Vikram Seth Biography
Nationality: Indian. Born: Calcutta, India, 1952. Education: Doon School, India; Corups Christi College, Oxford, B.A. 1975; Stanford University, M.A. in economics 1979; Nanjing University, 1982. Career: Senior editor, Stanford University Press, 1985-86. Awards: Thomas Cook travel book award, 1983, for From Heaven Lake; Ingram Merrill fellowship, 1985-86; Commonwealth poetry prize, 1986; Guggenheim fellowship, 1986-87; Sahitya Akademi award, 1988.
The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse. New York, Random House, and London, Faber, 1986.
A Suitable Boy. New York, HarperCollins, and London, Phoenix, 1993.
An Equal Music. New York, Broadway Books, 1999.
Mappings. Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1981; London, Viking, 1994.
The Humble Administrator's Garden. Manchester, Carcanet, 1985.
All You Who Sleep Tonight (verse play). New York, Knopf, and London, Faber, 1990.
Beastly Tales from Here to There, illustrated by Ravi Shankar. New Delhi, Viking, 1992; New York, HarperCollins, 1994.
The Poems, 1981-1994. New Delhi, India and New York, Penguin Books, 1995.
From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet. London, Chatto and Windus, 1983; Boston, Faber, 1986.
Arion and the Dolphin (for children), illustrated by Jane Ray. London, Orion Children's Books, 1994; New York, Dutton Children's Books, 1995.
Translator, Three Chinese Poets: Translations of Poems by Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu. New Delhi, Viking, and New York, HarperPerennial, 1992.
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In poetry and interviews Vikram Seth has mocked experimental literature and romantic and extreme attitudes towards life. For him literature and life should be enjoyable, commonsensical, this worldly. For someone seemingly in favor on the conventional and practical, there is a Faustian side to his writing. His three novels have been virtuoso performances and for serious literature immensely successful with the reading public, and translated in many languages. Each novel has been very different from the others and has taken an older literary form in unexpected new dimensions. In our time when being avant-garde and shocking has become expected of the modern, Seth is a different kind of revolutionary, an extremely daring artist using older literary models and pretending to be an old-fashioned writer for the general reader. Yet such drawing on older artistic styles to create a contemporary literature is one characteristic fashion of our time and often termed the postmodern.
Although Indian he is also part of the new internationalism. Each of his novels is set in a different country. The Golden Gate was a high wire act pretending to be genial comedy. Set in a San Francisco of female rock musicians, gays, local radio stations, Berkeley, "Just Desserts," and Italian wine makers, it seemed to be the great California novel, noting the fashions and distinctions of West Coast society and culture. Reading the novel was next best to living in San Francisco. At its heart was a common Seth theme, a relationship ruined by the extreme demands of a lover, and the woman's sensible choice of a good kind-hearted man in place of the miseries of an intense, agonizing love. The commonsense pleasures of enjoying each day are better than the pains that result from unrealizable desires. The novel, however, was verse, filled with amusing puns, and part of its fun was a difficult complicated regular rhyme scheme based on Alexander Puskin's eighteenth-century Russian epic poem Eugene Onegin. The verse form, a fourteen line stanza, and its amusing hipness meant the novel was a virtuoso display, a great show of what looked like effortlessly mastering a seemingly impossible poetic form. While the novel lacked depth of characters, that was part of Seth's message, avoid depth and misery, enjoy life while possible a day at a time. People ruin their lives with romantic ideas, excessive demands, obsessions, intolerance, rules, fanaticism, political ideals and causes.
A Suitable Boy uses the "whom should she marry" theme of many nineteenth-century novels to offer a portrait of the intricacies of northern Indian society during the 1950s. Its models are the realistic novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Leo Tolstoy, with their range, depth, social detail, and examination of the ways of society, and it is said to be one of the longest novels in English. Following the intertwining lives of four upper-middle-class Hindustani families, A Suitable Boy moves from Calcutta through the Urdu-speaking region of Lucknow, Allahabad, and Benares to Delhi. It sketches a society from the untouchables through the new entrepreneurs to the Muslim Nawabs. Attention is given to such traditional trades as shoe-making and how they are threatened by foreign imports. The heroine, the daughter of a deceased senior government administrator, financially insecure, and dependent on the good will of others, falls in love with an unsuitable, brilliant Muslim intellectual but instead sensibly decides to marry a rather uncouth self-made businessman. He might be said to represent the new India which will replace the older Muslim and imitation British elites while avoiding Hindu fundamentalism. She also sensibly avoids marrying a witty sophisticated writer, who seems a bit like Seth himself, as he is too preoccupied with his own writing to make a good husband. The story can obviously be interpreted in terms of India which should put its future in the hands of practical businessman rather than fanatics, romantics, traditionalists, revolutionaries, and poets. Traditions should bring comfort and ease rather than become a source of foolishness, pride, fantasy, and violence.
In An Equal Music the message is similar, but the method and story deepen the treatment of character. Here Seth has taken the early twentieth-century European novel about the life of musicians and brought it up to date, set it in the contemporary world at a time when few schools in England still teach classical music, and when chamber music is losing its appeal and string quartets find it difficult to survive. This is partly a novel about economic survival as the world changes, but it is mainly about emotional survival as situations change; there is no love which cannot become destructive—excessive passions destroy.
The main story concerns a second violinist in an English string quartet who a decade earlier left his teacher, a great master of the Viennese school who tried to force his style and perspective about a solo career on his students. The English violinist is anti-authoritarian, having fought his lower-middle parents to pursue a career in music; he rebels, leaves Vienna, but also leaves a younger woman, a pianist who loves him. She breaks down, and on the rebound marries an American who gives her understanding and security. A decade later the violinist is still in love with her. They meet, have an affair, but she realizes that she is hurting her husband, risks hurting her child; the renewal of such passion can only destroy the life she and her husband have made. When she breaks off the affair, the violinist refuses to accept her wishes. For him there can be no friendship with her, only violent passion. In a funk with life he also quits the string quartet, destroying years of friendship, hard work, and the possibility of a breakthrough to fame and financial success—the quartet has recently had an offer from a major recording company. At the conclusion the quartet forgives him, and they reunite like a happy family, the quartet being the equivalent in this novel of a family of contrasting personalities who have learned to tolerate each other for their common good.
Although told by the violinist in an impressionistic manner like the motifs of music, with transformations into other keys, recapitulations, even a fugue-like poetic conclusion, the novel is filled with the detail usual to a Vikram Seth novel. The discussions of tunings, structuring a performance, violin makers, never feel out of place. That Seth has now written excellent books set in the U.S.A., India, England and a travel book about China, with American, Indian, and British central characters, suggests that national boundaries are falling to a new kind of international writer. Seth's own use of different literary models including hard to master difficult forms may suggest that despite his message of commonsense and comfort he enjoys great challenges if the hard work is likely to bring immediate fame and financial rewards.