A suitable case for prize treatment: David Lister talks to Vikram Seth, whose award-winning novel Lord Gowrie thought too long to succeed
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Wednesday 09 March 1994
Yesterday, in an interview with the Independent, the 41-year-old writer of the 1,349-page A Suitable Boy took on Lord Gowrie who, as new chairman of the Arts Council, is Britain's foremost arts grandee, and dismissed his views with uncharacteristically short shrift.
Lord Gowrie had expressed concern that the book, which sold 100,000 copies in hardback and was 24 weeks in the bestsellers' list, had not been edited further (it had been reduced by one-third from the original draft). He regretted that it was not brought to him to edit - in six months he could have made it into a worldbeater, he said.
The all-embracing tapestry of life in the newly independent India of 1950 has been compared to War and Peace. It tells the story of a mother's search for a suitable husband for her daughter - someone who would live up to the traditional requirements of her high- caste Hindu family - played out to the backdrop of births, deaths, festivals, riots, elections and inter-religious violence.
Mr Seth prefaced the book with a verse to the reader:
Buy me before good sense insists
You'll strain your purse and sprain your wrists.
Yesterday, on a brief visit from his Delhi home, Vikram Seth reflected on Lord Gowrie and became rather angry. 'I was surprised by Gowrie's low comments. The fact is the book has been so generously treated on the whole that to complain about one silly person is ridiculous. I didn't know whether to be more surprised by the ludicrousness of the remarks or by the curious inappropriateness of his having made them. But I don't particularly respect the chap, why should I go on about him?'
He was particularly puzzled by Lord Gowrie's comment that he had left some of the good parts out. 'I do not know what these good parts are, God does not know, how does Gowrie know?'
His anger over Lord Gowrie spent, Mr Seth talks not unlike one of his characters, with gentle irony and a fondness for literary allusion. When I asked about the book's reception in India he said it was generally very favourable but there was some adverse reaction from people who accused him of bringing out old problems. But he expected some controversy. 'Dr Johnson said that unless a shuttlecock is hit from both sides of the room it won't stay in the air,' he explained, adding for non-Johnsonians that there was an Indian phrase about 'chicken in the house being as humdrum as lentils'.
While admitting he had never heard of the W H Smith award for the outstanding contribution to literature, he grew delighted as we looked at the list of previous winners, ranging from Leonard Woolf's reminiscences to Laurie Lee's Cider With Rosie and Sir Ernst Gombrich's essays on art. 'I didn't know the thing existed. But I see it's a distinguished prize and I really feel happy. And it's not just fiction. These are seminal books.'
Mr Seth received a pounds 250,000 advance for A Suitable Boy when his literary agent Giles Gordon auctioned the rights, while the writer hid in the garden. The writer, who is unmarried, agrees it has changed his life and as a suitable son who kept a photograph of his parents, sister and late grandmother next to him while we spoke, he was pleased the book's success meant that he no longer had to live off his parents - his mother was India's first female high court judge and his father is a retired shoe company executive.
'My life has changed but in a funny way. The main advantage is I won't be terrified of living in future under the same terrible economic uncertainty my thirties were lived under. I sponged off my parents. They were very generous about a book that was supposed to take two years but took eight. In India for a son that has economics degrees from good universities to spend his time 'loafing' . . . for them to put up with inquiries of that sort, what was a man in his thirties doing writing an unsaleable book? They were asked this all the time.'
Of the possibility that the book might provoke change in his home country he holds out more hope on the political than social front. 'I hope so, especially that it will have an effect on the Hindu-Muslim problem.' And on arranged marriages? Mr Seth bursts out laughing: 'After thousands of years you think a book will change anything?'
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