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Vikram Seth: 'Two Lives' and One Century

Vikram Seth reads from Two Lives at an the Asia Society on Nov. 16, 2005. (Preston Merchant/Asia Society)

Vikram Seth reads from Two Lives at an the Asia Society on Nov. 16, 2005. (Preston Merchant/Asia Society)

I didn’t mean to suggest that your previous books have had nothing to do with politics, but just to say that Two Lives was more overtly so, and that, obviously, as you say, has to do with the subject matter you were dealing with.

I think in a non-fiction book, one is a bit more overt. For instance even with From Heaven Lake, I discussed China and India quite overtly, and the comparative advantages of each, and their comparative histories, and how they’re taking care of their people. I could never have done that in a novel.

So it also has something to do with the form.

Yes, partly it does.

One of most interesting questions you raise in the book has to do with language. As you recount your own revulsion at the German language when going through historical archives of the Holocaust, you say, for instance, that “the very accent embodied sickness and evil” and “I could not listen to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion… It was as if the language itself forced images upon me that I could neither dissolve nor resist.” How, if at all, do you think your response fits in with comments made by German-speaking Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust? For instance Hannah Arendt when asked, “What remains?” [Was bleibt?], responded by saying, “The mother tongue remains” [Es bleibt die Muttersprache] while Theodor Adorno famously said that, “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.

No, I wasn’t aware of these things. It was a very personal reaction for me. I can imagine for Hannah Arendt, as in a sense, for Henny, “Es bleibt die Muttersprache” is a very natural kind of reaction. But for me it was not meine Muttersprache, and it is very interesting that she says the Muttersprache and of course it is their Vaterland. So in Germany you have both, really, whereas in most countries you just have what you call madrizabaan [the mother tongue] and one talks about motherland, rather than fatherland. German is unusual in that regard.

I would say that my reaction was something quite unexpected for me, and I could see the illogic of it. I could even see the injustice of it, but it wasn’t something that I could deal with until, finally, as time passed, I made myself read these letters, these ordinary letters sent by ordinary people, and it somehow reconciled me to the fact that the language was what it was, and it had had this dreadful history, which was not just in those twelve years of the Nazi period. It had also earlier been the vehicle of racism and anti-Semitism and so on, but if one were to judge every language that way, where would one stop? That is what one could call a rationalization or a reasoned argument, and I was quite beyond that. I am by no means happy about my response to that poor young kid as I tell it in the book. I was a bit ashamed of myself in fact but basically it was more illustrative of the fact that this is what happens.

You are right about language in general, though. But it also raises the question of whether one is being a bit self-indulgent introducing that element into a book which is about two lives basically. Not two and a half. I am part of the narrative of their lives and also a part of the process of re-creating them.

You say at one point toward the close of the book, “An evil century past and a still more dangerous one to come. May we not be as foolish as we are almost bound to be.” Did your work on this book make you more pessimistic about the possibility of political or social change than you had previously been, having gone through this historical archive at such length, and so broadly? Do you think that it may have had that kind of effect?

Well, as a result of reading these letters one becomes both both more pessimistic and more optimistic about human nature, because of course it is also true that some of Henny’s friends turned away, but many others, at great cost to themselves, helped her mother and her sister. And it wasn’t just a single event like Kristallnacht, or a single riot like in Gujarat. It went on for years on end, and they could have been seen as helping the enemy within, and could have been denounced, and things wouldn’t have gone well either for them or their families. So to that extent I would say such situations bring out the best and the worst in people, both psychologically and morally.

So, so much for that. I would not necessarily be an optimist or pessimist, but I would say that it’s quite balanced there. As for what the future holds, well being too pessimistic is not always being realistic. Who would have thought that South Africa, for all the violence that has taken place, would not have actually degenerated into a far worse situation than exists?

After apartheid, you mean?

Yes, post-apartheid, I wondered what the denouement would be given the terrible situation there. I never expected that there would be a kind of negotiation, and that a democracy would result, and so on and so forth. I really thought there would be a bloodbath with millions dead. We can call that the realistic view of things but in fact to be too pessimistic might not be to be realistic at all.

Similarly with the Middle East, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what kind of solution might or might not present itself. But someone once said, “The impossible moves into being the inevitable without really going through the intermediate stage of possibility.” And who knows what the future holds?

What worries me about the danger of this coming century is basically a technological danger. That is, each century produces its usual quota of nutcases, well madmen let’s say, of journeymen as rulers, and of sages, but the real problem is that the madmen can have their fingers on better technological means of destruction. One can certainly assume that if Hitler had had some of the means that are now available, he would have used them. Similarly smaller groups can use them. In fact, there may be a point when individuals can. And what one really has to deal with is what goes on between our ears, the hatred in our brains. People who try to solve problems by force, or by putting up a wall, or by ignoring historical realities are ignoring the fact that technology marches on. And eventually one has to deal with the most serious causes of injustice and the breeding grounds of hatred before one can talk about all the other technological means of resistance, or conquest, or whatever.

Now a very general question: who would you say have been the main influences in your work?

Well, they’ve been all over the lot, I suppose, but if I were to choose one writer it would be a writer none of whose words I’ve ever read: Pushkin. I can’t read Russian, so all I get is his words filtered or intermediated through very good translations but he’s inspired me for two reasons: first, he writes in different genres quite unselfconsciously, without making a particular point of it, and it gives me courage to attempt various things, whether or not they work. And the second thing is that I love his clarity of tone. He writes clearly, and sometimes he writes with humor, sometimes he writes terribly movingly, he just moves seamlessly between different registers. The ease with which he moves into one or another is something that I have always been inspired by. But life consists of different zones, you might say, or different strips or strands of happiness and sorrow, of pragmatism and idealism, of all these different things mixed up. I don’t think one should slot oneself into a particular tone or register when one writes. At least that’s why I think Pushkin is the writer I most admire.

It may be premature to ask this question given the work you have just completed but do you have any projects in mind for the future?

I have vague projects but I don’t think they improve by being talked about! That’s a bit of evasion there, I suppose! I don’t have any particular project which is really obsessing me, and as I said in the first question, it’s impulsion that compels me to write. Were there some such project then, Nermeen, we wouldn’t be talking!

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society.