Vikram Seth: In the teeth of tyranny

Germany, India and England meet in Vikram Seth's astonishing family memoir. Matthew J Reisz talks to him about the mysteries of marriage and of history
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To grant us someone who will do
For love, and who may love us too -
While those who wait, as age advances,
Aloof for Ms or Mr Right
Weep to themselves in the still night.

Seth now describes The Golden Gate as "a jeu d'esprit by someone very young and almost surprised he was writing a novel". The stanzaic form and flavour of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin "provided scope for different moods, from desperately sad to almost flippantly happy, together with thought and commentary". Yet Janet's advice about embracing imperfection in relationships echoes one of the themes in Seth's poignant and fascinating family memoir, Two Lives.

The Golden Gate and Seth's two prose novels, A Suitable Boy and An Equal Music, are notable for being set in three different continents and written in very different styles. Born in India, a student at Oxford, their author then spent about a decade in America, with an interlude doing research in China - which generated a travel book, From Heaven Lake (1983). He then returned to his parents' house in India for about another decade to write A Suitable Boy, his epic of manners and marriages. When that left him feeling "written out, as far as India was concerned", he followed it up with the far more pared-down, intimate An Equal Music. This is a London-based story of lost love built around a string quartet which the violinist narrator describes, with mathematical precision, as "an odd tripartite marriage with six relationships, any of which, at any given time, could be cordial or neutral or strained".

When I ask if he spends most of his time in England now, he replies: "I don't divide my time, I sort of ricochet between places. Usually when I'm here, not many people other than my close friends know I'm here. And similarly when I'm in India, only my family knows and a few friends - I'd rather keep it vague."

Two Lives (Little, Brown, £20) is a joint portrait of the Indian great-uncle and his German-Jewish wife, Henny, who took Seth in when he came to England at the age of 17. It focuses on a single marriage - though a marriage buffeted by the traumas of war, dislocation and persecution.

"Shanti Uncle" left India in 1931 and arrived in Berlin without a word of German. Within five years he had acquired both a degree in medical dentistry and a PhD, but Nazi regulations prevented him from working. Very much against his will, he moved to London and then Edinburgh, where he was forced to requalify. He was just starting out in his new profession when the war broke out and he enlisted in the Army Dental Corps.

Disaster struck when he lost an arm at Monte Cassino. Seth draws on interviews to reconstruct the slow, sometimes comic process by which friends convinced Shanti that this did not necessarily mean the end of his dental career (provided he could learn to hide his infirmity until his new patients were safely in the chair). Overworked, often in pain, he soon built up a practice and became a popular local figure in Hendon.

While in Berlin, Shanti had lived with a Jewish family, the Caros. When Mrs Caro phoned her daughter Henny to tell her about the new lodger, her first reaction was: "Don't take the black man." Yet he soon became part of their wide, lively circle of Jews, half-Jews and Christians. As Nazi legislation began to bite, this liberal group managed to create what Seth describes as either "a bubble of unreality or a wall of defiant continuity around themselves". Henny managed to find refuge in England; her mother and sister were killed in the camps, while many friends survived the war on German soil. Although she was keen to re-establish contact with people who had been important to her, she was also tormented by the thought of what they might have done.

Seth found an extraordinary cache of letters to and from her in an attic, years after her death. They reveal, he suggests to me, "a fine sense of discrimination between those friends who stood by her and her family, those who were waverers, those who went over to the other side. She had the nobility not to say 'Forget about the country, they deserved all they got, let them starve, let them freeze, I'll have nothing to do with them.' To Christians who had helped Jews, sometimes at the risk of their own lives, she sent gifts during hard times in Britain, food, dignity-saving shoelaces, clothing."

What makes this all so powerful and painful is that neither Henny nor the reader can ever quite be sure about who had done exactly what during the Nazi era. Her former fiancé sent her an appalling letter that Seth savages for its "unfailing wrong-footedness", "larded with mock-punctilious, frigid qualifications and bristling with a dozen different kinds of psychological obtuseness". Yet some friends, keen to gain sympathy and perhaps financial help from Henny, seem to have embellished their own war record while subtly denigrating other people's. This section alone makes the book a superb exploration of what Seth describes as "morality under pressure".

For anyone who has read The Golden Gate, where the dazzling, witty and cynical voice is everything, Two Lives is astonishingly self-effacing. "I didn't want the focus to be on my verbal pyrotechnics," Seth explains. "There are very, very serious matters being discussed and I really wanted them to speak for themselves." He is paying tribute to people who were crucial figures, as mentors and substitute parents, to him. Has he, I ask, been as important to them? His tentative response resonates with emotion: "I would have to say so. I think so, I know so, I was definitely the closest. I lived with them for years and loved them, and they loved me. I'm glad that I was there because I think I did give them something."

Something of this emotion also pulses beneath the surface of the final section, which describes Shanti's declining years as a widower and a rather callous alteration he made to his will. It is precisely Seth's reverence for his great-uncle - as "a remarkable man - of great grit, intelligence, affection and family feeling" - which is at stake. It was then he had to confront, he tells me, the issue of "how even wonderful people change" in old age, and of "how one has to hold on to them. I'm kind of grateful I didn't know about the will in advance... I would have told him directly not to do it. I'm glad it didn't lead to an estrangement."

Equally gripping are the book's reflections on Shanti and Henny's marriage. Seth is eloquent about the precise nature, and the value, of what Shanti and Henny had together. They were never "soulmates". Although it was important to her that he had lived in Berlin and known her family, she never shared with him her deep grief and sense of loss. She was clearly not passionately in love when they married in 1951. And she never took much interest in the whole world of Shanti's Indian extended family - the world, roughly, that Seth explored in A Suitable Boy.

Theirs, he writes, "was a companionship based on mutual confidence rather than confidences". It deserves to be celebrated as a good, although imperfect, marriage. "What is perfect?" he asks. "In a world with so much suffering, isolation and indifference, it is cause for gratitude if something is sufficiently good."

There is something bracing and moving in this account. But does Seth see it as an implicit corrective to images of "good marriages" as based on sexual passion and total openness? "There are many different kinds of good marriage," he replies, cheerfully. "Some are based on wonderful wild sex from the age of 20 to the age of 80. Great! Others may have almost a mariage blanc, but they love each other deeply, would do anything for each other, support each other through life.

"I would never dream of prescribing anything. But one should not assume, just because people don't open up in every corner of their lives, that their marriage is not founded on a bedrock of trust. It may well be."

Matthew J Reisz edits the 'Jewish Quarterly', which is sponsoring an event - Vikram Seth in conversation with Mark Lawson - on 23 November. Call 020-8343 4675 for further details

Biography

Vikram Seth was born in India in 1952 and came to England aged 17 to study at Tonbridge and Oxford. He went to Stanford as an economist, took a year out on a poetry scholarship and spent two years attached to Nanjing University, carrying out research in villages on the Yangtse. He described his travels in Tibet and the Himalayas in From Heaven Lake, and has written three volumes of poetry, a translation of Three Chinese Poets, a book of Beastly Tales and an opera libretto, Arion and the Dolphin. A verse novel, The Golden Gate, was followed in 1993 by the Commonwealth Prize-winning A Suitable Boy and An Equal Music (1999). Two Lives is published this week by Little, Brown. Vikram Seth has a house in Wiltshire but spends much time with his family in India.

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