Boy to man
Vikram Seth made history with the blockbusting 'A Suitable Boy'. His latest book is not a novel but a biography-cum-memoir that tells an intriguing family story, he tells Louise East
When Vikram Seth's novel A Suitable Boy was published, in 1993, it made history. At 1,349 pages, it was the longest novel that had ever appeared in English. Yet despite its physical resemblance to a telephone directory, it sold more than a million copies, and ecstatic reviewers compared Seth to Tolstoy and George Eliot.
Already the author of several well-received books of poetry, Seth seemed set for life, but when his mother visited from India the following year, Seth confided that he didn't know what to write next. She, after some thought, suggested he write about his great-uncle Shanti, who, after all, had had such an interesting life.
The anecdote would be simply endearing - as if Tolstoy's mother had suggested her son write a nice book about his Aunt Elena and her way with borscht - except that Seth took his mother up on her suggestion to sensational effect.
This month sees the publication of Two Lives, a 500-page combination of biography and memoir for which his publisher reportedly paid him an advance of €2 million, even though he had not seen the manuscript. Already the prepublication hype has Two Lives down as the book of the autumn, and after today's interview Seth is setting off on a long promotional tour of the US, India and Europe.
In the flesh, Seth is small - 160cm, or 5ft 3in, tall - and correctly-spoken to the point of sounding old-fashioned. He admits that the publicity process can be a little tiring, "because I go crazy unless I spend 60 or 70 per cent of the day by myself". Initially, even he was unconvinced that the project was anything more than family duty.
"Although I found the story quite interesting, I wasn't sure how gripping or intriguing it would be. It was really only after reading the letters of my aunt that I realised this was an interesting and unusual set of circumstances."
Seth's great-uncle Shanti left India at the age of 23 to study dentistry in Berlin, despite knowing not a word of German. By luck, he found lodgings with a family called the Caros, who drew him into their humming social life. Not so lucky was the timing of his arrival, in 1931, just two years before Hitler came to power.
Two Lives traces the restrictions placed on the Jewish Caros culminating in the flight of their eldest daughter, Henny, to London in 1939. Shanti, who had arrived in London two years previously, met her at Victoria station, not long before he himself was posted overseas. When Shanti lost his arm in the Battle of Monte Cassino, the first letter he scrawled with his left hand was to Henny.
Yet it was not love letters in the conventional sense that piqued Seth's interest but an altogether sadder set of papers, found by chance in a trunk hidden in an attic. These were the letters that shuttled back and forth between Henny and her friends in the years after the war, letters in which Henny learns the fate of her mother and sister and hears that her former fiance married another girl.
"Discovering what I did about Aunt Henny was a revelation," Seth says sombrely. "She gave the impression of being rather a brusque, cool person. I lived with her and Uncle [in London, where he came to take A-levels] for a long time and knew this was not really the case, but even I had no idea what a heroic person she was after she had lost her closest family to Nazi Germany."
What is perhaps most interesting about Two Lives is that it deals in ambiguities rather than absolutes. The relationship between Shanti and Henny is not a great romantic love but what Seth describes as "something worthwhile built out of something quite unorthodox".
Seth's own relationship with his great-uncle is compromised by a contentious will that disinherits most of Seth's family.
Two Lives "has been something of a teacher", he says. "There were these nuggets of unarguable fact - letters, other people's opinions, historical evidence - that were not just the product of my imagination. I had to take them as given and try to feel my way round them . . . Henny's letters made a huge impression on me. To realise how ordinary people negotiate difficult situations, the complexity of the fabric of their lives."
Seth's own life is, if not complex, then certainly a dense tapestry. He was born in Calcutta in 1952; his mother was India's first woman chief justice, and his father was high up in India's state-owned Bata shoe company. After taking his A-levels, Seth won a scholarship to Oxford University, where he read politics, philosophy and economics. "In the beginning, I think I just wanted to be able to read newspapers, which seemed to me to have the news and the crossword and all this stuff in the middle called the business pages which I never understood."
Fourteen years later, although he spent much of his time writing and publishing poetry, he was still officially pursuing a PhD in economics, by now at Stanford University and in China. "I studied too long. There were times when I didn't get diminishing or low returns but absolutely no returns whatsoever."
Seth chuckles at this distinctly economic way of putting it, then concedes that his novels have benefited from his interest in politics and economics. "Work is such a large part of people's lives, and yet so many novels only talk about love, love, love. Love is very important, but so is work."
His interest in work informed his first novel, 1986's The Golden Gate, a satire on San Francisco's burgeoning yuppie culture, written entirely in verse.
None of its characters is Indian, so it was something of a surprise when Seth, despite being celebrated in the US, decided to return to India and base his next novel there. "I always thought it would be too possible to go to California and wake up one morning and realise I was 50."
He spent the next six years living at home with his parents, where the novel that would become A Suitable Boy just kept getting bigger. "It did worry me, although I couldn't stop writing it," he says. "I knew it would be unsaleable. I thought readers in the era of television had a 15-second attention span and wouldn't spare the time. There wasn't a lot of overt sex in it. There was no glossary. I knew it wouldn't sell." He pauses and smiles. "I was wrong."
That he was wrong to the tune of a million copies he puts down to luck and to his belief that "people like stories and they like characters, and they sometimes find that the so-called modern art novel doesn't give them too much of either".
His publisher will be counting on Seth to perform the same trick twice, having offered him the huge advance on the strength of a synopsis written by Seth's agent, who had himself not read the unfinished manuscript. "I had written about two-thirds of it, but when I write a book I really do not want anyone else to even look at it until I've finished the first draft."
These days Seth moves between India, Wiltshire and anywhere he wants to research. "I don't see myself as unrooted. If I were to ask myself 'What am I?' I would say 'I'm Indian.' There would be no question in my mind about that. But I don't feel that that denies me the possibility of writing about Californians, or an English violinist in a string quartet [ in 1999's An Equal Music] or a German Jew who's trying to trace her family."
He has never married, and remains evasive on the subject, referring interviewers to one of his early poems, Dubious: "Some men like Jack/ and some like Jill./ I'm glad I like/ them both." So does he have a partner now? Momentarily, Seth seems lost for words, before finding some suitably opaque ones: "No. Well, I have, or I had, I would say - in the last year, there's an understanding that, I think, we're meant for other people. Not that there is another person in my life, but that this isn't going to work out in those terms, although a deep friendship remains and will always remain."
With a memoir, fiction, poetry, travel writing and evena libretto under his belt, the world is watching what Seth will come up with next. He insists he never sets out to make life difficult for himself. Attempting a new form "does keep me interested, but it's not as if I'm going to write an epic in Serbo-Croat about Chinese fisherman just because it would be challenging to do".
So if not that, then what? "I'd like to write short books," he says. "Poems, novellas, short stories, plays perhaps. Sprints rather than a marathon."
Two Lives is published by Little, Brown, £20. Vikram Seth will take part in a question-and-answer session, conducted by Prof Nicholas Grene, at Trinity College, Dublin, on September 26th at 7.30pm (01-6082301)