Vikram Seth: A family affair
New Books Magazine
It is the first day of Wimbledon, and the start of the tennis tournament has brought with it grey skies and a drizzle that saturates everything. The weather is a foretaste of my afternoon: sunshine dismissed by clouds. I am to meet the author Vikram Seth at his publisher’s offices at the classy end of Waterloo Bridge. The author of A Suitable Boy is up from London to see his parents off to India and to talk to me about his latest work, Two Lives, a memoir of his aunt and uncle.
It is a deeply personal book, at one level an affectionate memoir of Indian-born Shanti Uncle, one-armed war hero and dentist, and his austere German-born wife, Auntie Henny. On another level it is the history of the 20th Century filtered through the lives of two apparently ordinary people caught up in awful events. Auntie Henny was Jewish, and while researching the book, Seth discovered that her stern exterior hid deep passions and sadness. It is also a portrait of marriage – and the secrets a husband and wife are able to keep from one another, despite living in close proximity.
The deeply personal nature of the book means I must ask questions that would appear intrusive in other circumstances. Though it is clear from the outset Seth prefers to talk about anything but himself, he is gracious and accepts that by writing such a memoir he must open old wounds, whatever the cost. Throughout our 35 minutes together he gives thoughtful, open answers. But it is not easy: 20 minutes in, he shudders to a halt. He looks tired and sad. I ride the silence, as all good journalists are told to, but inside I feel mean in the way the police must when questioning victims.
I had asked about his aunt and uncle’s generation. They fought the Second World War and then tried to rebuild their lives and our world into something more humane. I ask: “I was thinking of that generation and the contrast with our own lives. We have enjoyed the benefits of their sacrifices in education and lifestyle. Do you feel it is a forgotten debt?”
Seth looks pensive, before replying: “Absolutely, it is a forgotten debt…and…” He seems to run out of steam. His small frame slumps in his chair. The clock ticks and I wait, hoping for more revelations. They do not come. “Maybe two or three more questions and then I’ll be spent,” he says quietly.
It is a far cry from the start of the interview, when he interrogated me about where I live (South London); the spelling and pronunciation of my name (Danoosha, not Danuta); and what I do, or more precisely: “What do you do with yourself? What are you?” I laugh. It’s a philosophical question. He laughs too and jokes: “It is like the Russian who said to someone on Victoria Station, ‘Excuse me sir, what is time?’ The guard answered, ‘Sir you have indeed asked an imponderable question.’” It is a typical Vikram Seth joke, gentle, clever and knowing.
Before I ask Seth imponderable questions of my own, we talk about the book’s subject. Seth’s uncle and aunt of 18 Queen’s Road, Hendon, 10 minutes walk from the tube in the heart of post-War suburbia. On the surface, the only thing that marked them out from other middleclass residents was their mixed race marriage. Otherwise from Shanti Uncle’s job as a dentist to the Saturday night games of bridge, they represented a picture of normality.
It was into this unprepossessing household that the 17-year-old Seth landed from India after winning an A Level scholarship to Tonbridge School at the tail end of the 1960s.
The description Seth gives of his aunt and uncle’s marriage has all the ingredients of domestic sit com. Shanti marches out to the park in his beret mumbling to himself after arguments. The two bickering in German – only when Seth learns the language does he realise the nature of their petty squabbles. Henny keeping a cool distance from her marital relatives, crying over Marmite and entering a cosy conspiracy with Seth against his uncle’s attempts to crack the whip.
The book had started as a memoir of his uncle, who pre-War made an epic journey across Europe from India to train as a dentist in Berlin. As war became inevitable, he left Germany for England and joined the army, where fighting gallantly, he lost his arm. It is only after Henny’s death, as Seth rootles in his uncle’s attic and finds a trunk of her letters, that he discovers that her life, with its buried secrets of love and loss, was far more interesting – and tragic.
“It is a strange story isn’t it?” he muses “At the end of the book, I take a little while to say behind every door you find such stories. That’s true,yet you have to be lucky as well. If Shanti Uncle had been able to get to the trunk, he would have thrown it all out. It was just that it was a far recess and he wasn’t able to get to it.”
Seth did not take a conventional approach to telling the story. Instead, he starts when he first met them and gradually reveals their story through family history, interviews with his uncle and his aunt’s heart-breaking correspondence with friends back in Germany. It reads as the evolution of three relationships rather than conventional memoir.
“The book pretty much follows my own process of discovery, and rather than beginning the book where they were born and when they were born or met, I begin it when as a young student I really got to know them,” Seth explains of the complex structure. “There are two reasons why I did this. One is of course, the process of my discovery of them. But the other thing was in order to begin quietly, almost as a kind of domestic comedy.”
The quiet, comic beginning contrasts sharply with the darkness that comes later, when Henny’s letters reveal her desperate attempt to discover the fate of her sister and mother back in Germany and her heartbreak when she discovers that both died in Nazi concentration camps.
Only a small proportion of the letters are used in the book. It must have been hard to decide what to leave out? “Shaping the letters was difficult because I must have used only about five or 10 per cent,” admits the writer. “You can’t use more, otherwise you make the book lopsided and distort its proportions.”
He makes it sound easy. It was not. “Sometimes you have to leave out unmissable material and put in other material that you might think is missable but it is essential for the rhythm and tenor of the book. Take the German couple, the Dietrich’s, who have this sort of pastoral life after the war in East Berlin. Theirs is a kind of pastoral interlude. You might say that more important stuff could have been put in and this could have been left out, but I don’t agree. You can’t score everything at fortissimo. The book has to breath as well as yell.”
One section he was in two minds about including concerned his reaction to reading a letter from the Gestapo, about Jews being transported to Auschwitz. The letter is a cold ledger of property, not things, but people being sent to a Hell on earth. Among them was Henny’s sister, Lola. Seth writes: “As I was staring at this letter, something happened that has never happened to me before or since. My right knee began trembling rapidly and violently.”
A young German standing behind him mistook his staring for incomprehension offered to translate. Seth’s reaction was extreme. He writes: “The very accent embodied sickness and evil, and I turned round in a fury to face – just an alarmed young man, a German schoolboy, about seventeen years old, on a study trip with his classmates, some of whom are in the room.”
“At one point I was thinking of cutting out that passage,” the writer explains when I remind him of his reaction. Why? “Because I thought, ‘This is too personal, what does it have to do with Shanti and Henny? It is your rather self-indulgent description of how reading one letter has some sort of effect on you.’” What changed his mind was the realisation that though the passage is, in his own words, “tricky”, it needed to be there.
It is at this point that the lightness that has characterised Seth’s earlier answers seems to evaporate. He becomes pensive, stirred by bad memories. It is then that I ask about his aunt and uncle’s lost generation, sacrificed to war, and he shudders to a halt.
But there are more questions to ask, not least because behind the multi-layered narratives of Two Lives are a multitude of themes from the meaning of family, of marriage, and the impact of war on ordinary people to exile, identity and hidden histories. There is also Seth’s own complex reaction to Germany and the German language, a language he had loved when it was associated with the living, wry and marvellous Henny, but he begins to hate when it becomes tainted by the death camps and complicity of people who were once her friends.
So, I plough on, feeling a brute, no matter how gently I prod him. What was it like promoting the book in Germany where these terrible events took place? “I felt as if I had been rung out,” he admits candidly. “It is not as if the book was not well received, it was, and the questions and answers from the floor when I did events were very affecting. But just being there in Berlin, where these things took place, speaking in German and answering these questions, it was,” he pauses, searching for the right words. “It was tougher than it has been for me with other books.”
The tension he feels discussing Two Lives is not only related to the fact that he is writing about two people he knew and loved. This is very personal territory. As well as talking about his Shanti Uncle and Aunty Henny, he talks candidly about his own life, not quite finishing his academic studies and shuttling between England, India, America and China. He even hints of love affairs and lonely times, and reproaches himself for being a bad correspondent and lazy.
I suggest it is a coming-of-age book for the 50-something author. “I think that is true,” Seth agrees, nodding. The personal material in the book is not limited to the three lives at its centre, Shanti, Henny and Seth. He reveals much of the Seth family history and does not pull back from revealing the bitter end to Shanti Uncle’s life, including the bad feeling surrounding his will.
His family was less than comfortable with the inclusion of this dirty linen. “My family were not particularly happy, but again, if you are a writer and not writing a partial history of someone, but trying to be balanced.” Before he can elucidate, his mobile phone chirrups and his answer is lost. When he returns to the interview, he simply adds: “Well they are unhappy. I have written about the family before, not so undisguisedly, in A Suitable Boy.”
Whatever their reservations about the book, it has not soured relations between Vikram and his parents, who have been incredibly supportive of his writing career – he spent 10 years living with them while writing A Suitable Boy.
Given they live in India and he divides his time between there and the UK, where does he feel at home? “In Germany they kept saying are you rooted or not?” he replies, as the twinkle returns to his eye. “I kept thinking of linden trees or oak trees. But in India it is possible to think of the banyan tree, which is rooted in different places, and after a while which are the main root and the subsidiary trunks gets lost.”
He smiles, a warm, open, kind smile that makes me hope I am forgiven for digging so deeply into his roots. “When you are rooted in different places it doesn’t mean that you are not rooted. Maybe you are more stable,” he adds, laughing. “I see myself as a banyan tree. Maybe a small one – a bonzi banyan!” And there the interview ends.
SETH ON INSPIRATION, BEING LAZY AND WHY HE CAN’T WRITE THE SAME BOOK TWICE
It is hard to believe, but the man who gave us the longest novel in English in A Suitable Boy regards himself as lazy, unable to write unless forced into a corner by his subject.
“Basically what I mean is that I am not a very disciplined person – I promise you I am not. To put it mildly I am quite lazy. So, unless something really grabs me it is very difficult to make me work at all. I just watch Colombo, go for a walk in the rain or sit and read a book! It really has to be something that I simply can’t avoid writing for me to actually get the energy and enthusiasm and staying power to write it.
I don’t believe in negative capability. I feel that there is an aspect in it of seeing yourself a bit like a conduit for what you are writing rather than a cipher. But you have to shape what you write. Even Keats, who talked about negative capability, was a great shaper of his work. You can tell from the different drafts.
So, there is a lot of positive capability as well. But what I meant by saying that I write books that cannot not be written is that unless there is obsession, for me, it is very difficult to write it.
I would have written A Suitable Girl like a shot if I could – though somewhat reluctantly, as 10 years of my life would have gone like a shot. But I was inspired to write something quite different, An Equal Music. In fact my first novel was a weird thing, The Golden Gate, a novel in verse.”
SETH ON FAMILY, A THEME IN ALL HIS WORK.
“Family is at the heart of many books I have written. I suppose it is close relationships. There is always either a family or a surrogate family, friend or a string quartet, as in An Equal Music, that acts as a family. I like the feeling of family. It may be something stronger still: the way that work and life is organised in India hasn’t changed so much as in the West. Here people are so mobile in terms of which city they work in and how short their holidays are – especially in America. If you are an American in a long-term relationship, either you are with your family for one week at Christmas or Thanksgiving or you are with your partner’s family. The whole thing is so fraught. When do grandparents meet their grandchildren? Let alone parents see their children once they have grown up and moved away? How can families survive under those circumstances?”