Vikram Seth 1952–
Indian novelist, poet, travel writer, and author of children's books.
The following entry provides an overview of Seth's career through 1995.
Lauded for his versatility, Seth has experimented with such forms as the verse novel in The Golden Gate (1986) and produced works in prose and poetry that remark on such diverse places as China, California, and India. Critics have praised his wit and humor and his ability to evoke a sense of the cultures about which he is writing.
Born in Calcutta, India, Seth spent part of his youth in London. Returning to his homeland in 1957, Seth received his primary and secondary education in India. He then studied philosophy, politics, and economics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he developed an interest in poetry and learned Chinese. After leaving Oxford, Seth moved to California to work on a graduate degree in economics at Stanford University. There he met poet Timothy Steele, who profoundly influenced his work—Seth later dedicated his verse novel, The Golden Gate, to him. Seth also spent two years at Nanjing University in China. While there, he published his first collection of poetry, Mappings (1980), and hitchhiked across China and Tibet to India, a journey recounted in From Heaven Lake (1983), for which he received Britain's most prestigious travel-writing award, the Thomas Cook Prize. Eventually returning to Stanford, Seth took a break from his graduate work to write The Golden Gate, which he followed with another collection of poetry, a book of animal fables, and the prose novel A Suitable Boy (1993), for which he spent eight years in New Delhi writing and researching.
From Heaven Lake is a travelogue describing Seth's experiences on a trip from Nanjing University to his home in Calcutta via Tibet. Rather than merely discussing places to stay or sights to see, he demonstrates the value of cultural adaptability and sensitivity as he describes the land, the people he met, and the fragility of Tibet's cultural heritage in the wake of China's Cultural Revolution. His next work, the poetry collection The Humble Administrator's Garden (1985), centers on Seth's life in India and his experiences as a student at Oxford, Nanjing, and Stanford. Claude Rawson noted that the poems are "observant of pathos, of ironies of behaviour, and of the unexpected small exuberances of life." Modeled after Alexander Pushkin's Yevgeny Onegin (1833; Eugene Onegin), The Golden Gate is a verse novel composed of nearly six hundred sonnets written in iambic tetrameter. Set in San Francisco, California, during the early 1980s, the story centers on the interactions of three young professionals and their friends and explores issues related to religious guilt, the nuclear arms race, sexuality, love, and death. One of the longest books ever written in English, A Suitable Boy has drawn favorable comparisons to the novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot's Middlemarch (1872), and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981). Set in India during the early 1950s, the story centers on two characters: Lata Mehra, for whom her mother actively seeks a husband; and Maan Kapoor, who is searching for meaning in his life. The novel, however, is considered more than an exercise in character study; containing numerous subplots, it provides a vivid and lavishly detailed portrait of India's diverse society and culture.
Critics have commended Seth's sensitivity to Chinese culture in From Heaven Lake and his ability to accurately convey that culture to readers. The Golden Gate elicited enthusiastic critical response, with commentators praising it as a work of technical virtuosity suffused with wit and accessible language that moves from elevated literary allusion to colloquial speech. Although a number of reviewers have argued that Seth overemphasized rhyme to the detriment of the story's depth and character development, The Golden Gate is generally regarded as a bold achievement at a time when strict adherence to meter and rhyme goes largely unheeded by most poets. D. J. Enright commented: "The Golden Gate is a technical triumph, unparalleled (I would hazard) in English. We may not have scorned the sonnet, but we shall hardly have thought it capable of this sustained sequentiality, speed, elegance, wit and depth of insight." David Lehman concurred, arguing that in The Golden Gate "Seth makes us care about his characters, proposes a moral criticism of their lives and captures his California setting with a joyous wit little seen in narrative poetry this side of Lord Byron." Critical reaction to A Suitable Boy has been mixed. Numerous reviewers have found the length burdensome and the wealth of detail overwhelming in comparison to what they regarded as the slightness of the story's insight and dramatic action. Rhoda Koenig, for instance, has argued that A Suitable Boy's depth "may not trouble readers who seek nothing more than the acquaintance of some agreeable characters and a travelogue of postcolonial India. Those, however, who want to be rewarded with some insight, drama, and artistry … may feel that 'quite pleasing' is an insufficiently enticing justification." Most commentators, however, have praised the novel for providing an in-depth treatment of Indian culture. Commenting on the writing in A Suitable Boy, Schuyler Ingle stated: "It is absolutely seamless. There are no impediments placed between the reader and the story and the intimate lives of the characters. The reader's immersion in Indian life is so complete that by the time A Suitable Boy comes to its successful conclusion, aspects of Indian life that seem exotic—like the idea of arranging a marriage for a daughter—make perfect sense to a Western reader."
Mappings (poems) 1980
From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet (travel essay) 1983
The Humble Administrator's Garden (poems) 1985
The Golden Gate (verse novel) 1986
All You Who Sleep Tonight (poetry) 1990
Beastly Tales from Here and There (fables) 1992
A Suitable Boy (novel) 1993
Arion and the Dolphin (juvenilia) 1995
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SOURCE: A review of From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet, in San Francisco Review of Books, Spring, 1984, pp. 22-3.
[In the following review, Siegel compares From Heaven Lake to Lawrence Durrell's essays on Greece, arguing that both writers excel in describing the culture, history, and physical qualities of their subjects.]
Most accounts about the Republic of China in the general market these days are by old China hands: authors like Theodore White, Ross Terrill, and others who have spent large part of their careers as bona-fide sinologists. But here is a first book by a young man quite new to "China watching." Whatever Vikram Seth may lack in years or experience, however, he makes up for [in From Heaven Lake] with his fresh, literary reportage on the people and day-to-day life of contemporary China.
Seth is an Indian, albeit one educated at Oxford and at Stanford University, who provides some striking insights gleaned from his two-year stint as a student at Nanjing into Asia's two largest and most populous nations as they struggle toward modernity. He makes no pretense, however, at being expert in either nation's social, political, or economic problems (though he does predict, in his capacity as a nascent demographer, that China will achieve zero population growth within the next 50 years).
Seth's journal, which he kept during a...
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SOURCE: "A Sonnet to San Francisco," in Newsweek, Vol. CVII, No. 15, April 14, 1986, pp. 74-5.
[Lehman is an American poet and critic. In the following review of The Golden Gate, he praises Seth for revitalizing the novel in verse.]
Vikram Seth is scarcely your conventional first novelist. Born in Calcutta 34 years ago, educated at Oxford, he's the author of a "Tibetan travel book" titled From Heaven Lake and is currently completing a dissertation at Stanford University on the economic demography of China. But nothing about his background will quite prepare you for The Golden Gate, Seth's utterly original and utterly delightful novel about Yuppiedom in "light-pearled, / Fog-fingered" San Francisco, "the loveliest city in the world." What distinguishes the novel from any other you'll pick up this year is its form. Inspired by Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, The Golden Gate consists of close to 600 sonnets. Everything from the dedication, acknowledgments and contents pages to the author's bio is written in a sprightly iambic tetrameter.
In setting out to revitalize verse as a storytelling medium, Seth fulfills all the requirements of first-rate fiction. He writes with the fluidity and directness of prose but with a buoyancy and intensity available only in verse. The effect is a little like that of a comic opera, with lyric arias punctuating the recitative. It...
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SOURCE: "A Satirical Neoformalist," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. XCIV, No. 3, Summer, 1986, pp. lxiv-lxvi.
[An American educator and critic, King has written extensively on Indian poetry. In the following review, he discusses The Humble Administrator's Garden in relation to postmodernism.]
There was a radical populist form of postmodernism in the 1960s in which modernist high art was seen as the enemy of immediacy, self-expression, and fulfillment; more recently a conservative neoformalism has challenged modernist poetics. Vikram Seth, whose The Humble Administrator's Garden won the new Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Asia, reports on surfaces and the trivia of life in purposefully clichéd language, stereotyped ideas, using such forms as the sonnet, quatrain, and epigrammatic couplet. While some poems are written in free verse, Seth usually writes a monosyllabic, regularly stressed line. A refusal to look inward, a celebration of simple pleasures and of survival, and a half-serious resort to platitude and pastiche for amusement and as defense make Seth a poet of our time, when eclecticism, historicism, and self-aware artifice are associated with postmodernism.
The Humble Administrator's Garden is divided into poems about China, where Seth studied for two years; India, where he was born and raised; and California, where he now lives. Images of national trees and leaves...
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SOURCE: "In the Onegin Line," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4344, July 4, 1986, p. 733.
[Hollinghurst is an English novelist, editor, and critic. In the following review, he praises The Golden Gate for its technical virtuosity but complains that the form lacks the subtlety of prose.]
The Pushkin stanza is a wonderfully self-renewing form. Fourteen lines long, it gathers together two kinds of quatrain and three couplets into tight units which are none the less full of movement and contrast, fleeter and less architectonic than sonnets, the closure of the quatrains offset by the forward-moving couplets at the centre, and brought to epigrammatic poise by the couplet at the end. It is a form whose inner counterpoint gives it both gravity and levity, and it is hard to imagine a better vehicle for social verse narrative which aims to be both reflective and lightly comic. Its small but perceptible vogue in recent English poetry, boosted perhaps by Charles Johnston's acclaimed translation of Eugene Onegin in 1977, has not always reflected its particularly Pushkinian qualities: Peter Levi's Ruined Abbeys (1968) set subject perversely at odds with medium; Andrew Waterman's Out for the Elements (1981), though full of lexical ingenuity, had too little narrative, too much bragging confessional; John Fuller's The Illusionists (1980), on the other hand, a tale which exposed an...
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SOURCE: "John and Liz, Phil and Ed," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXII, No. 21, July 14, 1986, pp. 82-3.
[Balliet is an American journalist, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following review, he remarks favorably on The Golden Gate.]
During the last half of the nineteenth century, the long poem (epic, narrative, meditative, pastoral), entrenched for almost three hundred years, was slowly dispossessed by the Victorian novel. The long poem has made sporadic returns—in the work of Eliot, Pound, Auden, Spender, Betjeman, John Berryman, Robert Penn Warren, and Alfred Corn, and in the cousinly verse novels and verse plays of the Benét brothers, Christopher La Farge, Maxwell Anderson, Christopher Fry, and Eliot. And now we have, like the reappearance of the ivory-billed woodpecker, Vikram Seth's verse (and first) novel, The Golden Gate. Some essential statistics: The book has five hundred and ninety-four stanzas, including a stanza each for acknowledgments, dedication, table of contents, and a note about the author. The stanzas are patterned on the sonnetlike form developed by Pushkin in Eugene Onegin, which was published in 1833. They are in iambic tetrameter, and the rhyme scheme is aBaBccDDeFFeGG. The lowercase letters denote feminine rhymes (a two-syllable rhyme, with the accent on the first syllable, as in "wilting" and "tilting"), and the uppercase denote masculine rhymes (a stressed...
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SOURCE: "'Homeward Ho!': Silicon Valley Pushkin," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 15, No. 6, November-December, 1986, pp. 37-46.
[An Austrian-born American educator and critic, Perloff has written extensively on modern poetry. In the following excerpt from a review of The Golden Gate, she asserts that Seth's concern with rhyme weakens the novel's characterization, plot, and satirical force.]
The big news is that rhyme is back. More specifically, that after almost a century of free-verse dominance the long narrative poem written in rhyming metered stanzas is back. "Compose," said Ezra Pound in 1912, "in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome." And again, "Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose." Self-evident as these twin propositions seemed to the great American Modernists from Pound, Williams, and H.D. to Lowell and Bishop, Merwin and Kinnell, O'Hara and Ashbery, Creeley and Levertov, James Wright and Charles Wright, we are now witnessing a renewed interest in what we might call an unabashed metronomism, coupled with a desire somehow to "retail" in verse the most prosaic of suburban tales. Or so it would seem from the wide-spread enthusiasm, indeed euphoria, generated by the publication of The Golden Gate.
Vikram Seth's "novel in verse" is divided into thirteen books of variable length. Its stanza (there...
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SOURCE: "Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate: A Quick Look," in The Literary Criterion, Vol. XXI, No. 4, 1986, pp. 87-90.
[In the following review, Hill complains that the values in The Golden Gate are flawed but praises the novel's balanced structure.]
Judging by his novel The Golden Gate, it is hard to see how Vikram Seth can be considered an Indian writer, except by accident of birth. There are a few Indian references in the text, such as the "Taste of Honey" and the charioteer metaphor, and the non-violent attitude of the peace marchers has obvious Gandhian connections ("As evidence of our sincerity / We won't resist"), but there is nothing here that California has not possessed for a long time. The same could be said of the attitude of acceptance of contrasts that the book reveals at moments. This is, in fact, a totally Californian novel. What does perhaps result from the author being an adopted son of that state is a dose of gloating (the insistence of the accepted outsider on his belonging) in his celebrations of the Californian way of life, which can be irritating to anyone who has been exposed to the Californian claim to represent the vanguard of humanity in awareness and knowhow.
As a novel, the book is successful. It is carefully structured and balanced in its episodes. All the characters are clearly identified and followed through according to their...
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SOURCE: A review of The Golden Gate, in The Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 96-8.
[In the following review, Smith praises The Golden Gate's pace and style but laments its simplistic characterization and lack of depth.]
One Sunday I luxuriated, moving from hammock to canvas captain's chair and back, from sombre to sol and again, with Pepsi at noon and gin by twilight, the whole time entertained by Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate, which author and publisher have named a novel, but which I would call a light verse epic in a minor key.
In 594 (counting dedication, acknowledgements, table of contents and author's bio note) tetrameter fourteeners with the unlikely rhyme scheme of abbaccddeffegg, Seth has woven, through game and gambit and gesture worthy of Pope or Pushkin, a narrative of five central and a dozen other characters occupying the trendy, dreamlike landscape of hi-tech around San Francisco. His style is glib, crisp, zesty and facile, qualities which might damage a more serious work, but this performance is not serious for the most part. Very little seems at stake through most of the conflicts as pro- and antagonists scrimmage for ego-salve and hedonistic pleasure in a manner both intoxicated and intoxicating. The central character is the author's language and pleasantly intrusive consciousness, and we yield to...
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SOURCE: "And So Tibet," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, January 26, 1988, p. 48.
[In the following review of From Heaven Lake, Grimes praises Seth's attention to human behavior and cultural difference.]
It is early August, and Vikram Seth, one of three passengers wedged into the cab of a Chinese truck, is rumbling along the road to Lhasa. He is suffering from altitude sickness. The landscape—and there's lots of it—is monotonous and almost theatrically harsh: "Every few kilometers or so, a large and glossy raven sits perched on a telegraph pole, karking desolately." Gyanseng, a young Tibetan who has sat virtually silent for the entire trip, turns loquacious as the border nears; he begins singing, off-key, a number of Tibetan and Chinese favorites, including "Do Re Mi," "Jingle Bells," and "Red River Valley." This is a fairly convincing version of hell.
Seth's [From Heaven Lake] makes a strong case for letting other people travel to Tibet for us. There comes a point—probably the third rousing chorus of "Jingle Bells"—when even the most adventurous have to ask: Is the punishment worth it? Seth, of course, was more or less ensured a tough trip; his status as a foreign student at Nanjing University made independent travel immediately suspect and open to official challenge every step of the way. As if that weren't enough, he chose hitchhiking over air travel in...
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SOURCE: "Brief and Bald," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4564, September 21, 1990, p. 1007.
[In the following review, Mackinnon asserts that the short poems in All You Who Sleep Tonight do not give Seth room to express his voice and finds the book full of "humdrum sentiments and linguistic inertia."]
Even the acknowledgements, dedication, contents and biographical note to Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate (1986) were cast into Pushkin's Onegin stanza. This both suggested the form's infinite capacity and flaunted the author's virtuosity. Everything was swept into an aesthetic world, but such a world as could contain everything. Vikram Seth's skill was not uniform: The Golden Gate has bumpy lines and passages, but the poem gets away with them because of its narrative impulse.
The skills needed for conducting a long narrative are, obviously, unlike those required by short forms. All You Who Sleep Tonight collects seven years' poems, some of them presumably contemporary with The Golden Gate. They are contained in five sections, "Romantic Residues", about love, "In Other Voices", "In Other Places", the epigrammatic "Quatrains" and the thoughtful "Meditations of the Heart". Although the poems are occasional in origin, they have been arranged in a way which suggests both similarity of subject and the author's versatility. The book feels a little...
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SOURCE: A review of All You Who Sleep Tonight, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 3, Summer, 1991, pp. 549-50.
[Perry is an American educator and critic. In the following review, he complains that the poems in All You Who Sleep Tonight are drab and uninspired.]
Even a thin volume of thin poems could be enough to keep the reading public aware of Vikram Seth after the "phenomenal success" of his Byronesque, semisatiric, semiromantic novel in verse, The Golden Gate, five years ago.
The longest piece here (twenty-eight four-line stanzas) is termed "a pendant (as it were)" to that work, but it is neither cast in a similar vein (except for a final clever quip) nor marked with a similar narrative verve, being instead rather drably descriptive, uninspired historical and moral commentary. It is surely a mistake to ask for repeat performances from writers. Still, in form the poems of All You Who Sleep Tonight continue to rhyme and to make particular points—"to effect closure"—as Seth has always done. The opening poem, "Round and Round," tells how the fantasy of a returned love is punctured; sad letdowns, in one way or another, dominate in the next eight anecdotes of failed love affairs.
The next section, "In Other Voices," renders in verse several horror stories drawn from various sources: quandaries of a Nazi-raped Lithuanian Jew, "Ghalib,...
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SOURCE: "India Day by Day," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4694, March 19, 1993, p. 20.
[Iyer is an English journalist and travel writer. In the following review, he contends that parts of A Suitable Boy are more satisfying than the whole and that the novel would have been stronger if it had been shorter.]
In the house of English letters, Indian writers have often admitted us to the kitchen, with its hot spices, odd condiments and strange terms; and to the bedroom, not only for its obvious seductions, but also for the wild dream-flights entertained there. The event-infused city, the superstitious village, the polymorphous forms of Indian films are all by now familiar parts of the Indian scenery. But what Vikram Seth has tried to do, in his quietly monumental new novel, is to usher India into the drawing-room, to make it seem as everyday and close to us as nineteenth-century St Petersburg, say, or Regency Bath. His is a novel of the parlour and the breakfast-table, and one that passes like a long morning, and afternoon and evening, with the family.
A Suitable Boy is, on the face of it, simply a tale of a "nice, quiet girl" called Lata, nineteen years old, living in northern India in 1950, and trying to find a husband. Meanwhile, around her, the world's largest democracy is preparing for the first General Election in its young history. At its heart a story of four...
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SOURCE: A review of Beastly Tales from Here and There, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 447-48.
[In the following review, Perry lauds Beastly Tales from Here and There.]
On reading the delightful animal fables gathered in Beastly Tales from Here and There, it is tempting to exclaim, "Aha, now Vikram Seth's talent for rhyming wit has at last found its proper form!" To say that much, however, one would have to reexamine closely at least The Humble Administrator's Garden and The Golden Gate as well as especially the light Roman "quatrains" in All You Who Sleep Tonight. The issues for a critical reader in those previous books, however, stretch far beyond their formal pleasures, for they arouse moralistic questions about the exact nature of the feelings moving their diverse rhythms and anthropological questions about the accuracy of their supposedly keen, often witty observations, most dubiously of California gay culture. No such doubts cloud the immediate or the meditated experience of these ten tales of animal encounters, set (mostly reset) in brightly rollicking tetrameter couplets.
The first two tales, "The Crocodile and the Monkey" and "The Louse and the Mosquito," are drawn from Indian lore; two more each are from China, Greece (Aesop), and the Ukraine, while the final two "came directly to me," Seth says, "from the Land of...
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SOURCE: "Indian Summa," in London Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 8, April 22, 1993, p. 9.
[In the following review, Lanchester remarks favorably on A Suitable Boy, praising the novel as a "portrait of Indian life" that possesses remarkable structural clarity.]
Forests have been slain, not only in the manufacture of A Suitable Boy, but in the production of its review coverage. An unusual amount of the publicity has been statistical, with journalists dwelling on the size of the book (1349 pages), its weight (an uncompromising 1.5 kilos), the size of the advances received ('2.6 crore rupees'), and its status as the longest one-volume novel in the English language. (Clarissa is longer and is now published in one volume, but wasn't written that way.) The Indian reviews are generally rupee-driven, and widely acclamatory; one magazine says that Seth 'has become India's answer to Pearl S. Buck and Tolstoy'. The English reviews are also rupee-driven, and are more acclamatory still; the favourite comparison is with Middlemarch. Salman Rushdie writes to the papers to deny a rumour that he had dismissed the novel as a soap-opera: he says he's two hundred pages in and going strong. On the other hand, the first American review calls the book 'a cream puff'.
Proust somewhere says that Balzac is more vulgar than life itself. A wonderful compliment, and one that comes to mind...
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SOURCE: "Vikram Seth," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 19, May 10, 1993, pp. 46-7.
[In the following essay based on an interview with Seth, Field and Seth discuss his literary career and the writing and publishing of A Suitable Boy.]
Vikram Seth ("Seth" is pronounced to rhyme with "fate") has always set records. His first prose book, From Heaven Lake, was about walking through Tibet, and it set a record as the only book in 11 years which Chatto & Windus had found in the slush pile and published. (In 1983 it went on to win Britain's most prestigious travel-writing award, the Thomas Cook Prize.) Seth's much-celebrated first novel, The Golden Gate, was written in verse. And his second novel, A Suitable Boy, coming this month from Harper-Collins, is the longest single-volume work of English fiction since Samuel Richardson's Clarissa was published in 1747.
But Seth is also one of those rare men who is "unaccountably" regarded as a genius by people who have not read any of his three book-length works. (He also publishes his own poetry and translations of Mandarin poets.) One wonders how Vikram Seth has held on to this reputation while spending the last eight years at his parents's home in a suburb of Calcutta. Or why he turned his back on Britain (Oxford, 1971–1975) and California (Stanford, 1975–1984), the places where word-of-mouth first made him...
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SOURCE: "India—All of It," in Commonweal, Vol. CXX, No. 10, May 21, 1993, pp. 25-6.
[In the following review of A Suitable Boy, Worth laments that Seth's concern with moderation and fairness in his portrayal of India weakens the novel's story and leaves the reader longing for more action and a faster pace.]
Vikram Seth has become something of a literary hero in recent months, both in his native India and in England. Newspapers have touted the million-pound advance he received for his monumental novel, set in early 1950s' India, and his publishers have trumpeted comparisons with Dickens, George Eliot, and Tolstoy. Seth is one of several brilliant and increasingly visible young Indian writers, and his aspirations match the recent trend (espoused by Tom Wolfe, among others) toward lengthy and ambitious "social" novels in the model of the nineteenth-century masters. Seth appears, in other words, to be riding a wave of expectation for something like a Great Indian Novel. The renewed outbreaks of religious and ethnic violence in India over the last few months make his magnum opus, which describes remarkably similar episodes in the years just after independence, all the more timely. Nor will this novel provoke any fatwas. Seth's grand (perhaps too grand) ambition has been to fit all of India into a novel without offending anybody.
On the surface, A Suitable Boy...
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SOURCE: "A Family of 900 Million," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 23, 1993, pp. 4, 11.
[In the following review, Ingle lauds A Suitable Boy.]
It is no wonder that when Vikram Seth finished writing the rather simple story of Mrs. Rupa Mehra's search for a suitable boy to marry her lovely young daughter, Lata, he had produced a novel over 1,300 pages long. The author, you see, left nothing out.
He chose to tell the whole story, producing for all time the whole world of Lata Mehra, with all the intermingled levels of North Indian culture, including entangled and intertwined families, a plethora of castes and religions, levels of education, and political and economic aspirations. And sex and violence, as well as poetry and puns and jokes.
In a land of 900 million people, Seth seems to be saying, no one person can possibly be singled out: Their connections must be taken into account as well.
And yet, this is not a bloated text. In fact, it is spare. In a magnificent display of artistic control as well as compassion for his reader, Vikram Seth disappears. And in an odd way, so too does his writing. It is absolutely seamless. There are no impediments placed between the reader and the story and the intimate lives of the characters. The reader's immersion in Indian life is so complete that by the time A Suitable Boy comes to its successful...
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SOURCE: "Sitting Pretty," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 10, May 27, 1993, pp. 22-6.
[Desai is an Indian novelist, short story writer, and author of books for children. In the following review, she examines character and style in A Suitable Boy.]
The character Vikram Seth chooses in his novel A Suitable Boy to represent himself is not one of the central characters; it is Amit the poet who "was sitting pretty in his father's house and doing nothing that counted as real work," which happens to be the writing of an historical novel. In an uncharacteristically confiding moment, he compares writing fiction to Indian music.
I've always felt that the performance of a raag resembles a novel—or at least the kind of novel I'm attempting to write. You know … first you take one note and explore it for a while, then another to discover its possibilities, then perhaps you get to the dominant, and pause for a bit, and it's only gradually that the phrases begin to form and the tabla joins in with the beat … and then the more brilliant improvisations and diversions begin, with the main theme returning from time to time, and finally it all speeds up, and the excitement increases to a climax.
He is cut short by an acerbic critic, Dr. Ila Chattopadhyay, who interrupts, "What utter nonsense…. Don't pay any attention to...
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SOURCE: A review of A Suitable Boy, in The New York Times Book Review, June 1, 1993, pp. 3-4.
[Towers is an American educator, novelist, and critic. In the following review, he asserts that A Suitable Boy addresses an important era in Indian history but is not successful as a novel.]
Indian poet Vikram Seth's novel A Suitable Boy begins with a lavishly detailed set piece devoted to a Hindu wedding and, more than 1,300 pages later, ends with another. One might well see the book itself in terms of a coupling (an odd one), for Mr. Seth—known in America as the author of a well-received novel in verse, The Golden Gate—has joined an essentially tidy, Jane Austen-like main plot with an attempt to re-create the multitudinous life of post-British India on a scale unequaled since Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Apart from their predilection for vast and crowded canvases, however, it would be hard to imagine two writers less alike than the wildly inventive and ferociously satirical Mr. Rushdie and the amiable Mr. Seth, a sentimental "bourgeois" realist with a taste for scrupulous documentation.
This novel, which is set in the early 1950's, opens on a scene of triumph: Mrs. Rupa Mehra, a middle-aged widow of good family, has found a suitable boy for her elder daughter, Savita, and "the cream of Brahmpur society" is present to witness the performance of...
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SOURCE: "As the Raj Turns," in The New Republic, Vol. 208, No. 24, June 14, 1993, pp. 41-4.
[Jenkyns is an English educator and critic. In the following review, he argues that A Suitable Boy lacks fully developed characters and that the domestic and public dimensions of the book have not been integrated.]
In The Golden Gate, the brilliant verse novel about life in California that made his name, Vikram Seth tells us that he started rhyming (in English) at the age of 3. The whole of that book is written in tetrameter sonnets, including the dedication, the table of contents and the author's biography at the back. Since his name is pronounced something like "sate," he has made even the title page rhyme: The Golden Gate / by Vikram Seth. The literary taste behind this is delightfully broad and unpretentious; Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children are quoted as much as, if not more than, Shakespeare and Marvell.
The passion for versification, and especially for gladly silly versification, spills over into A Suitable Boy. It is mixed in with an engagement with English literature, shared between Seth and most of his main characters, which also ranges from the sublime to the absurd. The boisterous Chatterji family improvises doggerel couplets at the breakfast table. Seth's contents page summarizes the subject of each chapter in couplets, the style of which will...
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SOURCE: "Big City, Long Poem," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1993, pp. 219-34.
[In the following excerpt, Downing complains that the individual sonnets in The Golden Gate lack intensity and that the story lacks depth.]
Vikram Seth is mad about sonnets. The Golden Gate consists of a staggering five hundred and ninety of them strung together to form a verse novel. Even the bio page, acknowledgments, dedication, and table of contents are written in sonnet form. Seth's sonnets depart, however, from the traditional English line laid down by Wyatt and Surrey in that they rarely aspire to be, in Rossetti's phrase, a "moment's monument." Rather, they trace their ancestry back to Pushkin, placing high value on wit and effervescence. To achieve these effects, Seth favors quick, playful tetrameter over the more ponderous pentameter. Here Seth, anticipating the inevitable clamor of objections to his atavistic approach, cannily issues a preemptive apology:
How do I justify this stanza?
These feminine rhymes? My wrinkled muse?
This whole passé extravaganza?
How can I (careless of time) use
The dusty bread molds of Onegin
In the brave bakery of Reagan?
If the pairing of Onegin with...
(The entire section is 1161 words.)
Bell, Pearl K. Review of A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth. Partisan Review LXI, No. 1 (Winter 1994): 82-4.
Contends that A Suitable Boy lacks a "controlling sense of selection and discrimination."
Brunet, Elena. Review of From Heaven Lake, by Vikram Seth. Los Angeles Times Book Review (10 January 1988): 14.
Praises From Heaven Lake for its vivid portrayal of China and Tibet.
Corey, Stephen. Review of All You Who Sleep Tonight, by Vikram Seth. The Ohio Review, No. 47 (1991): 132-39.
Faults the poems of All You Who Sleep Tonight for being sophomoric and singsongy.
Davis, Dick. "Obliquities." The Listener 114, No. 2938 (5 December 1985): 33-4.
Praises The Humble Administrator's Garden, arguing that its tone is "modest, ordered, well-mannered and well-planned, with a trace of deprecatory self-pity."
Review of Arion and the Dolphin, by Vikram Seth. The Economist 333, No. 7891 (26 November 1994): 101.
Remarks favorably on Arion and the Dolphin.
Gupta, Santosh. "The...
(The entire section is 384 words.)