriate for the social world he describes and congenial to his particular genius: as we have seen, his focus tends to be on the details and surfaces of everyday life.
Seth uses his archetypal characters to introduce his themes: thus Arun is a symbol of the continuing and pervasive influence of English culture in India. Lata's various attempts to thwart her mother's search for "a suitable boy" brings into focus the strict laws of Indian society and makes us realize that she is a point in a vast network of duties and affiliations rather than a free agent.
Lata's gradual understanding and acceptance of her position provides the emotional focus of the book. She comes to see that only those who recognize limitations have a chance of contentment: for her this means bending her will to that of her family. It is in this context that we must understand her decision to marry the most dependable and "suitable" yet least emotionally or intellectually exciting of her suitors. At the end of the novel she quotes the Victorian poet A. H. Clough to the effect that there are two kinds of human passion: the romantic one that excites but is usually violent and temporary, and the calmer passion that endures. It is entirely fitting that Seth should draw upon Clough here, because Seth drives his moral home with all the force and certainty of a Victorian writer.
In a broader sense, too, A Suitable Boy is about the power and presence of society. At every turn the characters come up against rules and laws of a legal, bureaucratic, religious, or social nature. The novel examines these laws and shows us what they are like in action. Seth spends a great deal of time explaining the intricacies of the political, economic, religious, academic, class, and linguistic situation of postindependence India. The book can indeed be read as an encyclopedia of that society or as a sort of "travel book" that explains India to Western readers.
Seth makes one thing resoundingly clear: there is nothing outside this social, political, and economic world. While religious beliefs are presented favorably insofar as they provide the glue that holds society and the family together, vague aspirations of transcendence are gently but consistently mocked in the book. Likewise the Marxist Rasheed, who in intellectual terms tries to transcend his society, is driven to madness and suicide.
The novel is also encyclopedic in its attention to detail. Among other things, it includes a list of prison rules, quotations from tourist guides and scientific manuals, instructions for feeding mynah birds, guidelines for how to play polo, and a list of Indian judges before and after 1947. Sometimes the detail is overwhelming: one might echo the charge made against Joyce's Ulysses (a book referred to and playfully mocked in the novel) and say that Seth has made a novel out of the Brahmpur telephone directory. Seth is all too aware of this: the two epigraphs to the novel, both of which are from Voltaire, read: "The superfluous, that very necessary thing |Po" and "The secret of being a bore is to say everything."
At times, particularly in the middle sections of the book, Seth is indeed uncharacteristically dull. One of the difficulties is that the style is not interesting enough to keep hold of the reader's attention in the same way that it did in The Golden Gate. While Seth's prose is extremely flexible and varied--the book includes letters, telegrams, diary entries, cricket reports, religious and political speeches--it fails to create its own distinctive universe.
Throughout the novel Seth generally adopts an unadorned and transparent style and thus aligns himself with the realistic tradition of Indian writing that includes authors such as R. K. Narayan and Rohinton Mistry rather than the more experimental tradition exemplified by Salman Rushdie. In this context, but not specifically with regard to Rushdie, Seth has commented that he admires Victorian writers "who portray the lives of other people rather than those who try to emphasize technique and their own particular finesse in the use of language. That seems to me to be like using a stained glass window to look out to see a particular view. I'd much rather have a clear window" (in Pandurang, p. 112).
This may seem a little rich coming from the author of The Golden Gate, a novel in which style, rather than sincerity and content, is everything, but it successfully describes the style, or lack of style, of A Suitable Boy. There are few dazzling poetic riffs or witty authorial asides, and Seth keeps a tight leash on his love of form and language. The most entertaining parts of the book are perhaps those set in the Chatterji house in Calcutta, which are written in a sharp, slightly camp style that is closer to Oscar Wilde and Noël Coward than Narayan. At one point the poet Amit, who is writing a long and weighty novel about the Bengal famine, reflects that he might be better off turning his hand to a social comedy based on the lives of his family; some readers might apply the remark to Seth and his weighty book.
One feels a little guilty criticizing Seth, however, because there are so many wonderful things in the novel. The scenes in which his characters come together (and the essential purpose of the plot is to engineer such occasions) are excellently evoked whether they are funerals, weddings, theatrical productions, religious festivals, cricket matches, academic committees, or bridge parties. Seth has a brilliant line in bitchy gossip, and he is excellent at observing the interaction and power struggles between characters. He also has an ability to enter into the mind of his female characters in a way that is rare for a male novelist. Indeed, in its attention to details and in its gentle irony, there are times that this novel recalls Jane Austen, another author mentioned throughout the book.
In any case Seth appears to be fairly thick-skinned when it comes to criticism. Throughout his books in fact he brilliantly parodies the world of academics and journalists, and in interviews one sometimes gets the impression that he is enjoying an elaborate game of hide-and-seek. On occasion he has been openly hostile and contemptuous. In one interview, apropos of the reviews of A Suitable Boy, he bluntly remarked: "It doesn't matter what professors |Po or critics |Po think about the current state of the novel. What will last as literature and what gives pleasure is clear, affecting, straightforward writing which appeals to the general intelligent reader" (in Pandurang, pp. 111-112).
BEASTLY TALES FROM HERE AND THERE (1992)
According to his foreword, Seth began work on his ten "beastly tales" to amuse himself during the composition of A Suitable Boy. The tales, which are written in the rhymed tetrameter couplets he had used for the contents page of his gargantuan Indian novel, belong to the genre of the "beast epic"--an allegorical story involving animal characters. Aesop and Chaucer contributed to this genre, as have George Orwell (Animal Farm) and Richard Adams (Watership Down). In selecting the tales, Seth characteristically cast his net very wide: they are drawn from the folklores of India, China, Greece, and Ukraine; the final two tales came directly to him from the imaginary "Land of Gup."
It is hardly surprising that Seth was attracted to the genre, because in his previous books he had displayed both a love of animals (Charlemagne the cat in The Golden Gate, Cuddles the dog in A Suitable Boy) and a fondness for sweeping moral statements. Like many authors before him, Seth uses the form to explore moral issues. In "The Frog and the Nightingale" he rides one of his favorite hobby horses when he criticizes the critics. The frog of the tale, who is a critic for the Bog Trumpet, becomes the agent and mentor of the gifted nightingale. Under the frog's influence, the nightingale looses its genius, pines away, and dies. This leaves the field open for the frog who, at the end of the tale, blares his dreary song unrivaled through the bog.
In "The Elephant and the Tragopan," political and environmental issues are addressed when the animals of Bingle Valley lobby the authorities about the projected building of a dam in their land. This tale is the most Orwellian in the collection and bears a striking resemblance to the antinuclear march described in The Golden Gate and to a number of scenes of student protest in A Suitable Boy. Although it is clear where Seth's sympathies lie, he declares at the conclusion that his is a "tale without a moral." Likewise, in the other tales, the expected Aesopian moral is often inverted. In the "The Hare and the Tortoise," even though the hardworking Hare wins the race, it is the more glamorous Tortoise who claims all of the media attention. Here too there are several echoes of A Suitable Boy: Haresh (the Hare of the novel) wins the race to marry Lata, but most readers wish that the prize had fallen to Amit Chatterji.
Beastly Tales could have been written by Amit, with a little help from his sisters Kakoli and Meenakshi, both of whom converse in funny couplets. Some of the authorial asides are written in a humorous spirit: one reads: "(Why he wept was never clear / So it can't be stated here)" (p. 29), and throughout it is clear that Seth is having a great deal of fun finding words and rhymes for his strict formal scheme. At one point Seth alludes to Scrabble, a game that requires great linguistic inventiveness and agility. It is Seth's success at a similar game--the game of writing rhymed couplets--that makes Beastly Tales such a wonderful read.
ARION AND THE DOLPHIN (1994)
This verse libretto, commissioned by the English National Opera in 1992, was written for an opera by Alec Roth. The story is a retelling of the legend of Arion, a brilliant musician from Corinth who was thrown overboard while returning from a musical contest in Sicily and saved by a group of dolphins who had gathered round the ship to hear him sing.
At various points Seth's libretto recalls Shakespeare's The Tempest. The text alternates between Arion's beautiful arias and the colloquial recitative sections of the sailors onboard the ship. Arion is in fact the reincarnation of the tricky spirit Ariel: he serves Periander, a tyrannous master, and his songs are light, lovely, and energetic.
Seth had not written playful, tongue-twisting verse such as this since The Golden Gate, and indeed, Arion recalls Seth's great verse novel in its exuberant style and the pleasure he takes in its form.
In his poetry, Seth had often tried to find words for music and, as it were, to marry the two artistic forms. All You Who Sleep Tonight included an evocation of a movement of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet; The Golden Gate similarly includes an account of a Mozart string quartet. Seth would try the trick again, on a much grander scale, when he came to write An Equal Music, and yet Arion and the Dolphin is possibly his most successful work in this context. One can only hope that Seth returns to the verse libretto form in the future because it is particularly suited to his genius. Seth also recast Arion and the Dolphin as a prose and verse tale for children and published it in an illustrated edition in 1994.
AN EQUAL MUSIC (1999)
Here Seth returns to a subject that appears throughout his oeuvre: music and its relationship to the world of words and men. Whole sections in A Suitable Boy were dedicated to discussions of the history and technicalities of traditional Indian music, and in his poetry Seth has frequently tried to translate the effect of music into verse. Here we are offered a guided tour of the world of Western classical music by Michael Holme, second violinist in the London-based Maggiore string quartet.
Michael's first-person narrative follows the Maggiore's tour from London to Vienna and then Venice; it also relates the sad and tortuous history of his relationship to Julia McNicholl, a deaf pianist. Once again, however, the plot proves to be one of the least important things in a Seth novel, and its development is cyclical rather than linear. On occasion the lack of action and dramatic tension in the book (reminiscent of the middle sections of A Suitable Boy) make you wonder whether you are reading a novel at all. It is indeed possible that Seth has tried to structure his story along the lines of a musical composition.
Michael is a learned and comprehensive guide (comprehensiveness is, according to one's viewpoint, one of Seth's great virtues or vices as a writer). He shows us rehearsals, backstage scenes at performances, and the power struggles between quartet members. He also introduces us to instrument makers and auctioneers, agents, critics, annoying fans, and record dealers. As ever, Seth has put an enormous amount of research into a novel, which might be described as an intelligent person's introduction to classical music.
For all his firsthand experience and comprehensiveness, Michael is a rather glum guide, and this makes us tire quickly of his company. A working-class boy from Rochdale, a town in the North of England, he has escaped his lowly origins through his musical gifts and entered a world dominated by middle- and upper-class "southerners." In this world, he feels disgruntled and uncomfortable; the price he has paid for entering it is the loss of his original identity (he soon discards his northern accent, for instance), and there is no chance of his ever returning "home." The English class system and the government's neglect of the working class and the North are two of the book's themes.
Michael is also reduced to misery by London, a city so vast and anonymous that sensitive souls such as himself have little chance of survival. Michael in fact resembles many melancholy characters from fiction set in London such as Arthur Clennam in Dickens' Little Dorrit and Edwin Reardon, the hero of George Gissing's New Grub Street. These figures are crushed under the weight and immensity of a city that adheres solely to the imperatives of money and power. Like these characters, Michael is worn down and debilitated by the ferocious energy of a place that in his eyes assumes the attributes of the inferno. "I do feel uneasy," he confesses at one point, "oppressed, dizzy: the bright lights, the large number of people all round, the heat, the colours, the sense of being underground |Po" (p. 229). This is strongly reminiscent of much London literature, from the novels just mentioned to Wordsworth's account, in The Prelude, of his visit to St. Bartholomew's Fair.
Rather like John in The Golden Gate, Michael is a symbol of the alienation and loneliness of modern urban life: he hardly speaks to his neighbors and recognizes that he is "one of the lonely majority" (p. 451). It is hardly surprising that Seth's latest "linkless node" seeks relief and salvation in romantic love with Julia. Unfortunately for Michael she is married with a child, and she is also a Catholic; when it comes to it, readers of Seth's earlier work know which form of love she will choose. She sacrifices her sexual passion for Michael to her family and her sense of morality, just as Lata sacrificed Kabir for Haresh. Michael, who feels an instinctive hatred for her religion, is unable to understand the reasons for her choice.
His one solace in life is music, and this novel is, among other things, an impassioned testament to the healing and consolatory properties of art. At the end of the novel Michael sits listening to Julia's piano recital, and he is blessed with a moment of tranquillity and grace. Throughout the book Michael describes music as a faithful friend: it visits him when he is in need of help and takes him out of himself into an impersonal world of perfect form.
Michael also tries to weave music into the texture of his prose, to translate it directly into language. This has been the Holy Grail of many twentieth-century writers such as James Joyce, who used a polyphonic and contrapuntal technique in Finnegans Wake, and Anthony Burgess, who based the structure of a novel called Napoleon Symphony on Beethoven's Third Symphony. As has been suggested, Seth may have attempted something similar here, because the architecture of An Equal Music is utterly unlike that of a conventional novel.
Michael's attempt to translate music into language inspires him to write several prose poems, or epiphanies, such as the following: "Dying, undying, a dying fall, a rise: the waves of sound well around us as we generate them" (pp. 109-110). These purple patches, which recall Joyce and certain writers of the 1890s (a decade in which literature aspired to the condition of music), become more frequent as the book goes on. By the end, the use of impressionistic descriptions, associative images, and internal rhymes becomes commonplace. "I wrote to you; I know the fax went through" (p. 388).
Michael's (and Seth's) stylistic quest is of course doomed to failure: the closest a writer has come to translating music into words is Finnegans Wake, a novel that is, in consequence, utterly unreadable. Throughout the novel Seth admits the difficulty of his endeavor when he suggests that the power and the secret of music are ultimately ineffable. Perhaps in unconscious acknowledgement of this, he also compiled an Equal Music CD, comprised of music mentioned in the novel and sold along with the book.
An Equal Music is the least entertaining of all Seth's novels. His use of first-person narration denies us the multiple voices of A Suitable Boy and the multiple perspectives of The Golden Gate. Likewise, Michael cannot compete with Seth as a narrator: he lacks humor, intellectual curiosity, and emotional empathy; he has little range either as a human being or as a stylist. Most importantly, perhaps, he does not occupy a social space (Seth's favored territory) but rather a sterile and claustrophobic world of introspection, anxiety, and nostalgia. It is as if Seth had rewritten The Golden Gate from John's point of view or produced a revised edition of From Heaven Lake containing endless authorial meditations instead of his sharp observations of place and character.
Wright, Thomas. "Vikram Seth." British Writers, Supplement 10, edited by Jay Parini, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2004.