Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 792

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Vikram Seth (sayt) is a versatile writer who is at ease in a variety of genres. He has made a place for himself as an Indian writing in the English language. Seth was born in Calcutta, India, in 1952. He left India to study at Oxford University in England, where he earned degrees in philosophy, economics, and politics. He then enrolled at Stanford University for advanced study in economics. While at Stanford, Seth was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in creative writing. He wrote the poetry collected in Mappings during this time.

From 1980 to 1982, Seth went to China for economic research and to travel. He studied classical Chinese poetry and language at Nanjing University. His account of a hitchhiking journey from China through Tibet to India was published as From Heaven Lake, which won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1983.

Returning to California, Seth published several books of poetry. The Humble Administrator’s Garden, which won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, is divided into three sections that identify their influences, Chinese, Indian, and Californian. The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse was widely reviewed and critically well received. It established Seth’s reputation as a poet and popular writer. The novel is a 307-page series of nearly six hundred sonnets of iambic tetrameter, loosely modeled on Russian poet Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (1825-1832). The narrative is driven by the lives and entanglements of its characters. Each character is part of a subculture of San Francisco life, and through them Seth demonstrates his thorough familiarity with his setting, San Francisco in the 1980’s. The Golden Gate won the Quality Paperback Book Club New Voice Award and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1986.

After the publication of The Golden Gate, Seth returned to India to live with his family and work on his major epic, A Suitable Boy. Three additional books of poetry were published between the two novels: All You Who Sleep Tonight, Beastly Tales from Here to There, and Three Chinese Poets, all of which demonstrate Seth’s diversity of material and multicultural background.

A Suitable Boy, published in 1993, is Seth’s best-known work. The book is a thirteen-hundred-page epic of Indian culture, religion, family life, and postcolonial politics. This novel propelled Seth into the public spotlight, launching a series of interviews, talk-show appearances, and book signings. Critical reviews were mixed, however, and the public and his publishers were disappointed when the book was not considered for the Booker Prize in 1993. It did win the W. H. Smith Award and earned Seth the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize.

After A Suitable Boy, Seth returned to London, where he was commissioned by the English National Opera to write a libretto based on the Greek legend of Arion and the dolphin. This material was also published as a children’s book. His 1999 novel, An Equal Music, is set in London and the Continent and is a love story about the members of a string quartet. Seth was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2001 for his achievements.

Seth’s work is noted for its versatility and variety of setting and form. His settings reflect the multicultural and geographic variety of his life experiences, with major works set in India, China, London and the European continent, and the United States. Translation has played a role in his life and work as well, expanding his multicultural influences.

Seth has written successful and prizewinning work in a variety of genres: poetry, nonfiction, and fiction as well as opera libretti and children’s tales. He is noted for his technical mastery of traditional forms in poetry, using rhyme and meter unusual in a poet of the late twentieth century. A Suitable Boy has been described as having the style of a nineteenth century novel, and critics have compared its scope and some of its themes to the works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy. Seth’s introductions to some of his own work suggest that as his academic training was in economics rather than English, he followed his own eclectic inclinations and tastes in his reading and writing.

While Seth’s forms tend toward the traditional, his themes and sensibilities suggest the difficulty of forming relationships, the ultimate failure of love as a bond, and the loneliness of late twentieth century life, no matter where in the world the tale is set. Vikram Seth’s importance is as a world writer, a writer in English who embraces the language, culture, and influence of the English-speaking world, the non-English Western world, and the Eastern regions of India and China as well. He is also important as a writer who unites the traditional forms of the nineteenth century and earlier with the themes and sensibilities of the late twentieth century.

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