Vikram Seth Essay - Seth, Vikram

Seth, Vikram

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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

Criticism

Eve Siegel (review date Spring 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 1317 words.)

David Lehman (review date 14 April 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 674 words.)

Bruce King (review date Summer 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 913 words.)

Alan Hollinghurst (review date 4 July 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 911 words.)

Whitney Balliett (review date 14 July 1986)

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,...

(The entire section is 1004 words.)

Marjorie Perloff (review date November-December 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 6360 words.)

Rowena Hill (review date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 1358 words.)

R. T. Smith (review date Winter 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 881 words.)

William Grimes (review date 26 January 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 691 words.)

Lachlan Mackinnon (review date 21 September 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 693 words.)

John Oliver Perry (review date Summer 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 726 words.)

Pico Iyer (review date 19 March 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 1960 words.)

John Oliver Perry (review date Spring 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 1107 words.)

John Lanchester (review date 22 April 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 1856 words.)

Michele Field (essay date 10 May 1993)

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,...

(The entire section is 2095 words.)

Robert Worth (review date 21 May 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 1057 words.)

Schuyler Ingle (review date 23 May 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 929 words.)

Anita Desai (review date 27 May 1993)

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.

...

(The entire section is 5018 words.)

Robert Towers (review date 1 June 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 1737 words.)

Richard Jenkyns (review date 14 June 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 2843 words.)

Ben Downing (review date 1993)

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,...

(The entire section is 1161 words.)