Captain Moonlight's Notebook: 27 copies short

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The Independent Online
HE STANDS a little short of 27 copies of his novel piled one on top of the other. As each book is 2 3/8 ins thick that puts Vikram Seth at about 5 ft 3 ins tall. He is not a big man but the novel, A Suitable Boy, is huge in every sense - the advance was a record sum for a 'literary novel' and it is the second longest one-volume work of fiction in the English language, beaten only by Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, written in 1747. Clarissa clocks in at 1,600 pages; A Suitable Boy ends on page 1,349 after more than 700,000 words and weighs 3lbs 2oz.

Seth's agent, Giles Gordon, said when 5,000 pages of typescript landed on his desk two years ago that it looked as if he had taken delivery of the Eiffel Tower. A year later, in September 1992, Gordon sold the British hardback and paperback rights to Orion for pounds 250,000 after an auction. The American rights were sold to HarperCollins for dollars 600,000 (pounds 400,000).

I met Seth on Thursday, the day A Suitable Boy was officially published, but already the first edition of 20,000 copies had sold out. It was launched on a wave of superlatives from both the critics and the book trade. Seth by contrast was almost a broken man, hit by flu, his voice gone, hating the 'Frankenstein' he had created, forced to pose for photographers and wanting only to go to bed. He laid himself out on the floor of his publisher's office for a catnap - at 9.30am - and I drank coffee. When we talked later it was in whispers and he urged me not to ask him unnecessary questions.

A Suitable Boy is about a young Indian woman's search for a husband; not just any man but one who meets the approval of her widowed mother. ' 'You too will marry a boy I choose,' said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter', reads the novel's first sentence. Set in north India, it begins in 1950 and takes the reader through India's social and economic change during its early years of independence.

My friends with subcontinental connections have been at a loss to understand how a book which is purely Indian, routine and domestic with no British or foreign references - the Raj is not involved, its leftovers are unseen - has such an appeal to Western publishers and, apparently, Western readers. The nearest equivalent we could think of was the fashion for Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Seth thought publicity had a lot to do with his success. His original plan, in 1984, was to write five short novels spanning from independence in 1947 to the India of today. As it is A Suitable Boy ends before the 40-year-old Seth was born.

He comes from the Indian middle classes; most definitely not a grand background, although his education was the grandest on offer to any young Indian and of itself instantly put him at the very top of the English-speaking elite. He was brought up in Calcutta. His father was a foreman of a Bata shoe factory, his mother a magistrate. Seth said his parents spent their money educating him, his younger brother and his sister.

He went first to prep school at Dehra Dun in the Himalayan foothills, then nearby Doon School, where India's richest and brightest sons were educated. He won a scholarship from Doon to Tonbridge School in Kent, moved easily to Oxford in 1971 and read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Corpus Christi. He moved to Stanford in California in 1975 and took a doctorate in economic demography. In 1980, having learned Mandarin, he went to China for two years and returned to America where he wrote his first novel - a narrative poem on life in California called The Golden Gate, an instant success.

Poetry remains his first love. The 'word of thanks' and the 'contents' of A Suitable Boy are both in verse. It is a charming introduction in which he explains how he became obsessed by the work, lived on a pittance to produce it and gives a timely warning to his readers that they might sprain their wrists trying to read it. You have been warned. But he is not planning a sequel.

(Photograph omitted)

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