This is the latest by Vikram Seth, best known for A Suitable Boy. Seth is one of only two or three authors whose new works I buy on sight, without waiting to read reviews (mind you, since he only publishes every decade or so, this is not an expensive habit). I have on several occasions said that I think that Seth the greatest living writer of English, and may say so again. This book, a double biography of his Indian-born dentist uncle and Berlin-born Jewish aunt and the middle-class English life they built on the wreckage of terrible war wounds, physical and spiritual, is not perfect, but it’s very good and you probably won’t regret reading it. Herewith some remarks on the book and a funny story about the time I met the author.
Seth for Beginners · Seth was working on his Ph.D. in Economics when he stumbled into writing. Of his works, I think three stand out, the first being the very early From Heaven Lake, a slim memoir of a trip he took due south from northwest China down into Tibet and then home to India, hitch-hiking across a part of the world most will never see. Then there is The Golden Gate, a romantic story with soap-opera tinges, of Eighties Northern-California yuppies, told entirely in formal Onegin sonnets, many so full of rhythm and grace they take one’s breath away. Finally there is A Suitable Boy, his massive novel of life and love in India of the Fifties; it’s entertaining, touching, and entirely unsentimental.
His collected poems don’t do that much for me, and I love poetry. His last-but-one novel, An Equal Music, contains a couple of parallels to my own life that cut so close to the bone that I was shaken when I finished, and couldn’t begin to have an opinion as to whether it’s actually good or not.
Two Lives · Shanti Uncle and Auntie Henny were people with remarkable lives who strove hard to become unremarkable. The Second World War—specifically, a German artillery shell—inflicted terrible physical damage on Shanti, knocking him out of his profession, but he climbed back into it. The same historical nexus—specifically, Auschwitz and Theresienstadt—inflicted probably-worse emotional damage on Henny. They married late, having been friends for two decades, and grew old together in a carefully-constructed genteel London environment of bridge parties and good housekeeping, and died, ungracefully as do most of us.
Vikram Seth’s great virtue is clarity; I’m not sure any writer of English has ever inscribed so many words with so few barriers to understanding them. The apparently-effortless flow of narrative is I’m sure the result of relentless rewriting, it’s like listening to Rostropovich, two thousand hours of practice make two hours of performance sound easy.
Seth injects himself into this book, inevitably, since he was an important figure in Shanti and Henny’s later lives. The opening sequence will be found useful by his students and admirers, as it packs in quite a lot of no-nonsense autobiography.
The Holocaust · Do we really need another narrative of how the Jews were oppressed and robbed and murdered in the twelve years starting in 1933? Well, I think we need this one, which avoids generalities and focuses with ruthless clarity on exactly what happened to Hennerle’s mother and sister; it includes reproductions of postcards from Birkenau (that’s the nasty part of Auschwitz which was only about killing, as opposed to the industrial part documented by Primo Levi in the invaluable If This is a Man), and the legal document by which the Thousand-Year Reich appropriated the family’s possessions.
Because I worry, really worry, that in the civilized West, where nobody goes to war who doesn’t want to, we might forget that in what seem like civilized modern countries, the grandparents of people now living deliberately and as a matter of policy murdered several million other people, whose living grandchildren are therefore far fewer in number. There is still considerable disagreement over why this happened; but clear-eyed testimony as to exactly how it happened remains valuable, if only as a reminder.
To me, the narrative of the postwar years equaled the war stories in interest if not intensity. How does a level-headed middle-class Berlin-born Jewish women whose family was murdered by the German state go about rebuilding her relations with her pre-war friends? They are mostly German; and mostly Gentile, because the Jews are all dead. It makes absorbing reading.
The Particular and the General · Seth’s genius, it seems uncontroversial to say, is for bringing people—real or imagined—to life, and walking with them through stories that it is impossible not to care about, and which are redolent with larger lessons. In this book, he attempts to take on the Larger Lessons directly, with excurses on The Role of Germany In History and The Israel-Palestine Question; while he says nothing with which I disagree, the undecorated lives of Shanti and Henny say more in their limpid particulars than any amount of the author’s unremarkable generalities.
Meeting Vikram · Sometime around 1990 I drove two hours to attend a literary festival in Toronto because Vikram Seth was appearing and reading. I remember little of the reading, but I do remember lining up after to get a book signed.
At the time, I was professionally engaged in computerizing the Oxford English Dictionary, and had been sucked into its Readers’ program. This is a voluntary, co-operative effort by which a huge number of volunteers all over the world read, well, anything, and send neatly packaged citations of unusual words, or usual words used in particularly exemplary or unusual ways, off to Oxford, where they are the raw materials fed into the great lexicographic machine.
I read lots of stuff for the Dictionary, including some Seth. So when I got to the front of the line, while he was signing my book, I said “I have a story that you’ll like.” (He looked alarmed.) “I read The Golden Gate for the Oxford English Dictionary.” A moment’s blankness, and he said “Ah... I know. Onions!” Then I was blank, before I realized that he was referring to C.T. Onions, one of the titans who edited the First Edition of the OED, and who had strong Indian connections.
I’m sure he doesn’t remember that episode. But if you read this book, you won’t forget Shanti and Henny.