Taking two lives as a whole

Acclaimed writer Vikram Seth uncovers unspoken truths about his own family's Holocaust connections.

By BEN NAPARSTEK
January 12, 2006 09:16
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Two Lives: A Memoir By Vikram Seth Little Brown 512pp., $49.95 After Vikram Seth became a household name with A Suitable Boy in 1993, his mother asked him to write a book about his great-uncle, Shanti. Many mothers of famous writers have surely asked as much - the difference is that Seth went along with it. Shanti, a dentist who lost his arm in World War II, was in his late '80s. Seth began interviewing him about his life, hoping to alleviate Shanti's loneliness following the death of his Jewish-German wife, Henny. Yet it wasn't until he uncovered a trunk of Henny's letters - detailing her flight from Nazi Germany and the slaughter of her mother and sister in the death camps - that Seth was sure he had the material for a book. "I suddenly realized how much could be drawn in of the history of their times," he says. Henny never discussed her experiences in Hitler's Germany with Shanti. Her silence led Shanti to believe she hadn't grieved for her family, who he lodged with as an Indian dentistry student in Berlin in the 1930s. "What really deepened my view of her was to see at what psychological cost she refused to draw a line under what had happened to her - to say, 'To hell with Germany. Let them starve. Let them freeze. I don't care what happens. I can't bear the pain of it,'" says Seth. "At a time of great shortage in England, she helped those who had stood by her family, sometimes at great risk to themselves." Seth is philosophical about the morally ambiguous case of Henny's sister, Lola, who, until her own eventual deportation to Auschwitz, worked for a Jewish agency that the Nazis co-opted to facilitate their extermination plan. "You have to ask yourself how anyone would have acted," he says. "That was not collaboration. What was collaboration were people who took over the Nazi worldview, advanced their careers, lined their pockets, or betrayed their friends." Seth initially planned to open Two Lives at a dramatic juncture in their biographies - Henny's unexpected death, or Shanti's loss of his arm. Eventually he opted for a sedate opening instead: "When I was seventeen I went to live with my great-uncle and great-aunt in England." As he explains, "I thought the reader should be drawn quietly into the book so that they would feel enticed rather than bludgeoned into reading it." Shortly after Shanti's death, Seth learned that his great-uncle disinherited his entire family in the final months of his life. Shanti signed over his 800,000 estate to his friend, Colin, who arranged for his 24-hour care. Seth, who refused Shanti's offer to be an heir, wasn't as shocked by the disinheritance itself, as he was at learning that Shanti had summoned relatives to maliciously announce that he had cut them out of his will. "My image of him suffered for a while until I came to a more balanced understanding of the situation, which is that you cannot judge people partially, you have to take their life as a whole," he says. "You have to understand that people are not always themselves as their bodies decline and have a sometimes ineluctable effect upon their mind." On the strength of an eight-page outline, Seth snared a 1.3 million advance for Two Lives - reportedly the highest figure ever paid for a literary non-fiction book. Despite having written the best part of the first draft, he refused to let publishers see his work-in-progress. "I don't want to see publishers' faces, but rather just the faces of my characters, when I'm writing the first draft," he says. BEFORE HIS 1400 page family saga A Suitable Boy made him a celebrity, Seth was a poet with a small but devoted following and economics degrees from Stanford and Oxford under his belt. Economics was an interest, he says, without being an obsession. But poetry was. At Stanford, while taking a break from feeding economic data into a spreadsheet, he strolled into a secondhand bookshop where he discovered Alexander Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin. Mesmerized by the range of moods evoked by Pushkin's poetry, Seth delayed his studies to write a novel in verse, The Golden Gate - a satire of San Francisco yuppie culture. Seth always thought of himself as a poet rather than a fiction writer. Reading Pushkin enabled him to make the transition to prose. "Had it not been for his Eugene Onegin, I'd have never dreamed of writing a novel in verse, and if I hadn't written a novel in verse, I don't think I'd have ever written a novel in prose," he says. From Stanford, Seth headed to China to research a doctorate on Chinese rural economy. While his thesis fell by the wayside, his experiences generated a travel book, From Heaven Lake. At 35, Seth returned to India to sponge off his parents, bent on writing the novel that would become A Suitable Boy. He thought he was embarking on a two-year project that would culminate in a 200 page book. Instead, the manuscript grew into a seven-year labor, after he wrote a wedding scene and felt compelled to trace the stories of the different guests' lives. "I felt increasing fear that I would never find a publisher for a book as long as that, set in an obscure part of Indian history, that didn't have any glossary and didn't have sex," he says. Still, Seth rejected Faber's offer of 25,000: "It just didn't seem like much for seven years work." After tinkering with the manuscript for another several months, Seth's agent sold A Suitable Boy for 250,000. It went on to clear a million copies. At a time when Indian literature was under the spell of Salman Rushdie's magic realist plots and perfumed prose, A Suitable Boy unfolded with the leisurely pace and transparent style of a Victorian novel. If critics initially begrudged Seth's streak of sentimentality, they nevertheless became livid when the book failed to make the Booker Prize shortlist, declaring the judges a gang of philistines. Seth says that his economics background is reflected in the attention he pays to the work lives of his characters. "My books aren't just about emotions and love and the things which people sometimes say romantic novels are about," he says. "They are also about work. Work plays a huge role in people's sense of themselves and their lives but often novels don't pay much attention to work." He divides his time between India and Great Britain and wherever his research takes him. "I'm very reclusive," he says. "When I'm in England people don't know I'm here. When I'm in India people don't know I'm there. Just as I would say I'm more a poet than a novelist, I would say I'm more a private than a public person." It's unsurprising, then, that Seth felt ambivalent about opening up Shanti and Henny's lives to the reading public. He knew that Henny would have blanched at the prospect. Yet, he says, "there's a different duty to the dead than the living. The living can be hurt, the dead cannot. It behooves one, when writing a biography and not a hagiography, to describe people faults and all. That gives those aspects of their lives which are noble a greater believability."

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