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Vikram Seth


Vikram Seth, a high-class gossip
(published on in March 2006)

Carol Middleton interviewed Vikram Seth in Melbourne after his visit to the Adelaide Writer’s’ Festival.
Vikram Seth quotes loosely from Voltaire – the perfect is the enemy of the good – as he removes his shoes and socks and, rubbing his feet, stares out from the 37th floor of the Grand Hyatt over the Yarra. “There is not much river traffic here, is there?” Maybe he is making a comparison with the Ganges. Or the Thames. He lives in both India and England, but his muse may take him anywhere for his next book. Even keep him here in Australia, who knows? He has no idea.

For the moment, and it is a long moment as there are many countries to visit, he is on extended leave from writing to promote his latest work Two Lives, a biography of his great-uncle and aunt, with whom he lived from the age of 17 while at school in England and at Oxford University. The memoir is an extraordinary story of two ordinary people from different cultures, a one-armed Indian dentist and a German Jew who married in post-war London. In telling their story, Seth reveals much of his own, with insights into his family, education, career and the enduring influence of his Uncle Shanti and Aunt Henny.

Perched on the windowsill overlooking Melbourne, Seth talks rapidly in his Indian-inflected Oxford English on the theme of writing and the trap of trying to make the work perfect. He does not see the virtue of feverishly polishing a final draft, which will “wear out the fabric of the book itself.” He reverts to his earlier education as an economist for a moment, as he explains the difficult process of completing a book: “I do realise when I am at risk of not only diminishing but even negative returns for the effort I put in.”
Seth may not aspire to be perfect, but it would be hard to fault his prose, which is simple, rhythmically phrased and effective, or the clear and honest voice that is distinctive to him. His conversation has the same clarity and directness, but is punctuated with the polite Anglicisms one might say, in the sense that, quite so, and spiced with self-deprecating humour. If he is prepared to compromise on the polishing of his books, he is not prepared to compromise on his muse. He has never been tempted to repeat a success, when publishers urge him to produce more of the same. “After the reception of A Suitable Boy, I could have written A Suitable Girl, An Unsuitable Boy and An Unsuitable Girl! But I was not inspired to. In retrospect, I am glad.”

He has always obeyed the next impulse, even when it has carried him in the opposite direction of market expectations. Every book is in a different genre: travel, poetry, children’s stories, novel, biography. He does not shy away from an idea that grabs him, but puts in the work, up to seven years in the case of the epic novel A Suitable Boy, to explore, research and follow that idea to the end. “I don’t say to my inspiration Well, I haven’t done that before. People will think I am a dilettante. You shouldn’t look to right or left. Just be grateful if you are inspired.”

In the case of Two Lives, Seth stalled in the writing after he conducted eleven interviews with his ageing uncle over five months in 1994. It was when he came across a cabin trunk of Henny’s letters to her family during World War II that his enthusiasm reignited and he extended the biography to include these new revelations about his aunt as a younger woman, before her mother died at the concentration camp at Theresienstadt and her sister was incinerated at Auschwitz. It entailed a grueling visit to the Holocaust archives at Yad Vashem, a task that plunged him into a period of revulsion with the German language. For a long time he could not listen to his beloved Schubert’s lieder or Mozart’s St Matthew Passion. “The words got in the way of…everything,” he says, his voice faltering, his shoulders slumping.

For a moment he reminded me of his diminutive uncle, the man who painstakingly rebuilt his life and his career as a dentist in a foreign land, after his arm was blown off in 1944 in Monte Cassino, where he served in the British Army Dental Corps. Seth acknowledges the impact his uncle and aunt had on him as a young man, particularly his aunt’s optimismus and the dictum that his uncle followed: Put your backbone where your wishbone is. He explains his motive for writing this double biography in the book: “Their lives were cardinal points for me, and guide me still; I want to mark them true.”

Although he is a painstaking writer, Seth says his approach to his work is less rigorous than his uncle’s. He is obsessed, not disciplined. He cannot resist the ideas, thoughts and stories that come to him. “You just have to finish the story. Finding out what happens is a pleasure, and completing a book and seeing it shaped well, to the extent that it is not just killing trees and wasting time, is a pleasure.” His advice to authors is: don’t set out to be a writer. Let a particular project grab you and stay with it.

He shows me the journal he started when he arrived in Australia – sketches of faces, paragraphs of jottings, a few pages of Chinese calligraphy, fluid brushstrokes in cinnamon scented ink that he picked up in transit to Australia. He has many interests that sustain him while waiting for his next writing project. Friends are important. Music is as precious to him as words. Language and languages are a passion. He loved German, first taught him by Henny for his Oxford entrance exams, the language of the poet Heine and the friends he made hitch-hiking in Germany at the age of eighteen. He loves it again now. And Mandarin, first encountered when he researched his economics thesis in China.

For now Seth is enjoying the downtime between books that takes him round the world meeting people. He reads widely, including the newspaper, devouring reports of Labour Party infighting while he is here. “Why? Because I like gossip! Novelists are high-class gossips.” Always ready for a joke, he is amused by my remark that Two Lives gave me nightmares when I took it on holiday to New Zealand, and inscribes in my copy: Don’t miss the experience of another country with this. I forget to tell him I loved the book.


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