Best-selling author Vikram Seth defies convention and proves that for every reason, there's a rhyme.
Photo: Amanda Lane
By Cynthia Haven
Indian poet and novelist Vikram Seth talks fast, thinks fast and moves fast. His conversation is a machine-gun spray of energy and velocity: one moment he's interrupting his own sentences; the next he's contradicting himself or going back to something he said earlier. It's an infinite play of distraction and digression and diversion .
His third novel is about to go to press, and Seth is in the harried, final push to make last-minute corrections and revisions. That amplifies the pressure in his high-rise, light-filled London flat, which, in the current rush, has the curious feel of an encampment. The occasional mess spills over on a table or chair, but the rooms appear oddly unoccupied. The phone rings incessantly.
On the floor, stargazer lilies, red and pink mums, small white blossoms and purple poppylike blooms overflow the edges of a vase. An elegant handwritten note is attached: "Sorry for the misunderstanding -- Stella."
"I don't know any Stellas, and I don't even have time for a misunderstanding," says Seth (pronounced sate). He runs his hand through his hair in baffled amusement.
I sit down, and the show begins: would I like my chair moved, Seth suggests. Or perhaps another chair altogether? Is the lighting all right? Perhaps I would care for a cup of Chinese tea? No, no, perhaps the chair is best here after all -- meanwhile, did I notice the late-afternoon northern sun, slanting over the London rooftops? (The light is indeed heavy and low, pouring like pale honey over the buildings -- I can see Battersea, the Albert Memorial, and a horizon punctured by church spires and factory smokestacks.) By the time Seth has said all this, he has moved around the room several times -- to the window, to the kitchen -- before I have a chance to ponder fully the first question.
Watching him -- and there is little else I can do -- I begin to grasp how he could write 600 lines of verse a month for The Golden Gate (1986), his astonishing first novel written entirely in sonnets; then move to A Suitable Boy (1993), his 1,349-page Tolstovian prose epic about Indian life in the wake of independence; and now pen a third novel, An Equal Music, about the passions, peregrinations and problems of a London string quartet. Along the way -- amid periodic travel between London and Delhi -- Seth has put out four collections of poetry (Mappings, 1980; The Humble Administrator's Garden, 1985; All You Who Sleep Tonight, 1990; Beastly Tales, 1991), a volume of translations (Three Chinese Poets, 1992), an opera libretto (published as a children's book, Arion and the Dolphin, 1994) and a Tibetan travel book (From Heaven Lake, 1983).
He agreed to this interview before he realized how busy he was going to be. He also consented because of his fond memories of Stanford, the place where, as he puts it, he spent 11 years not getting an economics PhD -- the place where he became a top-selling, highly acclaimed international author instead.
"Vikram has a talent for so many things -- music, poetry, economics. Three or four muses were jealously tugging at him," says poet Timothy Steele, '70, one of Seth's mentors from his Stanford days. As a boy in Calcutta, Seth was trained in the classical Indian musical repertoire, specializing in singing. (He has a deep affinity for Western music as well; he admits he can "belt out" Schubert lieder when the occasion demands.) After taking an undergraduate degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University, Seth went to Stanford aiming for a PhD in economics. But just when you expect him to move forward in one direction, he moves sideways, like a crab.
"He came into my office almost by chance -- in 1975, I believe," says Steele, who then held a Jones Lectureship in poetry. "He had recently arrived at Stanford and was looking for an independent study in poetry. My desk happened to be closest to the door. Vikram introduced himself; we hit it off and arranged to meet every other week in the coffee shop at Tresidder to talk about his poems. It was an informal biweekly tutorial."
Seth's work made an impression on Steele -- for its quantity as well as quality. "Even then, he had a wonderful fluency, though he was unsure how seriously to take himself as a poet. He was experimenting in all sorts of different styles -- on the one hand, he was writing in a fairly free verse; on the other hand, he also had poems in intricately rhymed stanzas, in the manner of Yeats and Hardy. When we met, he had, as I remember, a manuscript with something over a hundred pages of verse."
In those days, Seth worried that traditional meter and rhyme "marked you as a fuddy-duddy," but he changed his mind after more exposure to Steele's poetry and the work of Frost and Larkin. "I learned you could write in form and still be very much of your time, using patterns that had been used for centuries," Seth tells me.
So it happened that the would-be economist sidestepped into a 1977-78 Stegner fellowship, taking a year's leave from the economics department. Another Stegner fellow at the time, Nora Cain, remembers a slender wisp of a fellow. "He was a delight to have in a workshop -- he had a generosity about working with other writers. A generous soul," she recalls.
"The first thing that impresses you about Vikram is his immense and lively intelligence," says Steele. "It was always clear he was going to do something remarkable, but it wasn't clear, when I first knew him, what direction his talent would take. It was hard to tell whether he was going to become a Nobel Prize winner in economics or a poet or a musician or even a leader in politics or public life."
His first collection of poems, Mappings, came out in 1980, after Seth had rejoined the economics department. "Since I was studying economics, not English, I stood outside the orbit of the latest critical theories and did not realize that writing in rhyme and meter would make me a sort of literary untouchable," Seth recalls. Rejected by every publisher he tried, Seth typeset, published and distributed the book himself. Peddling it around to Bay Area bookstores, however, he found few takers. "I then forced copies on my friends and family, telling them to sell them if they could and to give them away if they couldn't," Seth recounts.
A year later, the book was published by Calcutta's Writers' Workshop. (Penguin Books reissued Mappings in 1994.) By then, Seth had left for two years in China at Nanjing University -- ostensibly to continue his economic research. But he couldn't stop writing, and by the time he returned to Stanford, the book describing his journey hitchhiking home to India through Sinkiang and Tibet, From Heaven Lake, had been accepted by the London publisher Chatto & Windus. (Random House published it in the United States in 1987.)
It wouldn't be long before the literary muse interrupted his studies again. In 1983, Seth was working nights, when computer time was cheapest, in the basement of the Center for Educational Research at Stanford, crunching economic data about Chinese villages. Often, by the time he finished and unlocked his bike, raccoons would be coming out of the sewer gratings and the sun just starting to tint the sandstone of the Inner Quad. One memorable morning he staggered out just as the Bookstore was opening. Looking for a short break before heading home, he went in and happened upon Eugene Onegin, the Russian poet Pushkin's timeless novel in sonnets: "Eugene Onegin -- like champagne/Its effervescence stirs my brain," Seth later wrote. "It's what made a novelist out of me," he now says.
"I just liked the novel at that stage. I had no idea then of writing a novel, and certainly not one in verse. After reading that, it obsessed me. I couldn't think of writing anything else -- certainly not my dissertation."
About that time, he had lunch with a friend -- a Japanese-American woman who would eventually become a filmmaker. Their discussion in a Chinese restaurant of their "then rather unsuccessful love lives" became the opening scene of The Golden Gate.
That project -- "the whole passé extravaganza," as he iambically mocks -- met with skepticism from publishers, editors, friends, but Seth kept writing for 13 months.
How can I (careless of time) use
The dusty bread molds of Onegin
In the brave bakery of Reagan?
The loaves will surely fail to rise
Or else go stale before my eyes.
Published by Random House, the finished book won international accolades. Gore Vidal wrote, "Although we have been spared, so far, the Great American Novel, it is good to know that the Great Californian Novel has been written, in verse (and why not?): The Golden Gate gives great joy." Amazon.com's reviewer says the book "will turn the verse-fearing into admiring acolytes."
Perhaps inevitably, given The Golden Gate's reception, Seth abandoned the PhD. He turned his literary attention to his native India. A Suitable Boy is a carefully researched account of political and social life in India after independence; its action climaxes in 1952, a year the book terms "auspicious." It is the year Seth was born in Calcutta.
The saga traces the lives of four interconnected families, one of which, the Chatterjis, echoes the Seth family. Like Vikram, the poet Amit Chatterji is the eldest of three children. The fictional clan includes a sister who marries an Austrian diplomat, as did Seth's, and a brother with otherworldly inclinations -- like Seth's own brother, Shantum, a meditation teacher who manages a pilgrimage tour called In the Footsteps of Buddha. Seth's father, born in Pakistan, was in the shoe business -- a profession that figures largely in the various subplots of the book; his mother, like the Chatterji patriarch, is a judge.
A Suitable Boy is undeniably threaded with a love-and-marriage plot, but it is almost as concerned, intricately so, with the economics of village life, the impact of land reform legislation on cities and villages, and the effects of a local currency based on chits. It also focuses, movingly and persuasively, on the aftershocks of the 1947 India-Pakistan partition and the day-to-day frictions of religious conflict. As it happens, the Seth family -- Hindus -- left Pakistan just before partition might have forced them to.
Seth's plot resolutions -- in A Suitable Boy as in his other books -- do not always gratify conventional expectations. "True love" often doesn't win, for example. "There are other things, and they do impinge on people. I can't take the view that you can live on love and fresh air," he says.
In The New Yorker's special 1997 issue on Indian literature, Salman Rushdie, comparing Seth to another writer, praised his "equally naturalistic but lighter, more readily charming prose" -- then added, "there is, admittedly, a kind of perversity in invoking lightness in the context of a book boasting as much sheer avoirdupois as A Suitable Boy, which runs to 1,349 pages."
The book's scope (and the rumored $600,000 advance from the American publisher) had the Washington Post crowing, "A Tolstoy -- On His First Try!" In London, The Times reviewer Daniel Johnson wrote, "I have little doubt that . . . Vikram Seth is already the best writer of his generation." The Guardian compared him to Goethe and George Eliot. Sales topped one million internationally.
Seth gently spoofs his brother's spiritual bent in A Suitable Boy. But Shantum, interviewed by phone at the Seth family home outside Delhi, says Vikram, too, has a spiritual side, "which he may or may not admit to." In Shantum's view, "His more reflective side comes out in poetry. The way he describes music -- obviously, it touches a chord in a way that some people who have practiced meditation for a long time have never found." And, he adds, almost as an afterthought, "When he gets stressed out, he has ways of dealing with it. He runs here."
Vikram readily admits that his brother "has had quite an influence on me." The antinuclear message in a lengthy segment of The Golden Gate was written while Vikram was staying at Shantum's flat in Norwich, 100 miles northeast of London. During that period, Shantum was jailed for several days for protesting at a nuclear plant in Oxfordshire. When From Heaven Lake won the Thomas Cook award for best travel book of 1983, Vikram gave a third of the prize money to Shantum for charity, and Shantum forwarded it to Greenpeace.
"He didn't need me to give him his compassion," Shantum asserts. "He's had that for many years. Obviously, in these issues, I acted a bit like a missionary," he says. "He has the political compassion; we have provided some of the issues." Shantum recalls how some of his environmental work in northeast India found its way into Beastly Tales. "My report was dry -- he turned it into an ecological fable," Shantum says of the collection of poems.
For all its heft, A Suitable Boy fairly somersaults with verse, too, including Seth-written greeting cards; acrostic poems; the hackneyed triolets of an aging, would-be poet; and his own translations of the Gita. Even the table of contents is in iambic pentameter couplets. For good measure, Seth invented a ghazal-writing Persian poet from an earlier century to work in more varieties of verse. I wonder if he can ever really forgo poetry for prose.
"I still write a poem from time to time," Seth concedes -- and says that if he accumulates 30 or so, he may consider a new collection.
Meanwhile, he must focus on the hullabaloo surrounding the publication of An Equal Music in May. Given the daunting length of A Suitable Boy, this time Seth "vowed to sacrifice a finger for every 10,000 words he composed over 100,000," according to William Shinker, publisher of both books. Seth has kept his fingers. The new book, under 400 pages, captures life in musical London just as persuasively as the earlier novels illumined India and California.
"I am very close to music -- in some ways, closer than to words. If I had to choose whether to have music on a desert isle or words -- no question, I would choose music," Seth says. The characters of An Equal Music make the same choice: central to the story is the reignited love affair of the quartet's violinist with a gifted young pianist who is going deaf. In a typical Seth motif, musical emotion triumphs over physical passion.
Shinker predicts that, with the new book, Seth "will reach his widest audience yet." Yet few readers would recognize the author on the street. In his plain, Oxford-style tattersall shirts and chino trousers, he is a small, compact man (though no longer the slender wisp his Stegner colleagues recall) and easily anonymous. He may not stay so invisible in the next round of publicity, which includes a busy U.S. tour May 10 through June 3.
"I know it's necessary for the success of the novel, but I really don't get much of a kick out of fame. It's like a gulp of champagne -- fizzy at first. But it's hard to find your time taken up. It draws you away from your work," he says.
Then he reconsiders. "In a way, a writer's recognition is the best kind to have. Your face is not famous, so you can at least have a meal in a restaurant. I am a celebrity for a few months, then a nonentity again. My sense of success doesn't depend on that. To some extent, I can disappear -- I should disappear. Because if you produce inferior work, no one is going to give quarter because you gave a nice interview."
The phone rings again. He must take this call -- even though it's not, like some of the earlier ones, on the "family" line. As I leave, my heavy bag -- weighted, mostly, because it contains A Suitable Boy -- swings as it passes a large bookcase, knocking an oversize coffee-table book on English art to the floor. Several brochures and pamphlets tumble out, along with two large, soft, manila sheets that press a spray of flowers.
Seth puts down the phone briefly and rushes to help, gathering the spillage and sliding it all behind a stone slab that serves as a bookend. The stone has Tibetan writing on it. What does it say? "Om mani padme om," he murmurs, the mantra rolling off his tongue. But there's no chance for me to follow up. Seth returns to his phone call; time has run out.
Cynthia Haven is a poet and journalist in Northern California.
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