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)

From the author of A Suitable Boy, this masterful fusion of memoir, biography and history creates an extraordinary tapestry of India, the Third Reich and the Second World War, Auschwitz and the Holocaust, Israel and Palestine, post-war Germany and 1970s Britain. Vikram Seth's Two Lives is both a chronicle of a violent century seen through the eyes of two survivors and an intimate portrait of their friendship, marriage and complex love. A childless couple living in England—Henny, a German-Jew who fled Hitler’s Germany, and Shanti from the Raj’s India—take in their grand nephew Vikram Seth.

This interview was conducted while Seth was in New York for a Meet the Author program at the Asia Society on November 16, 2005.

In an interview to The Guardian recently you have said that each of your books has “come about because it could not not have been written.” You say that your writing has announced itself to you with an urgency you could not resist. Could you elaborate on this? Is this impulse what compelled you to begin a career in writing?

Yes. Yes, to the last question. I never decided to become a writer, as people sometimes put it. I just had to write certain books, or certain poems, and then after a number of these had been written, I realized that I was a writer. In other words, it wasn’t the lifestyle that attracted me. It was specific impulses to write specific books. My first full-length book, for instance, the travel book, From Heaven Lake, came about because of a particular journey, and then, I suppose, I got rather tired of telling people about the story so I wrote a few pages by way of notes. It is interesting in fact that my father suggested I make a book out of it. Now, at that stage, it wasn’t a book that could not not have been written. At the time I just thought: a parent has asked me to do it, I will just begin writing something about it. And that is true also of this book, Two Lives. My mother suggested that I interview my great-uncle because I was at a loose end. So, so much for the two non-fiction books. They began almost as tasks to be performed, and at some stage during that, they gripped me, and I came to realize that this was not just something that I was going to do for some family archival purposes, or just to avoid having to repeat myself. I became gripped by the telling of the story.

In this particular case, in the case of Two Lives, I was taken by the narrative after the discovery of a set of letters that my great-aunt had written that gave the story a kind of depth, a perspective, an intimacy, and a kind of psychological and moral connection, in terms of decision-making in times of great stress, apart from its human interest, which was considerable. But as far as my three novels are concerned, in each case, there was an impulse. In one case because I had read a novel in verse, which inspired me to write my own, and that was The Golden Gate. In one case because I heard a snippet of conversation: “You too will marry a boy I choose,” which germinated the book, A Suitable Boy. And in the case of An Equal Music, despite its subject matter, its inspiration was very non-musical: just watching someone stare at the water of the Serpentine very intently and wondering what on earth his thoughts were.

You have written, as you have just indicated, in several different genres: fiction, poetry, translation, travel, libretto. Is there any genre in particular in which you feel more at home?

Poetry. Always poetry. I have written lyric poetry throughout my career. The books appear sporadically, but that is only because composing poems to form a book takes a number of years. I should say too that there are some genres which I have written in but have not succeeded in. I’ve written a play, for instance, but it’s really awful, so I haven’t published it, and short stories of a sort as well, which weren’t awful, but they were pretty mediocre. I would like to write a good play and a good short story. I think I’m capable of it, but so far there’s no proof of it. I was persuaded by some friends to look at these things again on the basis that I might have been too critical, or too exacting, but no, I hadn’t been too exacting. They were what they were and they weren’t much good. But I think, in answer to the question that you posed, poetry is something that I’ve always considered myself primarily, or at heart, to be at home in. And I sometimes look at my work and wonder how on earth I strayed into prose. I think the reason is that after I wrote The Golden Gate, which either you could see as a long poem, or you could see as a verse novel, I discovered that I had the taste, and the stamina, for writing novels, and I subsequently wrote two more.

You were commissioned to write a libretto by the English National Opera (published as Arion and the Dolphin) and have also written on the lives of two musicians in Europe, An Equal Music, about which one reviewer wrote, “One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is the way in which it manages to convey music through language.” Could you explain how you became interested in European classical music and what its relation is, if any, to your writing in general, and to language in particular?

Good heavens! That is quite an elaborate question. My first serious training was in the North Indian classical tradition of singing khayal. In fact, my teacher, Pandit Amarnathji, was a shaagird of Ustad Amir Khan Sahib so that’s the sort of general line of descent. Though I wouldn’t really consider myself in any sense a proper musician. I just studied in the tradition for a couple of years.

I came to Western music somewhat late, in that when I was at university in England, I was taken along to hear the Bach Flute Sonatas and stuff like that and realized how much I liked it as well. I began singing Schubert Lieder when I was writing A Suitable Boy because I couldn’t strum the tanpura and start singing Indian classical music, it would just draw me back into the book, where there were a number of Indian singers, and in fact, also sarangi players and such like. So I thought that that’s what I would do. A friend of mine in Delhi, who was an Austrian diplomat, got me involved with Schubert. So one thing led to another. I think that the reason why I wrote An Equal Music about Western music was because I happened to be walking with a friend of mine, at the time when I saw, in my mind’s eye, this man staring at the water. My friend happened to be a musician, and when I said to him, “Look, I know this person has something to do with my next book, but I don’t know why. He’s so deep in thought. I know nothing of his profession, I don’t even know his nationality, except that he sort of looks white and could be Canadian for all I know, or a Scotsman or something.” But my friend said, “I don’t know what his nationality is, but I’ll tell you what his profession is. He’s a musician.” So that’s part of how it began. But I had my doubts about writing about music, because how does one write about music? Which is why I decided it should be in the first person, so that the obsessions of the man could somehow take me through music. Otherwise it would just seem like program notes.

As far as Arion and the Dolphin is concerned, I normally don’t work to commission at all. It seems to me to be almost the opposite of inspiration. But in this particular case I was working with a composer, Alec Roth, whose music I really loved. He had set some of my poems, which I had already written, to music, and so I thought that I wouldn’t be wasting my words, so to speak. It would be set well, and I would be intrigued by it. And they left the subject entirely up to me.

In your most recent book, Two Lives, you cover a range of historical events and themes: the British Raj, the Quit India movement, the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the current situation in Israel/Palestine, among others. Given the questions and reflections you raise in the context of these events, do you think that your work has become more overtly political with this book? And if so, was that your intention?

I think that the work has expanded in several ways, not necessarily just politically, because there were two completely different textures involved in the book: the interviews with my uncle, and the letters that my aunt sent, together with the responses that came. So those added two quite different textures to the general narration, or memoir, or biography that I was trying to write. So already there were at least two textures involved.

In addition to that it seemed to me that I would have to occasionally explain a bit of background to the historical events, and then I became intrigued by the history of it and the circumstances of it. In fact, there are other aspects of the book as well. A portrait of the marriage, for instance, the reasons why I wrote the book, and how I came to write the book, and in what order. So there are different aspects of the book, one of which is in fact, you could say, politics, and history, really. For instance I even return to the Battle of Monte Cassino, when Shanti Uncle has already left, and I asked myself what the purpose of this battle was and so on. It was an interesting process trying to make a book with so many disparate elements into an organic unity. So much for the fact that politics is one of the strands among the other, non-biographical strands, if you could call them that.

The second point to be made is that politics has always to some extent entered all my books. The Golden Gate had, for instance, the priest’s speech about the anti-nuclear movement. A Suitable Boy has matters of land reform and politics, and all sorts of related themes. And even An Equal Music has as a backdrop the decline of northern towns as a result of years of neglect, Thatcherite neglect. But the point is that one can’t just willy-nilly fling one’s own political concerns into a book unless they’re the concerns of the character, or unless they’re brought out as a result of the character’s lives. The lives of Shanti Uncle and Aunty Henny pretty much covered the whole century and were buffeted by all kinds of effects. At one stage I was thinking of writing, in fact I had already written in my first draft about Iraq, but I eventually cut it out since it was too far afield. So there it is.

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.