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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

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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

Eve Siegel (review date Spring 1984)

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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 1,500-mile hitchhike through northwest China and Tibet enroute home to his native India, is very light on academic analysis of any kind. Nor does he rush into print with the names of his favorite guest houses for overnighting along the way to Lhasa, provide maps with precise locations of truck transport yards that are so essential to catching a successful lift, or tell the reader where to get the best yak-butter tea. There are few, if any, choices in these matters in China's hinterlands. What Seth does over and over again, though, is demonstrate how to be culturally adaptable and sensitive. Not only does he employ these anthropological tools with great skills in dealing with whatever circumstances turn up; he also brings to bear considerable charm, wiles, and a hefty dose of good karma as he slips past Chinese bureaucracy. In this respect, Seth is more akin to travelers of yore who passed this way on the Silk Routes than to today's student tourist.

If Seth's book, enchantingly titled, From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet, is not a hitchhiker's guide to China's remote regions, it is a fine collection of essays on the people he meets and the lives they lead. There is old Wang, a unit leader at a truck depot in Liuyuan who baffles Seth with his obvious annoyance at Seth's missing a ride that left Lhasa the day before Seth even arrived at the "… dusty terminus … that is the start of the road south to Tibet…."

And there is Lao Sui, the chain-smoking, 35-year-old driver who gives Seth his first ride from near the Mongolian border to a forlorn spot some 150 kilometers from the Tibetan capital, where the truck gets stuck up to its chassis in mud. Sui not only drives this arduous, bumpy, hazardous, and nerve-wracking route with all the aplomb of an American milkman making his neighborhood rounds, but stops along the way to gossip, haggle with hawkers for the best watermelons at the lowest price, deliver presents and essential goods to friends—and take orders for more the next time he's coming through.

Seth's most intimate Tibetan contact—with Norbu and his family—provides haunting insight into the lives of people who suffered in the throes of China's Cultural Revolution. The arrest and imprisonment of Norbu's father, the death of his mother, and a pervasive feeling of persecution keeps the entire family looking over its shoulder long after the father has been released and the massive internal anarchy has subsided.

Throughout the journey Seth brings a poet's eye, wry humor, and a gifted linguist's love for nuance to his interactions. He is drawn to China, and especially Tibet, more by a longing to know the roots of his cultural and literary heritage than by mere wanderlust. He isn't making this journey to see strange and distant lands, but to absorb their ancient traditions and modern values, and to be near their mystic powers. Hence, he "cannot speak at all" when he sees the Potala Palace for the first time; and his frequent references to the effects of the Chinese Cultural Revolution upon people and their revered traditions convey a poignant message about the fragility of ancient heritage in our times:

       This day Zhi Xiong came to the old temple.
       He came from far away with no other intention
       Than to see the ancient temple,
       And he saw it and wept.

Though Seth is quoting a Chinese poem he found scribbled on the ruins of a temple just outside Dunhuang, the words appear to capture the real motivation lurking in Seth's own heart for this odyssey.

Seth's inspiration for travel through Tibet and his style of writing is perhaps best compared to Lawrence Durrell's essays and articles on Greece. As Greece provided a primal source of religious mythology and literary inspiration for the British author, so Tibet does for the Indian. Both men—poets, multi-lingual, passionately literate—could not fail to be compelled by countries whose geographical borders represent, as Durrell said of Greece, only "a state of mind." Like the Mekong, Yangtze, Indus, and Bramaputra rivers—which Seth notes have their headwaters in Tibet—Seth is seeking out the sources of those legends, fables, and stories that have helped shape his own culture.

Yet, for both writers, the universal mysteries take their place as casual though omnipresent backdrops to the warmth, humor, and frustrations of daily life in these respective countries. Adopted by local people during his time in Corfu as a young man, Durrell, like Seth, marvelled at the native hospitality about which "there is nothing to do but surrender yourself." Like Durrell, Seth possesses an uncanny ability to become part of his surroundings. His English and American friends sing their songs and the Chinese applaud politely; Seth sings the theme song from Awara, an Indian love film with enormous popularity throughout China, and the Chinese not only sing along with him—in Hindi, no less—but also recognize him as one of their own. As an Asian traveling through Asia, Seth is accepted by people from every strata of Chinese society in a way that few waibin (foreign guests) from Western countries could be.

At another time Seth is hauled out of bed at 3:15 am by the police and grilled about what he is doing in this town, since it is not among those listed on his precious travel pass. "Guiding shi guiding" (regulations are regulations), the police rave—until they notice a photograph of Seth's family, taken in their New Delhi home. Asiatic civility returns at the sight of this photo, and Seth is escorted back to his room with apologies for the inconvenience.

Like Durrell's "travel writings," in which, if the reader never sets foot on a Greek island, he will know the smells, sounds, and tastes of it, From Heaven Lake shows that Seth has a similar power to unfold distant landscapes with sensual clarity and render them immediate with instinctive rapport for other peoples. He dedicates the book to "the people I met along the way," suggesting an affinity with the philosophy of Lao-tzu. For the receptive traveler, then, "the way" may well become the "tao," or the path to self-knowledge. "Because water excels in benefitting the myriad creatures without contending with them and settles where none would like to be, it comes close to the way," wrote Lao-tzu some 2,400 years ago. From Heaven Lake moves Vikram Seth, traveler, like a flow of water down distant mountains, inexorably towards the "tao," where lovers of fine writing are welcome to join him.

David Lehman (review date 14 April 1986)

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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 begins when John, a workaholic Silicon Valley engineer, sheepishly bares his lonely heart to his ex-girlfriend Jan, a sculptor who doubles as the drummer in a rock band called Liquid Sheep. Here's how they talk between bites of Chinese food:

       "I'm young, employed, healthy, ambitious,
         Sound, solvent, self-made, self-possessed.
       But all my symptoms are pernicious.
         The Dow-Jones of my heart's depressed.
       The sunflower of my youth is wilting.
         The tower of my dreams is tilting.
       The zoom lens of my zest is blurred.
         The drama of my life's absurd.
       What is the root of my neurosis?
         I jog, eat brewer's yeast each day,
       And yet I feel life slip away.
         I wait your sapient diagnosis.
       I die! I faint! I fail! I sink!"
         "You need a lover, John, I think."

Jan's solution is to advertise John's plight ("Young handsome yuppie, 26 …") in the personal columns of the Bay Guardian. A plot full of plausible complications ensues. What begins in whimsy leads to romance (John meets Liz Dorati, a recent product of Standford Law) and then to a chain reaction of romantic reversals and realignments. Long before the novel's unhappy but poetically just ending, we begin to recognize John's personal ad as an improbable but no less effective metaphor for characters who are afflicted with loneliness but persist in "lusting for love."

The San Francisco these Yuppies inhabit is an ever-ever land of microchips and macrobiotics, "holistic / Modes of ingestion" and peaceniks. Seth gently satirizes the antinuke demonstration that drastically changes his characters' lives: against a backdrop of "an inflated / Blue whale with Save the Humans scrawled / Across its side," Phil, John's college roommate, runs into Liz wheeling her cat, Charlemagne, in a baby carriage. Seth's playful wit works as easily to elevate the humble (Charlemagne is an inveterate scene stealer) as to mock human pomp and arrogance. But for all the comic set pieces, the novel's ultimate morality is severe. Crucially, it's the bisexual and idealistic Phil, a "good atheist Jew" who quit his job at Datatronics to join the peace movement, who ends up favored by fortune while priggish, homophobic John emerges with his initial desolation intact.

None of this may have worked in prose; in verse it's a nonstop pleasure. 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. A scene in which kids and cats cavort around a piano evokes this characteristic fusion of puns and literary allusions: "Thus the young yahoos coexist / With whoso list to list to Liszt." Readers looking for an antidote to the trendy nihilism on display in so many first novels these days need look no further.

Bruce King (review date Summer 1986)

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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 are used both to unify the volume and to suggest different cultural styles. China appears to be a place to discover universal brotherhood despite cultural differences, India is a land of memories and lost relations, but America despite all its comforts and pleasures is lonely and dangerous. While the Chinese poems are imagistic and atmospheric, tendencies toward chinoiserie are held in check by rigid western stanzaic forms and by worldly wisdom. Often the poems offer analogies to the poetics of their creation. In the title poem ["The Humble Administrator's Garden"], a sonnet, there is a "plump gold carp," a "lily pad," a "Fragrant Chamber," a "Rainbow Bridge," a "willow," a "lotus," and "half a dozen loquats"; but such beauty has been unscrupulously achieved: "He may have got / The means by somewhat dubious means." Administrative practicality creates the self-satisfying poetic art of the garden: "He leans against a willow with a dish / And throws a dumpling to a passing fish."

The personality offered is of a social observer with little revealed inner life; the manner controls such emotions as fear, isolation, envy, and boredom. The California poems refer to loneliness, old letters, former loves, absence, and nostalgia for a foreign (European) past, presumably when Seth was a student at Oxford before coming to America. Emotions are mocked by expressing them platitudinously: "The fact is, this work is as dreary as shit. / I do not like it a bit." "There is so much to do / There isn't any time for feeling blue." Pastiche, rhyme, stanzaic structure, and controlled comedy contribute to a conscious formalism, a display of artifice that purposely lowers the pressure. As in the poetry of Philip Larkin, the lexis is varied to invigorate an unreverberant diction.

Although some of the poems are so laid-back as to be teasingly close to triviality, there is often a threat to survival even when the tone shifts among wit, comedy, humor, and satire to celebrate West Coast American popular culture. The ten six-line stanzas of "Abalone Soup" narrate an evening when friends were diving for abalone in the Pacific ("Eight thirty. Where are they? At nine o'clock / I'll call up next of kin. 'How do you do—/ Mrs. Gebhart? Your son was lost at sea, / A martyr to cuisine.' Ah, abalone"). Seth's sense of exile, of being a world traveler and an East Indian settled in California, must contribute to his awareness of the incongruities of life in contemporary America.

There is a high but eclectic intertextuality in "Ceasing upon the Midnight," which begins with the absurdity of: "He stacks the dishes on the table. / He wants to die, but is unable"; moves through memories of other countries and cultures; and returns to an unromantic alcoholic present: "The bottle lies on the ground. / He sleeps. His sleep is sound." Deftly and ironically maneuvering its way through obvious echoes, the poem imitates the structure, movement, and psychology of the typical grand romantic ode, which is undermined by witty but bland irony, part of a very unromantic poetic: "the rules / of metre, shield him from / Himself." Consequently "To cease upon / / The midnight under the live-oak / Seems too derisory a joke." The style holds off destructive emotions.

The final poem in The Humble Administrator's Garden is "Unclaimed," which epigrammatically comments upon a passing sexual encounter: "To make love with a stranger is the best. / There is no riddle and there is no test." The throw-away manner, like the theme, is a demonstration of a defensive position, "not aching to make sense." Claiming "That this is all there is," Seth controls by deflating romantic urges; he aims at being relaxed, unengaged.

The dampening of emotions, the simultaneous parody and celebration of stereotypes and clichés, has been a fashionable stance in sophisticated pop music. That one of Seth's poems has already been recorded, while others are written in song forms, shows that postmodernists make little distinction between high and mass culture.

While his ideas and style resemble those of Timothy Steele, a poet whom he admires, Seth is less tense, and less metaphysical. For those educated on modernist literature, Seth's poetry can seem shockingly slight and pseudotraditional; but with familiarity the poems deepen to reveal an unexpectedly original contemporary writer.

Alan Hollinghurst (review date 4 July 1986)

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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 innocent's progress through the machinations of the London art world, and centred on a forged Hogarth picture of The Rape of the Lock, reconnected the form to historic tradition, and exploited its potential for Byronic digression as well as Augustan concision.

Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate, a verse novel of modern Californian life over 8,000 lines long, is not so funny, or so digressive. It does not draw such attention to the difficulties of the stanza or make such ostentatious comedy of solving them: it raises a smile rather than a laugh. But it is a technical tour de force. Seth has gone as far as can be imagined towards ease of diction, and at its best his stanza seems an entirely natural medium, through which he moves, for page after page, with effortless fluency. To be sure, there is a certain amount of waxing, doffing and inditing, half-obsolete short cuts to rhymes or metrical evenness. And the main characters—priggish yuppie John, glamorous barrister Liz, gay, conscience-racked Ed, feminist sculptor Jan, sexy dropout Phil and his son Paul—tirelessly fill out short lines with their conveniently monosyllabic names: "'Phil, don't / Defend her …' 'John, I don't care greatly / whose side I'm taking'" is a typical exchange. Perhaps the air of manic sociability and bristling egos that results is a deliberate part of Seth's portrait of his adoptive California.

Certainly there is something essential that goes unexplained behind this bizarre book. In a way it calls for more authorial intrusion à la Pushkin, more pointers to the author's relation with his material. Seth doesn't appear in propria persona until Chapter Four, when he has got Ed and Phil into bed together, and with slightly arch propriety steps forward to draw a veil over what they do. In Chapter Five he plays blandish homage to Onegin and Johnston ("Sweet-watered, fluent, clear, light, blithe") and records the horror of a publisher, met at a party, at the idea of a verse novel. But we would like Seth to socialize with us far more often. The sleekness of the whole accomplishment intensifies the enigma: why has he undertaken the project in the first place? What is it about these people that merits his or our extended attention?

The impetus seems to be partly satirical and polemical: the faddishness of Californian life is paraded and indulged; and the novel centres persuasively on an anti-ńuclear protest and an eloquent speech made at a demonstration outside "Lungless Labs". It is also affectionate and romantic, with abundant descriptions of the beauty of the country and a sense of Californian douceur de vivre. The characterization of Phil is the most inward and interesting, as he looks back with pain on a marriage a year dead, answers his little boy's questions, follows his own heart and mind into rejection of Reaganite society and into two love affairs. And there are passages of real poignancy about the deaths of one or two of the characters. Something rather disturbing and perhaps unintended happens, though, when all these concerns are treated in the ambiguous ethos of the Pushkin stanza, especially if the author abstains from his role as guide and prompt. The effect is in part of an up-market version of Cyra McFadden's The Serial, of scintillating technique brought to bear on evidently banal material, of soap transmogrified. Yet at the same time the verse, for all its suaveté, seems to trap its protagonists in artificial attitudes, serving them up in a light blanquette of general and motiveless irony. It is by no means the same as writing in prose. Time and again in The Golden Gate one sees how the form has prevented the subtlety, the economic naturalness of prose narrative, and in turn invested everything that is described with an air of faint but irreducible fatuity. Just as they are made to matter one discovers that one doesn't care about Seth's characters after all.

It is very hard in the end to say what one thinks of this book—except that such sharp-eyed and sophisticated talent can only go on to do something even more extraordinary; perhaps something which strikes more unhesitatingly to the heart of the matter.

Whitney Balliett (review date 14 July 1986)

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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 terminal-syllable rhyme, as in "day" and "away"). Seth was born in Calcutta in 1952, graduated from Oxford, and is working toward a Ph.D. in economic demographics at Stanford. He has published a travel book and a book of poems, and he lives in San Francisco.

The Pushkin stanza was designed more for speed than for emotional content, and it is surprising how much Seth packs into it. The book's technical aplomb, pleasing bits of wit, and general hustle very nearly conceal its keening and sorrow. (Separated from the elegance and ease of his verse, Seth's story sounds almost maudlin.) It is 1980, and John, a clever twenty-six-year-old Silicon Valley executive, is

      Gray-eyed, blond-haired, aristocratic
      In height, impatience, views, and face,
      Discriminating though dogmatic,
      Tender beneath a carapace
      Of well-groomed tastes and tasteful grooming.

He is also bored, lonely, and sorry for himself. He telephones a former girlfriend, Janet Hayakawa, a sculptor and a drummer in a rock band called Liquid Sheep, and they have lunch. Unbeknownst to John, Janet then places a lonely-hearts ad for him in a newspaper, and John, angered at first, finds Miss Right—a handsome and irresistible lawyer named Liz Dorati. John and Liz fall in love, and John comes (unpleasantly) to life. Plot Two appears. Phil Weiss, an old friend of John's, has been deserted by his Wasp wife, who has gone back East to marry someone else, leaving Phil with their only child, Paul. John and Liz move into an apartment, and at their house-warming Phil meets Ed, Liz Dorati's younger brother. Phil and Ed fall in love. Ed, who keeps a pet iguana named Schwarzenegger, is younger than Phil, and his religious views inhibit him, and the two men break up. The story continues to startle us—not always persuasively—and no more should be said of it except to point out that John, for all the misery he brings down on his difficult self, becomes comprehensible, and even affecting, by the end of the book.

It takes Seth a while to get his tetrameters going. Here is Chapter One, Verse 7:

      A linkless node, no spouse or sibling,
      No children—John wanders alone
      Into an ice cream parlor. Nibbling
      The edges of a sugar cone
      By turns, a pair of high school lovers
      Stand giggling. John, uncharmed, discovers
      His favorite flavors, Pumpkin Pie
      And Bubble Gum, decides to buy
      A double scoop; sits down; but whether
      His eyes fall on a knot of three
      Schoolgirls, a clamorous family,
      Or, munching cheerfully together,
      A hippie and a Castro clone,
      It hurts that only he's alone.

By Verse 36 of the same chapter, he has begun to take hold:

      Time sidles by: on television
      The soaps dissolve, the jingles change.
      Defeat or pity or derision
      Constricts our hearts. Our looks grow strange
      Even to us. The grail, perfection,
      Dims, and we come to view rejection
      As an endurable result
      Of hope and trial, and exult
      When search or risk or effort chances
      To grant us someone who will do
      For love, and who may love us too—
      While those who wait, as age advances,
      Aloof for Ms. or Mr. Right
      Weep to themselves in the still night.

Halfway through the book, a Catholic priest makes an anti-nuclear speech at a rally which lasts nine pages, and it is eloquent and passionate:

       Killing is dying. This equation
       Carries no mystical import.
       It is the literal truth. Our nation
       Has long believed war was a sport.
       Unoccupied, unbombed, undying,
       While "over there" the shells were flying,
       How could we know the Russian dread
       Of war, the mountains of their dead?
       We reveled in acceleration
       At every level of the race;
       And even now we're face to face
       With mutual extermination
       We talk as blithely as before
       Of "surgical strikes" and "limited war."

But before we get this far Seth, who directly addresses the reader, is busy laughing at himself. He tells a book editor at a party that he is writing a novel—in verse:

       … He turned yellow.
       "How marvelously quaint," he said,
       And subsequently cut me dead.

Two stanzas later, Seth says to us:

       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?
       The loaves will surely fail to rise
       Or else go stale before my eyes.

But they don't; Seth pulls off his feat with spirit, grace, and great energy. He reaches a perfect level in his verse—somewhere just below poetry and to the right of the song lyrics of Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, and Johnny Mercer. But, unlike them, he has no music to lean against.

Marjorie Perloff (review date November-December 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6360

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 are 590 in all) is that of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1823–31), which is to say an iambic tetrameter stanza of fourteen lines, rhyming AbAbCCddEffEgg, where the capital letters indicate feminine rhymes. The fourteen-line stanza recalls, of course, both the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan sonnet: we can read it as an octave (Shakespearean quatrain plus two couplets) followed by a sestet (Petrarchan quatrain plus final couplet). But the Onegin stanza avoids strong medial division in the interest of flexibility, and indeed, the closest English counterpart to Seth's verse unit is the ottava rima stanza of Byron's Don Juan, which similarly drapes its syntax over a series of lines (ababab), only to come down hard on the clinching couplet. In Seth's hands, the resulting stanza looks like this:

       The food arrives as soon as ordered.
       Impressed and ravenous, John relents.
       His chopsticks fasten on beef bordered
       With broccoli. Enticing scents
       Swim over the noise, the greasy table.
       Two bottles each of beer enable
       Small talk and large, in cyclic waves,
       To wash their shores, and John behaves
       At last less stiffly if not sadly.
       "How are the cats?" "Just fine." "And you?"
       "Great." "And the sculpture?" "Yes, that too."
       "Your singing group?" "Oh, not so badly.
       But I came here to hear your song.
       Now sing!" "Jan, I don't know what's wrong."

The scene is an inexpensive Chinese restaurant in San Francisco: John Brown (the Silicon Valley microchip/defense-contract hero) is having lunch with Janet Hayakawa (an ex-lover and lover-again-to-be, who is a sculptress by avocation and earns a living playing the drums with a rock group called "Liquid Sheep"); the purpose of the lunch is to discuss John's "problem," which is that he needs a girl. In what follows, Jan helps him find one (by means of an ad in the "Personals" column of the local paper), and the plot, such as it is, takes off from there. Boys get girls (John gets a lawyer named Liz Dorati) or sometimes boys (Phil Weiss, deserted by Claire Weiss, gets Ed Dorati), boys lose girls (John loses Liz) and get others (Jan), boys and girls go to parties, restaurants, concerts, and antinuclear rallies; girls have pet cats, with names like Charlemagne (Liz's) or Cuff and Link (Jan's), that sometimes come between lovers.

What makes this material interesting? Bruce Bawer, in a glowing review for The New Criterion [(May 1986)], writes:

Let me begin by making it clear what The Golden Gate … is not. It isn't poetry: it doesn't have (or attempt to have) the requisite depth or density; it isn't rich in metaphor or other poetic devices…. Nor is The Golden Gate a great novel: there can be little doubt but that had it been written in prose, its characters would have come across as rather insignificant, its plot as less than compelling.

What this book is however, is an extraordinarily accomplished work of narrative verse….

And Bawer goes on to praise Seth's "charming story," its "marvelous wit" that "has given new life to a genre that, for no good reason, has in the present literary climate come to be considered passé, retrograde, even infantile." "The result of [Seth's] efforts," Bawer concluded, "is one of the most delightful new books in recent memory."

How a book that has neither poetic nor novelistic value can nevertheless be an exemplary verse narrative isn't clear to me, these being distinctions we would never make in the case of its parent texts, Don Juan and Eugene Onegin. Bawer's encomium is, in any case, echoed by John Hollander in The New Republic [(21 April 1986)]:

… this brilliantly fashioned tale of life among a number of Bay Area yuppies is never anything less than quaintly, and most unqualifiedly, marvelous…. The use of expertly controlled verse to give moral substance and extraordinary wit and plangency to a far from extraordinary tale is an astonishing achievement in its own right.

Again, X. J. Kennedy (Los Angeles Times Book Review, 6 April 1986) says of Seth's versification, "Such fluency probably hasn't been heard in English since Alexander Pope went around letting heroic couplets effortlessly tumble from his lips." This curiously Romanticized reference to Pope suggests that in the late twentieth century rhyming has become so exotically remote that we find the sheer utterance of like sounds cause for veneration. Even a critic as stringent and austere as Susan Sontag compares The Golden Gate to Eugene Onegin in its "particular mix of wit, sagacity, and rue" and praises Seth's poem as "a thrilling, subtle literary achievement."

What poem or book of poems in recent memory has earned such praise? And what does the extravagance of the critics' praise tell us about the current situation in poetry? It is the latter question that especially concerns me here. Let me begin by looking at the way rhyme works in Seth's long "novel in verse."

At its most elementary level, rhyme affords us the pleasure of discovering similarity in dissimilarity and vice-versa. For example:

       Little Miss Muffett
       Sat on her tuffet
       Eating her curds and whey.
       Along came a spider
       And sat down beside her
       And frightened Miss Muffett away.

"Muffett" and "tuffet," "whey" and "away," "spider" and "-side her"—in each of these pairs, words of quite different meaning (and, in the case of the second and third rhymes, different syntactic function) are unexpectedly—and thus pleasurably—brought together by sound. Advertising slogans ("Winston tastes good / like a cigarette should"), political aphorisms ("I like Ike"), jump-rope jingles ("All in together, girls! / How do you like the weather, girls?"), football cheers—these elementary verse forms answer to our most basic yearning for both repetition and difference.

Secondly, and more important, rhyme plays a significant role as a metrical and rhetorical marker, signalling the ends of lines and organizing lines into larger stanzaic units. Again, the pleasure produced is that of sameness in difference: the syntax of a given stanza propels us forward even as the metrical repetition and rhyming pulls us back and makes us aware of the verse unit itself. Consider the following stanza from Don Juan, in which Byron's narrator supplies us with a devastating account of the hero's prudish mother, Donna Inez:

       Perfect she was, but as perfection is
            Insipid in this naughty world of ours,
       Where our first parents never learn'd to kiss
            Till they were exiled from their earlier bowers
       Where all was peace, and innocence, and bliss
            (I wonder how they got through the twelve hours),
       Don Jose, like a lineal son of Eve,
       Went plucking various fruit without her leave.

This ottava rima stanza is made up of a single sentence, with heavy compounding and subordination and a comic parenthetical aside in the seventh line. But even as the syntax propels us over the line breaks, heading for the conclusion of the period after "leave," the rhymes create a kind of counterpoint, forcing the sentence, so to speak, into reverse. "Perfect she was but as perfection is"—the line break between "is" and "Insipid" suggests that line 1 is a self-contained clause on the analogy of "Perfect is as perfect does." Furthermore, the contrast of this "is" with the "kiss" and "bliss" denied to the likes of the prudish Donna Inez sets up its own pattern, in counterpoint to the narrator's overt statement. At the same time, the movement that takes us from "ours" to "bowers" is undercut by the narrator's cynical aside, "I wonder how they got through the twelve hours." All is now set up for the couplet which presents us with the "forbidden fruit" of Inez's bogus "paradise": "Don Jose, like a lineal son of Eve, / Went plucking various fruit without her leave."

Take away the rhymes from such a stanza and it loses its life blood. Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (Seth cites Charles Johnston's "luminous translation" of Onegin as his source) resembles the Byronic model in its brilliant foregrounding of the narrator as improvisatore, advising and cajoling the reader, making witty asides, commenting on the actions of his characters and participating in their every thought and gesture. The resultingly fluid narrative structure is played off against the stability of the tetrameter stanza, with its complex rhyme scheme. Here, for example, is the poet's comic account of the difficulties the writing a love letter posed to Tatyana:

       I see another problem looming:
       to save the honour of our land
       I must translate—there's no presuming—
       the letter from Tatyana's hand:
       her Russian was as thin as vapour,
       she never read a Russian paper,
       our native speech had never sprung
       unhesitating from her tongue,
       she wrote in French … what a confession!
       what can one do? as said above,
       until this day, a lady's love
       in Russian never found expression,
       till now our language—proud, God knows—
       has hardly mastered postal prose.

Even in translation, this stanza conveys the poem's extraordinary agility, its seemingly effortless passage through a series of difficult rhymes, all the while shifting from narration to interpolated commentary and back again, until, with the articulation of the final couplet, the improvisatore lands safely on his feet, driving home the absurd notion that Russian aristocrats can express themselves in elegant language—as long as that language is not their own!

But what cannot be translated, here and elsewhere in Eugene Onegin, is what the Russian Formalists called the "semantic transfer" of which rhyme is capable, that is to say, the "orientation" of a given rhyming unit toward its partner so as to produce a meaning not otherwise present in the sentence or phrase in question. When, for example, Pope writes in The Rape of the Lock:

       One speaks the glory of the British Queen
       And one describes a charming Indian screen

the rhyming of "British Queen" and "Indian screen" obviously tells us something about this society's values. Or when, in "Sailing to Byzantium," Yeats writes:

       That is no country for old men. The young
       In one another's arms, birds in the trees
       —Those dying generations—at their song,
       The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
       Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
       Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

the a rhyme of the ottava rima ("young"—"song"—"long") is ironically qualified when the b rhyme on "trees" and "seas" culminates in the off-rhyme of "dies," as if to explain why the poet must leave the natural world behind and prepare himself for "the artifice of eternity."

It is well known that Yeats usually began a poem by jotting down a set of rhyme words and then filling in the lines; for him, as for no other twentieth-century poet writing in English, rhyme was the pivot that set the poem in motion. The tradition was carried on by poets like Auden and Frost, but, as I remarked at the outset of this essay, for most Modernist and Postmodernist poets, rhyme became the exception rather than the rule, an ordering device too confining and restrictive to allow for the delicate curve of the poet's lyric emotion. Indeed, by midcentury both rhyme and meter were increasingly subsumed under the category "closed form," which came to be equated with all things authoritarian, narrowly traditionalist, rule bound—a straitjacket to be avoided like the plague in the quest for freedom, which is to say "open form." The classic statement of this position is probably Robert Lowell's confession, in his 1961 Paris Review interview, that "I couldn't get my experience into tight metrical forms…. I felt that the meter plastered difficulties and mannerisms on what I was trying to say to such an extent that it terribly hampered me." Given the fact that Lowell was not exactly a radical in the larger scheme of postwar American poetics, this renunciation set the stage for two decades of so-called "open form," with its corollary view of meter and especially of rhyme as quaint exotica.

No wonder, then, that what has been called "the new formalism" of such young poets as Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Brad Leithauser, Mary Jo Salter, and now Vikram Seth should generate interest. But how does it work out in practice? Is Seth's recreation of the Pushkin stanza more than an exercise in ingenuity? Here is a fair sample from Book I, in which John is fighting off the boredom and loneliness of bachelorhood:

       He goes home, seeking consolation
       Among old Beatles and Pink Floyd—
       But "Girl" elicits mere frustration,
       While "Money" leaves him more annoyed.
       Alas, he hungers less for money
       Than for a fleeting Taste of Honey.
       Murmuring, "Money—it's a gas!…
       The lunatic is on the grass,"
       He pours himself a beer. Desires
       and reminiscences intrude
       Upon his unpropitious mood
       Until he feels that he requires
       A one-way Ticket to Ride—and soon—
       Across the Dark Side of the Moon.

Having set up the "listening to old records" theme, Seth seems to be at a loss. He has his stereotypical hero "hunger less for money / Than for a fleeting Taste of Honey"—a rhyme that, despite the allusion to the pop song, seems merely cute as is the subsequent "Money—it's a gas!… / The lunatic is on the grass." It is not just that "taste of honey" and "it's a gas" are too obviously alien to John's own speech habits, but that, to carry conviction, the rhyme would have to show that "money" and "honey," far from being opposites are, in the consciousness of a Silicon Valley type like John, inextricably intertwined. It is the sort of thing Cole Porter did brilliantly:

       You've got those ways
       Those certain ways
       That make me go down to Cartier's
       For a wedding ring.
       You've got that thing.

A girl's "ways" / "Cartier's"—don't they go together? Or again:

       You're the top!
       You're Mahatma Gandhi
       You're the top!
       You're Napoleon brandy,
       You're the purple light
       Of a summer night in Spain
       You're the National Gall'ry
       You're Garbo's sal'ry
       You're cello-phane.

For the café society that Porter satirized so fondly, cellophane (newly invented when he wrote the song in 1934) was about on a par with "nights in Spain," just as the National Gallery and Garbo's salary fall into the same zone of "People are talking about…." It is the sort of wit Seth strives for and too frequently muffs:

       Janet picks up her fortune cookie,
       Then puts it down, turns to her friend:
       "Don't bank too much on youth. Your rookie
       Season is drawing to an end."

Or again:

       Two mornings after Janet fires
       Her postal charge, she's roused from sleep.
       A chilled voice on the phone inquires:
       "You sent it? Janet, you're a creep."

Janet, as Seth presents her, wouldn't use the word "rookie," any more than John would, in this particular context, call Janet a "creep." Nor can we attribute these words to the poem's narrator, as we would in the case of Don Juan or Eugene Onegin, because Seth's narrator does not really function as a character in this "novel," nor is it evident that his attitudes and values are in any serious way superior to or critical of his characters. No, in The Golden Gate, John calls Janet a creep because "creep" rhymes with "sleep," and Jan calls John a "rookie" because "rookie" rhymes with "fortune cookie." Young men call Liz Dorati "a cutie" because "cutie" rhymes with "beauty"; her law firm is called "Cob and Kearny" so as to get a rhyme for "attorney." At Phil Weiss's alfresco breakfast, evidently the setting for characteristic California Sunday brunch-fare, "Anne Gunn, the artist wields her fork / With graphic verve, impaling pork." The serving and consumption of pork at a California brunch strikes me as completely implausible—but then "pork" does rhyme with "fork." And so on.

But isn't this to put too much weight on rhyme qua rhyme? Isn't it sufficient that rhyme acts as a rhetorical and metrical marker (the second function defined above), acting to control the flow of Seth's "idiomatic" (X.J. Kennedy's designation) speech rhythms? "In practice," says John Hollander, "the reader is made aware not of the structure of [the] intricate framework, but of what is being woven onto it." But what is being woven onto it? Here is a stanza describing John's second date with Liz:

       Cut to dessert. An apt potation
       Of amaretto. They forgo
       The cinema for conversation
       And hand in hand they stroll below
       The fog-transfigured Sutro Tower
       A masted galleon at this hour,
       Adjourn for ice cream, rich and whole,
       At Tivoli's, near Carl and Cole;
       Next for a drive—refreshing drama
       Of changing streets and changeless bay
       And, where the fog has cleared away,
       The exquisite bright panorama
       Of streetlights, sea-lights, starlight spread
       Above, below, and overhead.

Do the rhyme words here function as rhetorical and metrical markers, foregrounding the narrative itself or are they distracting? The shift in the opening line from contemporary colloquialism ("Cut to dessert") to literary quaintness ("An apt potation") strikes me as merely cute, as if to say, Look, reader, I know my way around poetic diction, I know (line 6) what a "masted galleon" is and can compare it to the "fog-transfigured Sutro Tower." The cuteness continues as the emphatic rhymes fall like a deck of cards on what is mere filler. What, for example, can ice cream be but "rich and whole"? Diluted and made in sections? Thin and watery? Does the in-house reference to "Carl and Cole" characterize the scene? And why is the drive the couple takes a "refreshing drama," except for the fact that "drama" is about to rhyme with the "exquisite bright panorama"? As for the final couplet, rather than giving Seth's predictable little vignette of Bay Area dining and dating a bit of a lift, it falls as flat as the pancakes these wheat-germ eating young professionals despise:

       Of streetlights, sea-lights, starlight spread
       Above, below, and overhead.

All that is now needed—and we get it in the next stanza—is that our lovers

       … stand, half-shivering, half still,
       Below the tower on Telegraph Hill.

No wonder they're cold, what with all that ice cream they've eaten. Again, I turn to Cole Porter for comic relief:

       If you're ever in a jam
       Here I am.
       If you're ever in a mess,
       If you've ever lost your teeth and you're out to dine,
       Borrow mine.

But the decorum of The Golden Gate allows for no such absurdity. The morning after her first night with John:

       Liz enters with a coffee tray
       In negligible negligée.
       She pours two cups. Without embracing
       They sit, their eyes infused with sleep
       And love, and drink the potion deep.

And from thereon out, things jog along predictably enough to the Friday office routine, the response of both lovers' bosses to their absent-mindedness (of course people in love can't concentrate!), and so on. Indeed, the twists and turns of the ensuing plot are as predictable as if they had been programmed on one of the computers our hero himself had built.

As an Indian, educated at Oxford and hence having the vantage point of the outside witness on the California scene, Vikram Seth has been praised all around for his sharp eye for social nuance. "If this writer's ear for rhymed verse is perfect," says John Hollander, "so is his ear for colloquial discourse, for the inadvertent ironies of commercial product-naming, for the tonalities of callow and sincere self-expression. And so is his almost John O'Hara-like eye and ear for the cultural fact and the revealing detail."

Reading such commentary, one's expectations are naturally high. Here is a fair sample of Seth's treatment of free-way culture:

      The freeway sweeps past humming pylons
      Past Canterbury Carpet Mart,
      Warehouses, ads displaying nylons
      On shapely legs that make John start.
      A cigarette ad, sweet and suborning,
      Subverts the Surgeon General's warning:
      A craggy golfer, tanned, blue-eyed,
      Insouciantly stands beside
      A Porsche-caged blonde; coolly patrician,
      He puffs a menthol-tipped King-size.
      John tries to curb his vagrant eyes
      And heed the poet's admonition:
      "Beneath this slab John Brown is stowed.
      He watched the ads and not the road."

One can learn a great deal about Flaubert's mot juste, about Pound's "exact treatment of the thing," from reading this or related stanzas in The Golden Gate. Take the reference to "nylons" in line 3. The fact is that ads haven't displayed "nylons / On shapely legs" for many a year because women no longer wear "nylons"; they wear panty hose, with further designations like "control top" or "stretch sheer"—designations that actually might have afforded Seth some good fun—and panty hose are made out of a variety of synthetic fabrics but not out of nylon. As for "pylons," these unsightly strings of telephone poles have long been tucked out of sight; one still sees them along streets but not along freeways. Their "humming," in any case, is a phenomenon no freeway driver would so much as perceive.

Are these inaccuracies merely trivial and is it nitpicking to point them out? Why, after all, must Seth's satire be based on documentary observation? Because, so I would argue, the social irony of this particular situation depends upon the specificity of the satirist's target. To submit stereotypes to satiric treatment is to fail to transcend them. Thus the stanza in question plays upon a well-worn cliché that goes something like this: Oh, those crazy California freeways with their monstrous and distracting billboards, their crass materialism and vulgar pop culture. Look at those giant carpet marts with bogus medieval names like Canterbury! But of course the carpet mart is the Californian's true religious sanctuary. And so on.

How much sting can such a cartoon cliché have? The reality is much more interesting. Billboards, to begin with, are designed to be scanned quickly so that no one need ever take his or her eyes off the road so as to "read" them. Further, to be a freeway commuter is to become so acclimatized to billboards and neon road signs that one all but looks through them. Which is not to say that their messages don't act as hidden persuaders, entering our consciousness and dictating, in subtle ways, our thought processes. But the idea that John would almost swerve off the road because he is so taken with the ads "displaying nylons / On shapely legs" or the "Porsche-caged blonde" ("caged" strikes me as precisely the wrong word here) and her "craggy golfer, tanned, blue-eyed," is about on the same par as the very ads it claims to satirize. Its version of "California on wheels" reminds me of the British Airways version of "London," with Robert Morley, his Burberry slung over his arm, his slightly rumpled but perfectly tailored suit and neat umbrella, silhouetted against the Houses of Parliament and urging us to take the package tour.

Indeed, as a social document, The Golden Gate is closer to Neil Simon than to Pushkin. Here is Pushkin describing the reading habits of his Romantic heroine:

       Seeing herself as a creation—
       Clarissa, Julie, or Delphine—
       by writers of her admiration,
       Tatyana, lonely heroine,
       roamed the still forest like a ranger,
       sought in her book, that text of danger,
       and found her dreams, her secret fire,
       the full fruit of her heart's desire;
       she sighed, and in a trance coopted
       another's joy, another's breast,
       whispered by heart a note addressed
       to the hero that she'd adopted.
       But ours, whatever he might be,
       ours was no Grandison—not he.

Tatyana is, of course, characterized by her reading, her longing to be a Romantic heroine like Rousseau's Julie or Mme de Staël's Delphine, and to win the heart of a Richardsonian lover. But the ironies of Pushkin's narrative are multiple. At one level, Tatyana suffers from Bovarysme; she is just a provincial girl who will eventually be taken to the marriage market in Moscow and auctioned off to the highest bidder. At another level, Tatyana's world is quite as Romantic as the one of her reading: the man she loves fights a duel with and kills the landowner-poet Lensky, who is in love with her sister Olga. Moreover, after Tatyana is married, the tables are turned: Onegin now woos her as ardently and passionately as she ever wooed him and she has the privilege of rejecting him. But then again, if this is the Romantic note, Pushkin's "novel" is also realistic in its treatment of Tatyana's marriage. Not only does this young girl not pine away for her lost lover; she seems, in her arranged marriage, composed, serene, and relatively quite satisfied. Her behavior, in other words, can be construed in a variety of ways. The fond narrator seems to know no more about her than we do:

       Tatyana's letter, treasured ever
       as sacred, lies before me still.
       I read with secret pain, and never
       can read enough to get my fill.
       Who taught her an address so tender,
       such careless language of surrender?
       Who taught her all this mad, slapdash,
       heartfelt, imploring, touching trash
       fraught with enticement and disaster?
       It baffles me.

So convincing are the narrator's words that we almost forget that, in point of fact, the person who "taught her all this … touching trash" is the poet himself.

It is, of course, less than fair to compare Vikram Seth to the greatest of Russian poets, but since he himself invokes Pushkin's tutelary spirit, and since the great redeeming feature of The Golden Gate is that it does send us back to Pushkin and to Byron (no mean feat!), it may be helpful to use the Pushkin frame. Take the question of John's reading—or Phil's or Ed's—as a mode of depicting the social norms of San Francisco yuppiedom. In Book I, we learn that John "Enjoys his garden, likes to read / Eclectically from Mann to Bede," but nothing John ever says or does throughout the poem suggests that he would have so much as heard of the Venerable Bede, much less read Thomas Mann. As for Ed, Liz's twenty-year-old brother who embarks on a gay liaison with Phil (later Phil will marry Ed's sister Liz as a surrogate), his messy room is described as follows:

       A Bible, an unopened packet
       Of guitar strings, a saxophone,
       Shaving cream, razor and cologne….
       A commentary on Aquinas
       Rests on the floor, while on a shelf
       Lies the august Summa itself,
       Next to (in order) Conquering Shyness,
       The Zen of Chess, The Eightfold Way,
       Theories of Film, and the Pensées.

Pascal? St. Thomas? To define Ed, whose conversation consists mostly of one-liners like "this coffee really gets you wired," as a reader of anything more complicated than The Eightfold Way is stretching things a bit. What, in any case, are such "telling details" meant to show? That Ed is intellectually pretentious? That he is well-educated and these books are the hangovers from his college days? That he hankers after religious truth? That he is worthy of the intellectual Phil Weiss's attentions? Or is Seth simply engaging in a bit of showing off?

To my mind, the documentary detail used throughout the "novel" is of this order, the characters remaining pure paper dolls. And faceless paper dolls at that. Even on the daytime serials there is greater individuation. We know that The Young and the Restless' Ashley Abbott comes from one of Genoa City's leading families and has "class" whereas Nicky Reed, her rival for the favors of tycoon Victor Newman, was once a stripper and remains something of a dumb blonde. No one could ever mistake Ashley for Nicky. But Liz Dorati and Janet Hayakawa are, despite their ethnic names (names never permitted on the Soaps), made of the identical mold. The reason we cannot tell them apart is that Seth never thinks of them as anything but Representative Yuppies. As such, their reading is not likely to go much beyond Newsweek.

Stereotypical Bay Area types have stereotypical parents. It is here that The Golden Gate falters most notably. What sort of mother would a Liz Dorati, a twenty-seven-year-old lawyer (Stanford LL.B.), whose father owns vineyards in Sonoma County and who "was brought up marinading / Near the jacuzzis of Marin," be likely to have? Mrs. Dorati might be a health-food and exercise freak, spending her time at the gym or lunching with her friends at the salad bar. She might have affairs with younger men. She might be into gardening or pottery or horses. She might be a lawyer or real estate agent. She might be on drugs. Certainly, there are many Marin County alternatives. In the cartoon world of The Golden Gate, however, Moms are Moms:

      "Liz, dear, it's been just lovely meeting
      Your friends, and John; what a nice boy.
      We hope that soon…." Without completing
      Her exhortation to enjoy
      A copula more sacramental
      (Resulting in the incidental
      Production of grandchildren—three
      Seems best—to dandle on her knee),
      Mrs. Dorati hugs her daughter
      And drives off with rheumatic care.
      Liz stands and breathes the sharp night air,
      While from the house keen squeals of slaughter
      And wrath attend that Liquid Sheep
      Have just commenced to rant and weep.
      So much for the Vivaldi. Thinking,
      "Mom's got out in the nick of time,"
      Liz turns back….

Who is this Hallmark Card Mother who refers to a twenty-seven-year-old man as "a nice boy" and is already anticipating the grandchildren she will "dandle on her knee"? Who is this fifty-odd-year-old who "drives off with rheumatic care" and must be spared the horrors of loud rock? No television sitcom could get away with so tired a cliché. Here is Mrs. Dorati, soon to die of cancer, "In raptures / About her flesh-and-blood grandchild" (the off-spring of Liz and Phil):

       "Look at that nose, Mike—it recaptures
       My father's nose. Look, look, he smiled….
       Oh, what a darling—what a beauty—
       What name have you … oh, what a cutie!…
       What name have you decided on?"
       Liz says: "We think we'll call him John."

In the stanza preceding this one, the narrator himself expresses a different opinion: "How ugly babies are! How heedless / Of all else than their bulging selves—/ Like sumo wrestlers, plush with needless / Kneadable flesh—like mutant elves…." In thus framing the portrait of the doting grandmothers (Mrs. Weiss has also appeared on the scene), Seth is being, not ironic, but merely patronizing. And indeed, the novel is characterized throughout by a tone of arch superiority. For Byron, Juan and the other characters are the means by which the hypocrisies and follies of Regency England (and, beyond these, of mankind in general) are unmasked. Pushkin's dramatis personae are more complex: seen as they are through the eyes of a narrator who is one of them, they remain enigmatic just as our friends do in real life. We can attribute this or that motive to Onegin and Tatyana, Lensky and Olga, but it is by no means clear whether, say, Onegin is primarily a sympathetic character (a victim, perhaps, of the failure of the Decembrist revolt) or whether he is meant to be viewed as the archetypal superfluous dandy of the post-Napoleonic era.

But what are Seth's themes? Bruce Bawer is probably right when he says, "Affection … is what his book is all about. Its ultimate lessons are wonderfully simple ones: that love and friendship are the finest things on earth; that life being short, youth evanescent, and the world unstable, human attachments should be cherished, not repudiated…. In The Golden Gate, even the nuclear-weapons issue is secondary to love and friendship." Secondary, one wants to ask, for whom? Can the contemporary poet, in Seth's own words, "use / The dusty bread molds of Onegin / In the brave bakery of Reagan"? Or do these cream puffs, made with synthetic eggs, fail to rise?

Like the series of dramas on colonial subjects currently featured on Masterpiece Theatre, like the two-day network coverage of the Royal Wedding, The Golden Gate speaks to the nostalgia that characterizes the not-so-golden late 1980s. As the millenium approaches, as Apocalyptic images come to haunt our fictions, as political and military decisions become increasingly complex and problematic, there is inevitably a longing for the Old Poetry, poetry written before the fall into free rhythms and abstruse, often seemingly prosaic locutions. Before the Imagist-Vorticist revolution, so this line of reasoning goes, poems were things one could memorize and recite—think of Yeats's "Easter 1916" or Frost's "Desert Places"—but who can memorize even one of the shorter poems of William Carlos Williams, let alone the poems of Frank O'Hara or Robert Duncan or Leslie Scalapino? Furthermore, stanzaic poems like Oscar Wilde's "Ballad of Reading Gaol" were coherent thematically as well as formally: they weren't just coterie poems designed for classroom consumption. In the same vein, The Golden Gate can be read by the fireside of an evening—indeed, it can (and will) be read by the very Phil Weisses and Liz Doratis who are its subject. And such a reading, far from being disquieting, will be as reassuring as a cup of hot cocoa. As John imagines the deceased Janet telling him at the end of the novel:

       "I'm with you, John. You're not alone.
       Trust me, my friend; there is the phone.
       It isn't me you are obeying.
       Pay what are your own heart's arrears.
       Now clear your throat; and dry these tears."

Which is to say, in the words of the ubiquitous AT&T ad that might be Seth's epigraph, "Reach out and touch someone!"

But nostalgia is not the whole story either. In a narrower literary sense, the new cult of rhyme, of straightforward verse narrative and "transparent" language, has everything to do with the increasing dominance of theory in the English curriculum, the publishing houses, and the leading periodicals, both in the United States and in Britain. It is no coincidence, for example, that Vikram Seith's "novel in verse" has been hailed as heralding the New Dispensation precisely at the same time that John Ashbery's Selected Poems, published by Viking just a few months earlier, has received its share of hostile newspaper reviews….

In accounting for his boredom with Ashbery's Selected Poems, James Fenton [writing in The New York Times Book Review (29 December 1985)] says facetiously, "I was approaching the book under a certain misconception, that it was asking to be, well, read." Instead, Fenton suggests, here is "the exorbitantly demanding poet, asking of the reader impossible feats of attention, taxing our patience, yielding only a minimum of reward…." What a relief, then, to turn from these "hinting[s] at a profundity of philosophical insight which is designed to make a nonphilosopher uneasy," to Vikram Seth's unabashedly denotative language in The Golden Gate:

       "I'll drive you home. Come back tomorrow
       To fetch—" "I live near Stanford, Ed."
       "Oh … well, in that case, share my bed—
       Just don't try driving!—You can borrow
       My toothbrush too. Come on, let's go—
       Good night, Liz—Bye, John—Homeward ho!"

Nothing "designed to make a nonphilosopher uneasy" here. The words mean what they say, no more nor less. And the regular beat of the tetrameter is reassuring, neatly chiming as it does on "tomorrow"/"borrow," "Ed" and "bed," "go" and "ho."

"Homeward ho!" The longing to build Pushkin's or Byron's Jerusalem in California's green and pleasant land is surely an understandable one. But the realities of living in the late twentieth century are bound to cast a shadow. When asked, "What is the place of Bertolt Brecht in your theater?" the Polish director and critic Jan Kott said: "We do him when we want Fantasy. When we want Realism, we do 'Waiting for Godot.'" In the same spirit, I offer in response to Seth's "Homeward ho!" the opening page of Beckett's most recent poetic fiction, Worstward Ho (1983):

       On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.
       Say for be said. Missaid. From now say for be missaid.
       Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where
       none. That at least, A place. Where
     none. For the body. To be in. Move in. Out of.
         Back into. No. No out. No back. Only in.
         in. On in. Still.
       All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever
         failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again.

Beckett's fictions have always been poetic, but here, in the late work, the permutation of a very few repeated particles ("on" / "no" / "none" / "nohow"; "in" / "on"; "Say" / "said" / "stay / "missaid") creates the rhythm of medieval chant, a strange liturgical echo that strikes with the force of a hammer blow. Beckett's drama of the self trying to inhabit a body virtually stops us in our tracks.

The sounding of language, as Worstward Ho reminds us, is just as integral to poetry as are its tropes and its lyric conventions. It is to Vikram Seth's credit that, in his own fashion, he has called for a renewed attention to the role of sound in poetry. But surely, now that we have this tour de force, the next step is to "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Rowena Hill (review date 1986)

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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 importance—The pace is rapid without loss of depth. All the detail is credible and vivid: the Californian activities, picnics and walks, good food, music, pastimes like scrabble, the pets (even an animal lover can get fed up with the fuss about the cat Charlemagne, although American critics have singled him out for praise), the college reminiscences, the feministic reactions, the way people generally talk, advise, confess to, feel and care about each other.

In the author's vision of his people there is both irony and compassion. Straightforward compassion is revealed in the passages about Chuck, the little boy who loses both parents in an accident, or old Mrs. Dorati: "She stares / Down at her mottled skin, her lonely / Bent Hands. She thinks: 'Don't weep. Don't pray. / It's pain. It can't be wished away.'" But the sympathy is not lost when we come to the more complex characters: Ed, with his incapacity to adjust the claims of sense and religious duty, Janet, with her eccentricities, her ferocity against 'men' and her great understanding and generosity, Liz, who suffers at not being able to stick to her commitments, the versatile Phil, and, above all, John. Seth calls nuclear plant employees "Those who devised these weapons, decent / Adjusted, family-minded folk", and he has chosen for his main character (it is John who opens and closes the book) a man opposed to the peace campaigners, who "kneels bareheaded and unshod / Before the Chip, a jealous God". John's refusal to consider fully the implications of his job (except momentarily near the end of the book, when he seems to have found happiness), his surly temper and his "self-damned, self-banished" loss of Liz, are at least partially justified by his being an "emotional waif" who has never known a mother's love, and he is always treated with understanding.

However, the doubt may arise on reflection whether, perhaps beyond the author's conscious intentions, John's loss of everything he cares for, his "depleted" condition at the end, is not a kind of punishment for some of his attitudes, his scorn of those who fight for nuclear disarmament, and his condemnation of homosexuality. The winner in the book is Phil, John's friend, rival and enemy, whose "self-accepting psychic bounce" allows him to give up his job in Silicon valley to work for peace, and to love sexually, with no qualms, both women and men. Liz says of him "I couldn't better / Hope for a better half, / A good kind man who makes me laugh", and at the end he is head of a family of survivors of the plot's mishaps.

This contrast between John and Phil and their destinies leads us to what is arguably the greatest flaw in the book, a flaw in values. The central chapter shows us the march of the protesters against the Lungless Labs where nuclear bombs are produced, and nineteen poems are dedicated to an impassioned speech, from the mouth of Father O'Hare, against nuclear war. The diction is simple and serious and the whole sermon is very moving and convincing: "Well, we have gathered here this morning / In disparate but harmonious voice / To show that we have made our choice; / That we have hearkened to the warning / That hate and fear kill; and are here. Confronting death and hate and fear." Elsewhere in the book, Phil also speaks movingly about the results of nuclear warfare: "And then, when the soft radiation. Descends on what's not been destroyed—Trees, whales, birds, wolves—the birthless void-Think how the crown of earth's creation / Will murder that which gave him birth. / Ripping out the slow womb of earth." In the chapter following the peace march, we have Phil's insistent effort to convince Ed to carry on their homosexual affair, with some strongly persuasive lines: "While in its sweet maturity / Your lovely body dries unused? / Ed, if that's so, you'll have abused / Your self—and God's gift—far more truly. / Than any flagrant sensualist". It is not necessary to be unsympathetic to homosexuals, or even to deny validity to such arguments that in a different context, in order to be disturbed by the equivalence implied between the plea for peace and human survival and the plea for homosexual enjoyment. 'Make love not war' is much too simplistic an equation, and we object to the proportions in your scale of values, O California!

The intervention of the author's 'I' in the novel is also doubtfully successful. The comments on the foolishness of lovers and the ugliness of babies are silly, though what we are told about the origin of the book ("I may as well have fun and try it") is interesting. The self-consciousness of the form and language itself is what gives this book its quality. It is, to start with, a remarkable feat to write a readable novel in 590 sonnets of completely regular rhyme scheme. This sonnet (a lighter sonnet than the classical, with one foot truncated) is extremely versatile. It can be slack and colloquial in the dialogues, terse and biting in rage against critics, full of compressed insights ("but Paul is smiling, / Floating on a slow tide of Brahms, / Back in his absent mother's arms"), mellow in descriptions. But it also plays with itself, using echoes of older authors (Shakespeare, Marvell, Kipling), inventing absurb rhymes (sunrise / bun rise) and enjoying sound effects ("Alas, unlathered by her blathering, / Phil concentrates on olive-gathering"). And it rises at intervals to high poetry, in the description of a lover's happiness at waking, or the statement of the nihilistic point of view ("What after all is earth's creation? / A virus in the morgue of space"), in many celebrations of nature ("Outside, the red sky dyes the river / That murmurs down the valley, where / The leafless weeping willows quiver / And where at dusk a shivering hare / May be seen poised or crouched or bounding").

The lives of the characters in [The Golden Gate] do not really participate in the grandeur and beauty of their natural surroundings (or even the impressiveness of their Golden Gate Bridge), as the poet sometimes seems to want to suggest. The people are not of mythological stature; they are too small, too human-centred. Only at the end, the death of Liz's mother and the birth of her son coincide to give us a sense of universality of experience. If we forgive Vikram Seth his Californian complacency it will be for his human compassion, which is beautifully expressed near the end of the novel in a sonnet addressed to St. Francis: "O San Francisco, saint of love. / Co-sufferer in searing pity / Of all our griefs … who, blind at noon, / Opened your heart and sang in darkness—And where it was, sowed light, look down. / Solace the sorrows of your town."

R. T. Smith (review date Winter 1988)

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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 the spell, not the weight.

The dramatis personae include hi-tech John, a sad lone ranger wishing for a mate who will tolerate his defense work at Lungless Labs. Bookish and sometimes petty, John is a yuppie with a vengeance, and he suffers for it. Jan, on the other hand, is a sculptor and drummer for Liquid Sheep, another sad case, a matchmaker who subordinates her needs to John's until all else fails. Her demise in the tale seems Seth's most arch trick.

And The Golden Gate is a nest of tricks, gimmicks, stunts. The central purpose seems to be an articulate twisting of language in this all-embracing style that accommodates with equal gusto and bliss: reviews, bumper stickers, protest speeches, legal briefs, scrabble, dialogue, corporate babble, meditations, chess strategies, narration, lyric apostrophes, "personals" ads, and an invocation to the muse. Seth somehow manages to assimilate it all and process it toward a witty-pithy tone that is at once gymnastic and aloof. No small accomplishment, as this gestural outline of a novel explores contemporary sexuality, aesthetics, finance, and leisure with insights that occasionally seem to transcend the stylistic template that owes much to MTV glitz and PC facility. I would call it a code, rather than a style, were it not so inclusive and deft.

Yet it's not too difficult to guess at the limitations of such a production. The cleverness is often unresonant, seemingly invoked to bridge from one composition dilemma to the next. The characters are caricatures, albeit sparkling ones I enjoyed seeing pulled through their paces. Even the iguana Schwarz (short for Arnold) has charm. Even the wicked cat Charlemagne. But they are no less foils and strategies than the people. Whether chatting at a party or tossing in a lusty bed, confronting a dying mother or avoiding an old lover, these people are silhouettes with simple outlines, like the puppets in shadow shows. The author really doesn't render them with high seriousness, which dooms (or promotes) his effort to the realm of amusement as a kind of masterpiece in a minor key with only a tithe of heft, a chamber suite meant to be followed by domestic white wine. My greatest regret is that the characters talk so much alike, so much like the narrator, no small problem in any sort of "novel."

This does not, however, mean that I would dismiss The Golden Gate, for the taste lingers and is worth some savoring. Here is an example of Seth's outrageously swift and inviting characterization from early in the book, where his style has not faltered yet by straining for much depth of characterization. The subject is Liz Dorati, daughter of a vintner and a grandchildless matron who is dying of cancer:

        Though Liz was brought up marinading
        Near the jacuzzis of Marin,
        She never reveled in parading
        Her heart, her knowledge, or her skin.
        She bloomed unhardened to her beauty,
        Immune to "Lizzie, you're a cutie!"
        Though doting aunt and bleating beau
        Reiterated it was so.
        Her mother, anxious, loving, rigid,
        Said, "Liz, a pretty girl like you
        Ought to be thinking of …" "Et tu?"
        Sighed Liz, "Mom, do you think I'm frigid?
        Just let me get my law degree
        Out of the way—and then, I'll see."

Surprises of enjambment and caesura keep the writer on his mark, and who would mourn the lack of depth when the pace is so exhilarating? Even the rhymes are boldly playful, the "army … salami" and "nonpareil … zinfandel" reminiscent of Byron's "intellectual … hen pecked you all." Therefore:

        Who would label anaesthetic
        This California epic verse
        That darts so slyly? Any critic
        Who cannot abide swift wit's terse
        Characters should not deride it
        Until he's given in, tried it
        And labored in vineyards less vatic
        Than Barth or Barthelme, manic
        As Mailer but omnivorous
        Enough to merge tofu, protest,
        Cancer, an omelet for breakfast,
        A monkish gay, an orphan's trust.
        Who won't admit Seth's deft sorcery
        Has Pen Envy, the First Degree.

William Grimes (review date 26 January 1988)

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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 a cost-cutting move. His convoluted journey thus became—apart from the occasional stunning vista or Buddhist temple—an unenticing potpourri of frustrating bureaucratic encounters, physical torment, and paralyzing boredom.

Seth dedicates From Heaven Lake "to the people I met along the way," and quite rightly. In the end, the chance encounters with ordinary Chinese and Tibetans are what animate the book. It comes as an anticlimax when he reaches his semimythic destination, Lhasa, an enigma wrapped inside a cliché (how long before visitors are greeted by a billboard that reads, "Welcome to the World's Most Spiritual City"?). Take Sui, the Chinese trucker who plies the 1800-kilometer route between Lhasa and Liuyuan—"a dusty, treeless, godforsaken depot"—and sportingly squeezes Seth into his cab, at substantial cost to his own comfort and schedule. A chain-smoker and omnivorous reader (he sinks into a kind of trance when picking up a comic book), he has, over the years, built up a social network along his route that is both a vital supply line and a relief from monotony. The innumerable little detours and pit stops, sometimes for barter, sometimes just for a bit of conversation, permit Seth to observe how average Chinese citizens get along and fiddle the system.

Seth was ideally equipped to take advantage of such opportunities. Fluency in Chinese helped, of course, but far more valuable was the curiosity about human behavior, the sympathy for all manner of human foibles, that makes The Golden Gate, his dazzling novel in verse, more than a technical tour de force. If the book's descriptions of landscape and temples tend toward blandness, its miniature character studies are memorable. They attest not only to the author's sharp eye (and ear), but to his unfeigned interest in how and why people act the way they do.

The admirable spirit of "nothing human is alien to me" undergoes a test of sorts near Lhasa, where Seth witnesses a peculiar burial ritual. On a flat rock outside the Sera monastery, butchers carve up human corpses, mince the meat, and mix it with barley meal. When a group of arrogant Han Chinese approach the dead, making jokes, an infuriated butcher chases them off, waving a severed leg over his head. Atop a sheer cliff, enormous eagles watch with interest, impatient for feeding time to begin.

Disturbed, Seth later talks over what he has seen with a Tibetan, who confesses that at his uncle's burial he grew queasy when it came time to crush the skull. Seth nods in sympathy, then characteristically reflects, "Of course, we Hindus also break the skull during the ceremony of cremation." This tolerant, understanding spirit makes Seth a superior tour guide, regardless of the destination. A trip to deepest Nebraska would work just as well.

Lachlan Mackinnon (review date 21 September 1990)

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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 like a huckster showing his wares.

In "Equals", an uneasy intimacy is recorded. "It's evening. I lack courage" the poem begins, ending in the belief that "We are, at least in hope, unequal equals, / If not in deed". The second stanza is:

        I sit down. I am tired.
        To speak my mind's beyond my power to do.
        I have no warranty against the vision
        I have of you.

The implausible "warranty" may be taken as a contrast to an implicit insured bureaucratic order, though it sounds a register touched nowhere else, but the second line is a disaster: the redundant "to do" is clearly there only for the rhyme's sake, and a poem of sixteen lines does not easily forgive such padding.

Seth writes, with reference to Mozart, that

        He never like the great Beethoven thunders,
        'My stomach's aching and my heart is breaking
        And you will hear me,' yet to hear him is
        To suffer all heartbreak, to assume all sorrow
        And to survive.

"Adagio" celebrates music, but these lines must call Seth's ear in question. The first is very hard to read and a metrical nightmare created by the poem's preceding four lines, which have settled uneasily to a pentametric norm. The internal rhyme booms out jauntily in the second line to contradict the monotonous egotism described, while the closing lines say more than they can, however stumblingly, show. "All sorrow"? One had thought this Christ's prerogative. We can see what Seth means, but cannot be made to feel it by the bald assertion.

Such local misgivings arise from most pages of this collection. A wider worry has to do with sensibility. The best poems are slight in form, as with "Heart", which ends

        Above all, to my heart I'm true.
        It does not tell me what to do.
        It beats, I live, it beats again.
        For what? I wish I knew it knew.

Hypochondriac insomnia is delightfully conveyed by this sense of the body's otherness. However, Seth's "Quatrains" too often fall flat because of their commonplaceness. In "Malefic Things",

        Imagining the flowerpot attacked it,
        The kitten flung the violets near and far.
        And yet, who knows? This morning, as I backed it,
        My car was set upon by a parked car.

It's an old joke barely revived by the too evident exigency of rhyme, but in no way the gnomic wisdom it wishes itself to be.

The humdrum sentiments and linguistic inertia of All You Who Sleep Tonight remind me of Byron, perhaps only moved by sour thoughts of his wife to find a personality in short form. The Golden Gate, like Don Juan, depends much on its narrator's voice. The dramatic monologues in the present collection afford that voice no room: like Byron, Seth needs a demanding, expansive form to think in, and the short poem inhibits both the variety and the digressiveness which are his natural gifts.

John Oliver Perry (review date Summer 1991)

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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, Two Years after the Mutiny," an AIDS patient to his lover, an Auschwitz commandant's complaint, and, most harrowing (though weakened by the pentameter couplets), "A Doctor's Journal Entry for August 6, 1945." Stripped naked himself by the Hiroshima blast, he is dismayed to see in the streets a woman with a child, "Both naked. Had they come back from the bath?" But climactically, when he then sees another naked man, "the thought arose / That some strange thing had stripped us of our clothes. / The face of an old woman on the ground / Was marred with suffering, but she made no sound. / Silence was common to us all. I heard / No cries of anguish, or a single word." Successive readings also weaken, rather than deepen, these final perceptions and feelings, which matter and form require should be ultimate.

Among "Other Places" appear several poems set in China, "Lion Grove, Suzhou" being the most clever and moving. It is based on an effective and most affecting conceit: that the "far more than playful and far less than sane" intelligence which laid out this cryptic garden parallels (and pleases) that of runaway children, who "gulp with shocking glee," and their parents, "too pleased for anger when they're found." The extra twists of ideational complexity here intensify the feeling and load the eight lines appropriately, despite the descriptive requirements. No similar enrichment, unfortunately, touches the twenty "quatrains," eleven of which are, in fact, paired couplets, but clearly these are meant as briefly clever epigrams, quite successful in a light Roman manner.

The poems in the final section, "Meditations of the Heart," more often than not draw on a similar vein of wit, though more saddened by loss, death, solitude. Without the pressure for snappy rhyme, the blank-verse "Poet—For Irina Ratushinskaya," imprisoned for six years, nevertheless ends, "Her poems she memorized line by line and destroyed. / The Contents were what was difficult to remember." Unless fairly ordinary ideas are very sharply formulated, they remain ordinary and become even less if pressure is slackened by a padded phrase or feeling is trimmed out of callousness or to be cool or witty. These dangers are perhaps exemplified in the title poem ["All You Who Sleep Tonight"], where the tone might possibly have been deepened if the penultimate line read, "Some for more nights than one."

        All you who sleep tonight
        Far from the ones you love,
        No hand to left or right,
        And emptiness above—
        Know that you aren't alone,
        The whole world shares your tears,
        Some for two nights or one,
        And some for all their years.

It is a tribute to the poems of All You Who Sleep Tonight that often they can sound a bit like Frost or Hardy. There is little to remind us that the poet has returned to his native India, where, we are teased, he "is working on a novel (not in verse) set in post-Independence India." Perhaps that prospect is what occasioned the present publication, only eleven poems being previously printed.

Pico Iyer (review date 19 March 1993)

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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 intertwined families, and their universal anxieties and affections, the novel is also a portrait of India, three years after Partition, trying to find a suitable future for itself, and struggling to keep the customs that steady while shedding the ones that stultify. It is the story of the passing of an era, of the last strains of a rarefied world of ghazals and nawabs, and the first approaches of a new, industrial age; of how the elegant Rajput miniature, you might say, is being replaced by the news-photo.

The distinguishing feature of the novel, though, may simply be its uneventfulness, its surpassing dailiness, the way in which Seth catches a life-sized, human, unextraordinary India. He sets his book, after all, not during the tumult of Independence, but in the uncertain interregnum that came after. And his purpose seems to be to rescue the country from melodrama and exoticism, and to show that if Dickens, with his volubility and humour and affection, is one natural chronicler of India, Jane Austen is another. As in E.M. Forster (another obvious precedent), traumas pass between the lines, and death is something that happens off-stage. In that sense, A Suitable Boy could almost be said to be a novel about things not happening: when a drunken boy drives a car too fast late at night, he brakes before he hits a lamp-post or a child; when a boy is rejected by his beloved, he does not kill himself, but goes off to the country for a month; when a child is lost in a murderous riot, he is, somehow, found.

This benign refusal of block capitals is ideally suited to Seth's gentle pacing and to the admirable directness and lucidity of his prose. None the less, the sheer bulk of the book comes as a surprise. For Seth's has always seemed a light, an almost glancing sensibility; his seemed a kind of Noël Coward talent. Charm is his calling-card, and sunniness his forte; playfulness is a large part of his attraction (evident here, before one even begins, in a rhyming Table of Contents, and two contradictory epigraphs from Voltaire about the longueurs of long novels). His last book, of poems, was one of the slimmest of the year; this one promises to be the longest. The question it raises is what happens to light comedy when it is extended across half a million words. Can an epic be built on charm alone?

There are, increasingly, two strands of Indian fiction, that of compassionate realism (exemplified by R. K. Narayan and, recently, Rohinton Mistry), and that of pinwheeling invention (the mode of Salman Rushdie, Shashi Tharoor and I. Allan Sealy). Seth firmly allies himself with the former, and he attempts here what might be regarded as a counter-Rushdie epic: relatively secluded and old-fashioned where Rushdie is determinedly topical and international, somewhat conservative in style and temper where Rushdie is wilfully radical (Seth writes a classic English prose, and the most tender and touching marriage of all in this book about marriages is an arranged one). Most of all, Seth is a peace-maker, where Rushdie is a belligerent, and there are those, of the Rushdie camp, who will find his openness—"It is best to be on good terms with everyone", thinks one character, early on—too mild-mannered.

For me, though, the singular appeal of A Suitable Boy lies in its fondness, and in its evocation of an unhurried, gossipy, small-talking India as teasing and warm as every family reunion I've ever attended. His is the charmed world of the privileged middle classes, as Indian as their love of P.G. Wodehouse and Charlie Chaplin, as Indian as their college productions of Twelfth Night and boating trips on Windermere. Scattering movie-ads, greeting-card jingles and excerpts from law books through his narrative, Seth catches something thoroughly and unmistakably Indian, in the soft spot for numbers, the riddles, the quips about "making hail while the sun shines". Here are absent-minded professors, bored beauties and feckless boys who say things like "Nothing I've ever done seems to have happened." Here too are Dickensian processions of repetitious lawyers, stutterers and eccentrics (and even a character consistently called Uriah).

Seth clearly loves his people, and he passes that love on to us. He shows them selfish, quarrelsome and idle, yet never without sympathy; indeed, much of the sweetness of the main plot comes from the fact that all three of Lata's shadow suitors are entirely engaging. Even a family that speaks largely in doggerel, composes poems to its dog Cuddles and keeps reminding one how lovably eccentric it is, becomes likeable. There is in all this an occasional trace of self-delight, and not every reader will find himself won over by the boyish witticisms ("Curiosity is a curious thing" and "No fait is ever accompli until it's accompli"), or the little jokes (characters called Dr Matthew Evans and Sir David Gower). But it must be said that the only ill-tempered character in the book is the one called Seth.

Seth makes of his affections, moreover, a central point; the one strain running through the long narrative is a determination to see India through particulars and people, and a complete rejection of those besetting Indian vices, pomposity and abstraction. (In one bravura passage, Seth throws off a host of sparkling generalities—India is like the Square, like the Trinity, like a Duality, like a Oneness, like a Zero—so as, in effect, to show that anything you might say about this huge and contradictory place is true, and meaningless.) And at every turn he shows us, in the Forsterian way, how individuals can go beyond the divisions created by institutions, and friendship can conquer communalism. Thus a Hindu crosses religious lines to befriend a Muslim, and later stabs him—for reasons that have nothing to do with their religions. At the same time, Seth is worldly enough to see how idealism can undermine the people it would try to help; to show how undoing an unjust system can mean undoing the innocent people who are beneficiaries; and to catch the heart of that age-old Indian riddle of compassion and corruption, that a man is damned if he tries to tamper with the law to save a renegade son, and damned if he does not.

Seth is at his finest in his portrayal of the people most unlike himself—like Muslims, say, or women. He evokes with great sensitivity the plight—and the strength—of women in the constricting space of a zenana, and in an age when a man may say, "I had six children and six daughters too." One of the book's most powerful scenes is an episode of sexual threat, seen from the woman's point of view. He writes of children, and dogs and parakeets, with an uncle's fondness.

By its end, in fact, the novel has found a place for almost every possible position: even that of the foreigner who finds Indians "face-flattering, back-biting, name-dropping, all-knowing, self-praising, power-worshipping …" (having lived half his life abroad, Seth can temper an insider's knowledge with an outsider's amusement). A Suitable Boy is, in its unobtrusive way, panoramic: it gives us Muslim festivals and Hindu ones, courtesans and court-rooms, villages and cities and towns. What he does not know, he has researched, and, with his economist's training, Seth shows us all the details of how a Czech shoe-factory in India works; with his position as the son of a High Court judge, he covers in commanding detail the debate about land ownership. He describes Nehru's coup against himself, and issues as current as Hindu temples in Muslim areas. And though these passages occasionally seem a little tacked on, to give the novel epic status, there is not a detail that I found unconvincing or false.

But is it worth the weight? In The Golden Gate, as Gore Vidal saw it, Seth wrote "the Great California Novel", and his new one (handicapped, for some readers, by the Rushdie-like £1 million in advances it has received) is clearly an attempt to write the Great Indian one. In The Golden Gate, he was so much at home in his Pushkin stanzas that he made one forget (and so forgive) his virtuosity; here, attempting a 1,400-page novel on his first go at prose fiction, that is not so clearly the case. Over the course of the novel, he gives us any number of analogies for the book we are reading: it is like the Ganges, with its "tributaries and distributaries", it is like a banyan tree, with its slowly exfoliating roots; it is like a musician's raag, starting slowly but picking up speed.

Every single page of A Suitable Boy is pleasant and readable and true; but the parts are better crafted, and so more satisfying, than the whole. At times, it almost feels as if Seth is following his story more than leading it, and I could not help but think of his alter ego Amit (an Oxford-educated poet, and son of a High Court judge, embarked on an enormous first novel) saying that the reason his book was so long was that it was "very undisciplined". In places, the book feels more like a serial than an epic, and it is not immediately evident that its some 1,400 pages make it four times better than it would have been at 350. Indeed, its central love-story is so compelling that I found myself thinking that inside that fat novel, a much stronger thin one was struggling to get out.

Its publishers have likened the book, with its spacious realism, to Tolstoy and George Eliot. For me, though, A Suitable Boy is closest to Tanizaki, in his Makioka Sisters. For it is, like the Japanese novel, at its heart an elegy as well as a comedy of manners, about a traditional society in a time of change, and about a leisurely world of graces giving way to a new, more democratic time. Like Tanizaki, Seth locates these changes in the woman's curtained world of rituals, and uses a rich family's search for a husband as a way of making history intimate and human. Like Tanizaki, he writes winningly of everything domestic, especially women and their children. And like Tanizaki, he has given us that unlikeliest of hybrids, a modest tour de force.

John Oliver Perry (review date Spring 1993)

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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 Gup." With these resources, quite naturally much of the reader's meditative pleasure (i.e., after the sheer joy in the verbal play) consists in the special cultural twists of plot, character, and moral. "On the Ganga's greenest isle" Kuroop the uxorious crocodile is ready to sacrifice his monkey friend and benefactor to the unbridled whimsical tastes of his mate (hilariously rendered in color on the jacket, but Ravi Shankar's line drawings inside are great fun too). However—the usual fabular ironic reversal—the crocodile's very unquestioning faith in love that prompted this encounter allows the monkey to trick his friend by professing an equal desire to please the pampered wife and thus to escape. In the second tale, somewhat unexpectedly but no less inevitably and thus most meaningfully, the instigator of a passionate crime—the Mosquito sharply stings the sleeping King—flies away while the kindly, reluctantly facilitating Louse, an exceedingly careful bloodsucker, is exterminated with all his lousy clan.

The shortest tale is the only one framed by its supposed source—an event seen by Mr. Yang and commemorated as "The Faithful Mouse" by "his friend the poet Chang," who "in couplets sad and stoic / celebrates her acts heroic"—and adding a supposed moral, "Acts that prove that shock and pain, / Death and grief are not in vain," which Seth briskly closes off: "Which fine lines, alive or dead, / Neither of the mice has read." Thus, just as deft play with various forms of rhyming closures (masculine and feminine, noun with verb, zeugma and chiasmus, et cetera) and of run-on lines underlies the veral and metrical wit, so do the narrative endings titillate and play havoc with our expectations, including those about poetry.

Probably the most notable moral reversal is in, and here of, the famous Aesopian fable "The Hare and the Tortoise." An astonishingly vain and garrulous hare—whom, characteristically, Seth makes archetypically (?) female—is indeed just barely bested in the race by the tortoise's "hard work and regularity. / Silly creature! Such vulgarity! / Now she'll learn that sure and slow / is the only way to go." The slangy certainty should warn us of a modern twist. For not the first or last time in these tales the press comes into animal affairs: "Stories of her quotes and capers / Made front page in all the papers—/ … / Soon she saw her name in lights, / Sold a book and movie rights, / … / And her friends, when they played Scrabble / … / Let her spell 'Compete' with K. / / Thus the hare was pampered rotten / And the tortoise was forgotten." Surely Seth's experiences with The Golden Gate have fed this poem well.

Still, such inversions and juxtapositions do not always produce successful wit, much less neat satiric jabs at contemporary morality. The final and longest tale expounds upon planet-threatening issues in man's greedy environmental plundering and degradation, nominally of the animals' Bingle Valley, most specifically for Indians alluding to the hugely controversial Narmada Valley power, flood-control, and irrigation project. Perhaps the issues are too complex; though twenty-four pages ought to have given ample scope, they seem merely to prolong the debacle. The previous entirely made-up fable "The Nightingale and the Frog," however, is both of normal length (five pages) and, despite its obviously self-serving self-referentiality—about traditional poets' mistakenly seeking a more powerful voice and a more appreciative audience—makes its depressing ironic point "with panache," but not like that claimed by "the foghorn of the frog / [That b]lared unrivalled through the bog." Which reminds us that effective satire requires established cultural norms, but can still manage with a minimal self-awareness: e. g., that human society is commonly dominated by incompetent boors employing their own pompous rules, again including poetry as a primary human endeavor.

The genre of retold and newly imagined animal tales has a long and brilliant history, encompassing sometimes coarse folk ballads, La Fontaine's sophisticated seventeenth-century "Fables Choisis," translations of the latter by Marianne Moore, and T. S. Eliot's "Cats," and, famously in prose, animal sagas by both the imperialist Kipling and the antiauthoritarian Orwell. Evidently they have often been not only formally or esthetically but socially, culturally, and morally successful through their witty indirection with animalized characters. It would be silly, then, to recommend these poems as essentially "children's literature," though, insofar as such stories must appeal to the grown-ups reading them aloud, there can be little doubt that these will delight audiences at the widest age ranges. The sheer sound of the lines and rhymes will catch any ear, the play of language please any user of words, and the humorous animals and their mock-heroic deeds meet the stricter demands of social and psychological analysis. Yet it is never as children's tales or even as necessarily women's lore that these sorts of fables arise in folk cultures to give shape to human experience, and we can thus suppose more solid underlying motivations for these than a hot day in Delhi when Seth "could not concentrate on … work [and] decided to write a summer story involving mangoes and a river." Given a new oral form here in Vikram Seth's flexible verbal imagination, we can readily imagine that these "Beastly Tales" will have a longer shelf life among literate English-using families than most other, more highly acclaimed, more immediately serious literary work—whether Seth's or someone else's.

John Lanchester (review date 22 April 1993)

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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 not only about all this publication kerfuffle (which has been something that Balzac wouldn't have minded putting in a novel) but about A Suitable Boy, too. It has the Balzacian unembarrassedness about money and class as primary human motivations; it has the qualities Auden praised in Jane Austen's work, when he wrote (in 'Letter to Lord Byron') that

       You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
       Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
       It makes me most uncomfortable to see
       An English spinster of the middle class
       Describe the amorous effect of 'brass',
       Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
       The economic basis of society.

A Suitable Boy is, like the novels of Jane Austen, structured around the institution of the arranged marriage. The novel is set in Brahmpur, fictional capital of the fictional state of Purva Pradesh; one of the novel's many technical triumphs is that no non-Indian would guess that these aren't real places. (When they first met, Seth's English editor asked him if he had written the book in Brahmpur—another wonderful compliment.) The action takes place in 1951 and 1952. It opens with the wedding of Savita Mehra, eldest daughter of the good-natured but none-too-bright Mrs Rupa Mehra, to Pran Kapoor, lecturer in English at Brahmpur University: "'You too will marry a boy I choose," said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.' The younger daughter is the attractive Lata, a student at Brahmpur University, and one of the two central characters in the novel; the other is Maan, Pran's happy-go-lucky younger brother, the son of Mahesh Kapoor, the Revenue Minister of Purva Pradesh. At the wedding, Lata and Maan are spotted chatting by a friend:

'Who was that Cad you were talking to?' she asked Lata eagerly.

This wasn't as bad as it sounded. A good-looking young man, in the slang of Brahmpur University girls, was a Cad. The term derived from Cadbury's chocolate.

Lata's search for a husband—a suitable boy—and Maan's search for something to do with his life are the two main strands of the novel. Around them Seth constructs a miraculously vivid and diverse portrait of Indian life. For instance: one of the multiply-ramifying plot themes concerns a Bill being put through the Purva Pradesh legislative assembly by Mahesh Kapoor, father of Pran and Maan. The new law will abolish the system of zamindari, or the feudal ownership of land; among those who will be grievously affected by this are the Nawab Sahib, the great Muslim landlord of Purva Pradesh, who spends all his time in his library preparing an edition of the Urdu poet Mast—and who also happens to be Mahesh Kapoor's closest friend.

We see Kapoor struggling to get the Bill through the legislative assembly, harassed, on the one hand, by the outraged representatives of the zamindari class and, on the other, by the Socialist party, who are enraged that the new law doesn't go far enough; we watch a challenge to the Bill in the state Supreme Court; and we see its effect on people's lives when Maan is sent to the impoverished countryside for a few months, allegedly to learn Urdu, in fact as a break to cool off from the sweaty affair he is having with famous Muslim courtesan Saeeda Bai—a period of semivoluntary rustication that is to have unexpected consequences when his father, disgusted by creeping corruption in the ruling Congress Party, resigns his ministerial post and (partly on the basis of demographic calculations made by Bhaksar, his ten-year-old mathematical-genius nephew) tries to re-enter the state parliament from a new, rural, constituency.

That summary, however, leaves out a wide variety of interlinked characters and stories, like that of Rasheed, Maan's Urdu tutor, with whom Maan travels into the immiserated village life of Purva Pradesh, and through whose eventual psychological disintegration we get a glimpse of 'the tragedy of the countryside, of the country itself'; or the story of Waris, the rustic tough who works first as Mahesh Kapoor's election agent, then as his most bitter rival; or of another of Rasheed's pupils, Tasneem, Saeeda Bai's beautiful younger sister—or is she?; or the story of Prime Minister Nehru himself, at loggerheads with the party he is leading into the General Election of 1951—the first Indian election staged under universal suffrage and the 'largest election ever held anywhere on earth', involving a sixth of the world's population. And all this is only one of the book's several focuses of attention.

Seth spent a decade at Stanford, studying for a PhD in economics and writing his verse-novel about la vita Californiana, The Golden Gate. The training in economics shows up in A Suitable Boy, one of whose many virtues is a strong sense of how the world actually works. This is as apparent in the uproarious pastiche of parliamentary debate as it is in scenes like the one in which Pran is trying to get Joyce into the Brahmpur University English syllabus, despite the opposition of his departmental head, the portly and malevolent Professor Mishra:

'It is heartening to come across a young man—a young lecturer'—Professor Mishra looked over at the rank-conscious reader, Dr Gupta—'who is so, shall I say, so, well, direct in his opinions and so willing to share them with his colleagues, however senior they may be … We are already hardpressed to teach 21 writers in the time we allot this paper. If Joyce goes in, what comes out?'

'Flecker,' answered Pran without a moment's hesitation.

Professor Mishra laughed indulgently. 'Ah, Dr Kapoor, Dr Kapoor …' he intoned,

'Pass not beneath, O Caravan, or pass not singing. Have you heard

That silence where the birds are dead yet something pipeth like a bird?

James Elroy Flecker, James Elroy Flecker.' That seemed to settle it in his mind.

But this is to over-emphasise the public aspects of the novel at the expense of its portrayal of the private life, as treated through the dilemmas of Lata as she decides between her three suitors. There is hunky Kabir Durrani, whom she deeply fancies, but who is rendered definitively ineligible by being—to Mrs Rupa Mehra's ineffable horror—a Muslim. (When Mrs Mehra finds out that Kabir's mother has had a breakdown, she isn't slow to use the ammunition against him: 'Muslim and mad.') There is her brother-in-law, the Oxford-educated and ultra-eligible Amit Chatterji, poet and darling of Calcutta literary society, at work on a thousand-page novel about the Bengal famine. And finally there is Haresh Khanna, who makes up for deficiencies in glamour (he's short, speaks English badly and works for a shoe company) by his energy, amiability and uncomplicated affection for Lata. The ending is happy, but not idiotically or unreflectingly so; several characters have been visited by tragedy, and there's even an undercurrent of melancholy in the fact that Lata can only choose one of her suitors. The tone is not unlike that caught by Empson in his essay on Gray's 'Elegy': 'It is only in degree that any improvement of society could prevent wastage of human powers; the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy.'

If A Suitable Boy has a model it is less the 19th-century masterpieces with which it has been compared than the country of India itself—a country whose varity of life and livings provides the writer with a pattern and a challenge. In its attempt to incorporate India into itself the novel resembles an ostentatiously different book, Midnight's Children. Seth's imagination and Rushdie's are not so far apart: the work of both writers is informed by liberal, pluralistic values, and A Suitable Boy is, among other things, a political book. The violence and degradation consequent on extreme poverty are present in the novel, which is concerned throughout with the threat India faces from 'the systemic clutch of religious fundamentalism'. At one point, a group of fanatics attempt to dismantle a mosque, in order to build a temple on the site; a sadly accurate prediction of the events at Ayodhya.

The style of A Suitable Boy is as astonishing as its content. Seth has striven for complete transparency: all his energies are concentrated on making the prose a vehicle for the characters and the action. Virtuoso effects are confined to often comic moments of parody and impersonation, as when Dr Makhijani reads his deliriously terrible 'Hymn to Mother India' to the Brahmpur Literary Society ('Mahatma came to us like summer "andhi", / Sweeping the dungs and dirt, was M.K. Gandhi'). Kingsley Amis has famously remarked that in reading his son's books he feels the lack of simple declarative sentences, along the lines of 'having nothing more to say, they finished their drinks and left.' He should like A Suitable Boy, which contains no other kind of sentences, and which has a studied lack of fastidiousness about people saying things 'firmly', or 'confidently', or 'wryly', or any-other-adverbially.

The prose is intended not to distract. The resulting structural clarity is remarkable—you never don't know what's happening, why, where and to whom. (Compare this to One Hundred Years of Solitude, which calls for the construction of maps, home-made wallcharts and plot-flow diagrams.) It's a considerable technical feat, which draws no attention to itself—in fact, the only aspect of A Suitable Boy which draws attention to itself is its length. Seth has taken his own advice: in an essay published in this journal in 1988, he wrote of the requirement to balance the injunction to 'load every rift with ore' with the contervailing admonition to 'allow the poem to breathe'. A Suitable Boy breathes, all right; the unfakable, unmistakable breath of life.

Michele Field (essay date 10 May 1993)

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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 famous, and returned to India. "I had been away a long time, 14 years or something, and I thought I'd like to go back—not be called back by some family emergency," he says. "Though research for A Suitable Boy necessitated my being in India for quite a while, the actual writing could have been done anywhere."

A Suitable Boy is a social history, but it is also a domestic history of parents and children set in the early 1950s, shortly after India gained its independence. (Seth was born in 1952.) Is that why he decided to reinstate himself in a real-life situation that must have made him feel like a child again?

"No, I didn't make a particular effort to put myself back," Seth replies, "though I like mealtimes with the family. A drink of scotch with my father in the evening is a ritual." (He halts the conversation to write a note about a malt whiskey he wants to buy his father.) Seth is short, and because he still wears the kind of sharp-creased trousers favored by schoolboys, sweaters which ride up his wrists, and orange knapsacks, it is easy to forget that he's past 40, not 14.

Publishers Weekly is speaking with Seth in London; interviewer and interviewee both have the flu. Paracetamol tablets are popped, and tea is drunk (his heavily sugared—he would prefer lukewarm champagne), and when strength fails, the conversation collapses into whispers. Seth has such a seductive personality that one can hardly remember the disarray with which he dresses or his receding hairline; instead, what lingers in the mind are eyes as deep as a dolphin's, and the wholly ironic inflection in his answers, whatever the question. If there were a Nice Author award on a par with the Booker Prize, this year Seth would win both.

Was it a little difficult to write with his family around him? "No, I am quite selfish, I suppose, and my family is correspondingly generous," he answers. "They know that I have lived by myself for many years abroad and that [working] is difficult unless I have some measure of privacy." Still, he says, "while my characters were, novelistically speaking, 'young,' other people were a distraction. My characters are so wraith-like at the beginning, so unimaginable, that I have to make an effort to imagine them. And real people are a tremendous distraction because they're so real."

Seth does not dismiss autobiographical analogies with the same vehemence as other novelists. His father was in the shoe-manufacturing business, as is Haresh, one of the characters who courts Lata, the novel's central character—a marriageable young woman who, studying law, most resembles Seth's mother (a magistrate). "That's a weird one," Seth concedes. "But anybody who tries to read Oedipal complexes into this novel … would be doing the Freudian thing which I am trying to avoid. Freud is a fashion and a fact, but I think he explains very little of the world."

Seth seems to eschew all theories, whether Freudian, philosophical, or economic—which is surprising, if only because he studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford and demographic economics at Stanford. Certainly the nuts and bolts of political demographics run through A Suitable Boy, but we get nothing of the theory. "This book is hopelessly 'reactionary' in that sense, but I think it is hopelessly 'modern' in that it tells a plain story," Seth laughs.

He explains, "The Golden Gate got, by and large, generous reviews. But there was one school of thought which said that stylistically speaking it was deliciously avant-garde; and another school which said it was dreadfully reactionary because it goes back to Pushkin and rhyming meter. As far as content went, some people said it was wonderful: it talks about gay rights and women's rights and the anti-nuclear movement. And yet, another school said it had the happy families of the typical, antiquated, silly Victorian novel. So whether it is reactionary or distastefully trendy, who cares?"

Seth may be more difficult to explain than his characters. Are their lives simple compared to his? Amit, the character in A Suitable Boy who is most like Seth, still seems much simpler. "Maybe, possibly," the novelist replies. Seth is discreet, even mysterious, about his personal life and his wide-ranging interests; his characters seem more focused, more "Victorian." He smiles. "Yes, it is unlikely that Amit would have been able to swim with dolphins." Seth is referring to his hands-on experience with Dingle Bay dolphins last June as part of his research for an opera libretto about dolphins commissioned by the English National Opera—a project Seth tackled between the writing of the novel and its revision.

In parts, A Suitable Boy is almost like a script—and since Seth seems interested in turning from poems and fiction to playwriting (and is considering a commission from the Royal Shakespeare Company), one wonders if his facility for conversation isn't the common factor in all his work. At this, he raises his eyebrows and answers with a quote: "'But what's the use of a book, said Alice, without pictures and conversation?'" If conversation is like glass, letting characters speak directly to us, then the stanzas of The Golden Gate are stained glass, while the style of A Suitable Boy is clear, clean windowpane.

Despite the popularity of Seth's books (A Suitable Boy is on bestseller lists in India, where it was published in February, and in Britain, where it was published in March), most of his fans, he believes, probably follow him for one book only. "I don't know who followed me from Heaven Lake to The Golden Gate, and I don't know who will follow me from the Gate to A Suitable Boy. I write what I want to write, and leave the rest to whomever publishes the book."

Yet Seth is famous for controlling his own literary affairs. After his first luck with finding a British publisher for Heaven Lake (though it found no American publisher then; it was published by Random and Vintage on the heels of his success with The Golden Gate), Seth faced frustration in seeking publication for The Golden Gate. Without an agent, he dispatched the Gate himself to every poetry editor in America. "It was rejected by every one—dozens! And then a fiction editor took it up, someone who'd received it from a friend of a friend. Suddenly, within one week, Knopf, Random House and Viking all wanted to publish it. Amazing."

The ragged course of Seth's early publishing career made him rather hard-nosed when it came to A Suitable Boy. He knew he needed an agent, and began searching for one in the same manner he'd adopted previously when pursuing publishers—he asked everybody and settled on the best option.

In 1986, he came to London and interviewed all the agents about whom he'd heard a good word; he not only talked with them one-on-one, but met whole agencies in conference. Finally, he selected Giles Gordon as his chief agent (and Irene Skolnick from Curtis Brown in New York—"though she couldn't be more different from Giles"). Gordon, of the Sheil Land agency, is famous as the Royal family's literary agent—as Prince Charles's agent, in particular—and he seemed an unlikely choice for Seth. But because Seth manages to treat Gordon in an aptly lordly manner, and is naturally eccentric in a style that Gordon relishes, it looks like a marriage made in heaven.

Still, Gordon hardly understood what Seth was doing in Calcutta until, in the summer of 1991, the 5000 pages of typescript—the first draft of A Suitable Boy—landed on his desk. Undaunted, Gordon drew up a list of nine possible British publishers, and Seth insisted upon coming to London and talking to all nine—two a day over a five-day period. The Seth-Gordon "game," waged for the good of the novel, has already gone down in the annals of London literary history: they won it with an advance of £250,000 from Orion, the largest ever paid for a "first novel" in Britain.

The next challenge to be met was rather different: since Seth felt that A Suitable Boy was a distinctly Indian novel, he wanted the novel to be published initially in India—and to be typeset there. "This was a grueling business," he admits. However, in recounting it, Seth is characteristically discreet, and barely complains about a phase that nearly killed him. "I was in Calcutta, and I knew I wanted the novel to be typeset once—once only. I couldn't bear to proofread a book of this length for three different English-language publishers: I would have hated it by the end. I decided to do it in India to show that we could."

The Indian edition, which Seth has with him in his nylon knapsack, is lovely, printed on the type of paper one associates with Bibles—thin but opaque, and lying flat at the spine. It is more expensive paper than is generally used in the West, and produces a lighter-weight book. "This is the kind of edition I imagined I might have 20 years down the line," Seth exults. "I certainly didn't imagine that the first commercial edition in India would be as nice as this," he says, caressing a page.

There is now room in the top echelon of Indian writers: the generation of Narayan, Naipaul and Desai has become the "older" one, and in the younger generation Seth has been placed nose-to-nose with Salman Rushdie. Of course, Seth would not have been considered to be in the running for best-young-Indian-novelist if he had stayed in California or London, "but now they have to [consider me]," he says, with a twinkle in his eye. The only aspect of this which seems to exasperate him is the implied rivalry with Rushdie.

"It is ridiculous, and very unfair to Salman. He is supposed to have made a comment about [A Suitable Boy as] my 'soap opera.' That is something which he may have said to his friends, but he didn't say it to me. What he said to me was, 'I hear you've written a book,' and from that people have tried to pretend that he was in some sense denigratory."

But the betting is on, even though Rushdie couldn't have written A Suitable Boy—and probably wouldn't have wanted to. Seth probably wouldn't have wanted to write The Satanic Verses; he's dismissive even of James Joyce. However, like Joyce, Seth throws himself into extremely eccentric books which, in the long run, prove more than feasible commercially. He is equally like Joyce in his talent for foreign languages and his "back-water-comes-forward" biography: Joyce's Dublin seems merely a few blocks away from Seth's Calcutta and his imaginary city, in A Suitable Boy, of Brahmpur.

What Joyce didn't have to manage is the year now facing Seth, who is living in several different countries while promoting A Suitable Boy, and finally leaving his parents' home for a second time. The first line of A Suitable Boy has Lata's mother saying to her younger daughter, "You too will marry a boy I choose." Joyce's mother might have said something similar, but Joyce didn't obey her. Seth, still unmarried, may not, either.

Robert Worth (review date 21 May 1993)

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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 describes the lives of four large, extended Indian families linked by marriage and friendship. One of those families, the Khans, belong to the zamindari aristocracy, whose feudal privileges were being swept away by land reforms at the time of the novel's setting. Another family, the Brahmin Chatterjis, contains the first Indian High Court justice; the third is fathered by a powerful minister of revenue who is also a member of the national Legislative Assembly. The fourth family, lacking such obvious distinctions, nonetheless contains one of the first Indian executives (a "brown Sahib") in a high-profile British management firm. Seth grounds his fiction, in other words, in some of the most important political and social issues of the day. Nehru himself becomes a character (albeit a minor one) and lengthy speeches from the Legislative Assembly are quoted verbatim.

Nonetheless, Seth's novel is far less concerned with political struggles than with the smaller dramas of everyday life. The story is set, after all, not during the struggle for independence but afterwards, during a period of relative peace and stability. There are crises, for the four families of A Suitable Boy, but none of them explodes into melodrama. An adulterous affair threatens chaos, but then fizzles out peacefully; a heartbroken young man considers suicide, but ends up spending a month in the country instead. Seth appears to be bent on showing us the interstices of social change, the way that life and love will go on no matter what history may be up to. It is hardly surprising when Lata, the novel's central character, does indeed find a suitable boy to marry.

This emphasis on the redeeming aspects of private life is in keeping with Seth's prior work. His first novel, The Golden Gate, described the joys and sorrows of three twenty-something characters in San Francisco. Far more limited in scope than A Suitable Boy, it was nevertheless an ambitious book: the prospect, Seth tells us, of a novel composed of sequential sonnets was enough to send both editors and friends away in disgust. But the critics raved; Gore Vidal promptly dubbed it "the great Californian novel." Seth's verbal gift was supple enough to capture even the most fragmentary conversations, and to range in tone from charming doggerel at the outset to redemptive tragedy in the novel's final pages.

In A Suitable Boy Seth appears to have bitten off more than he can chew. His plot, weaving back and forth toward India's first general election, insists on taking a glimpse of almost every issue that might conceivably have a bearing on that event: religion, law, business, changing cultural traditions. Even the drudgeries of life in a remote northern village are given their fullest possible expression. But the farther Seth roams from his central, high-caste characters, the more his prose tends to sound like a museum-tour: dry, passionless, and analytical.

To some extent these failings are the result of Seth's desire to be fair, to offer a balanced portrait of the nation that will respect all the parties involved. He could not be more different, in this respect, from Salman Rushdie, whose 1980 novel Midnight's Children also takes postindependence India as its subject, and Indian family life as its vehicle. Midnight's Children shuttles wildly back and forth in time, presenting a feverish, supernatural vision of Indian life and society. The narrator, who was born at the very second of independence, literally becomes the voice of modern India; he has none of the calm detachment that marks Seth's novel. He is cursed, wounded, and finally castrated by the forces that were set in motion at his birth, and the magical realism of his narration represents a desperate effort to make sense of those forces. That effort ends, with the novel, in a terrifying vision of apocalypse. The book makes no effort, in other words, to build bridges or to present a "balanced" view. Its very form would appear to mock that possibility in a country so torn by extremism and hatred. Rushdie leaves us, in the end, with nothing more than a painfully vivid impression.

If A Suitable Boy fails to achieve such vividness, that is probably because Seth is after different quarry. A former doctoral student in economics who abandoned demography for literature, Seth treats his characters with a gentle concern, and is unwilling to sacrifice them (or their future) to blazing language or dramatic conclusions. A Suitable Boy makes no effort to shock its readers, or even to dazzle them. It aims instead at a vast, comprehensive unity; and it focuses on those aspects of life that hold society together rather than those that tear it apart. In that sense Seth seems to have moved self-consciously beyond the jarring, fragmentary aesthetics of most "postmodern" fiction. All the same, it's hard to get through A Suitable Boy without wishing for more action, a faster pace, and a stronger story. Moderation and fairness are necessary virtues in India's current crisis; but they are not of much value in a novel.

Schuyler Ingle (review date 23 May 1993)

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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 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.

The tale takes place in a mythical city, Brahmpur, capital of a mythical state, Purva Pradesh, in the very real Northern India of the early 1950s. Of the many events that play through the text, one is the general election of newly independent India in 1951. Another is the struggle to push through the state assembly a bill that would strip feudal landlords of their holdings. Seth takes the fallout of such momentous change right down to the village level.

A Suitable Boy begins with the marriage of Pran Kapoor to Lata Mehra's older sister, Savita. The basic cast of characters the reader will follow through a year of politics, religious strife, love affairs, suicides, attempted murders, debauchery, courtship, festivals, strikes, Shakespeare productions, horse races, cricket matches, human stampedes, births and deaths all pretty much appear at this first wedding: Mehras, Kapoors, Chatterjis and Khans. The author is kind enough to provide family trees at the front of the book, but the story is so clearly told the reader will rarely refer to them.

Make no mistake about it: This is a book about India and Indians. The first white men, a couple of British twits, appear at about page 400; they make some silly, ignorant remarks about the local culture, then quickly disappear. The next white men appear somewhere around page 1,000. They are Czech overseers at a shoe factory. They, too, disappear. And by the time they do, the reader can describe the making of shoes from the tanning of the hides through the final polishing of the brogues. The level of relevant detail Seth weaves through his text—whether numbers theory or political machination or academic maneuvering or farming or classical musicianship or natural history or cultural anthropology—is astonishing for the way it comforts the reader and draws him in closer and closer to the many characters at hand.

If Seth consciously worked from models or with a literary strategy, he settled on the great, sweeping novels of the 19th Century. Tolstoy comes to mind without too much prodding (though Seth never succumbs to lecturing his readers). The 19th Century masters may well have had grand literary aspirations in mind when they set to work, and no doubt Vikram Seth did as well. But they also wrote to entertain, to fill an evening, to offer an informed distraction at the end of the day. And so does Vikram Seth.

His struggle, however, is far greater than Tolstoy's or George Eliot's, for he writes against the impact of television and film, those modern doses of spoonfed entertainment that make few demands as they quickly come and go. Seth writes against a reader's busy life and reduced attention span. Like Middlemarch, though, A Suitable Boy is a page-turner, and the page-turning must go on night after night. I found myself getting edgy as the evenings wore on, hoping dinner guests would leave earlier than normal so I could get down to reading. I left dishes in the sink until morning so I could get back to reading; put off the writing of letters and the paying of bills so I could get back to reading. To close the door, pull down the shade, slip between the sheets and balance this weighty tome against my knees became the driving force of my days.

In time I found myself talking back to this book, as though it were alive. I found myself laughing through pages. And very much to my surprise, I found myself reading through tears at the death of an important though rather minor character, if the weight of characters can be measured in quantities of ink.

I also found myself more frightened in fewer measured words than I ever thought possible at the scene in which Lata suddenly comprehends the incestuous relationship between a relative and his daughter. She faces the evil alone, unprotected, and it is an absolutely chilling two or three pages.

A Suitable Boy is a book that pays readers back, and richly, for their nightly effort.

Anita Desai (review date 27 May 1993)

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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 him…. He's just a writer, he knows nothing at all about literature." So Amit tries again and the next time round he compares his work to a banyan tree:

It sprouts, and grows, and spreads, and drops down branches that become trunks or intertwine with other branches. Sometimes branches die. Sometimes the main trunk dies, and the structure is held up by the supporting trunks. When you go to the Botanical Garden you'll see what I mean. It has its own life—but so do the snakes and birds and bees and lizards and termites that live in it and on it and off it. Of course, it's also like the Ganges in its upper, middle and lower courses—including its delta—of course.

Both—or all three—comparisons imply the slow and ample growth of an entity that gains impressive dimensions through size, longevity, and intricacy of design. One has to agree they are apt comparisons for a novel about four large families and the social and political life of northern India in the 1950s which fills nearly 1,400 pages.

Engagingly, the author is also capable of downplaying the book's scope and achievement. After a reading at the Brahmpur Literary Society, Amit is pursued by the usual questions: "Why is it that you do not write in Bengali, your mother tongue?" and "Why do you use rhyming?" and also the one that Seth will have been asked with monotonous regularity over the last few months: "Why is it … so long? More than a thousand pages!" He replies:

Oh, I don't know how it grew to be so long. I'm very undisciplined. But I too hate long books…. And I have my own way of reducing that bulk…. Well, what I do is to take my pen-knife and slit the whole book into forty or so fascicles … And when I'm wandering around—in a cemetery, say—I can take them out and read them. It's easy on the mind and on the wrist. I recommend it to everyone.

"Everyone" is appalled. "Mr. Nowrojee looked as if he were about to faint dead away. Amit appeared pleased with the effect." Vikram Seth alias Amit Chatterji clearly enjoys creating such effects. His last literary success was a novel he wrote entirely in verse, The Golden Gate. Much was made of the fact that the verse form was the tetrameter sonnet employed by Pushkin in Eugene Onegin. Here the analogy was unfortunate, for The Golden Gate was, for all its technical achievement, essentially light verse closer in spirit to John Betjeman and Ogden Nash than to Pushkin's ferocious and satirical wit. It was precisely this that made readers who ordinarily "never read poetry" find it painless and enjoyable. Seth employs the same facility for light rhyming verse to leaven the bulk and weight of his gigantic novel, and in his "Word of Thanks" addresses:

       Gentle reader, you as well,
       The fountainhead of all remittance.
       Buy me before good sense insists
       You'll strain your purse and sprain your wrists.

Equally enticing is his "Table of Contents," also listed in verse:

  1. Browsing through books, two students meet one day.
    A mother mopes; a medal melts away.
  2. A courtesan sings coolly through the heat.
    A hopeful lover buys a parakeet.
  3. A couple glides down-river in a boat.
    A mother hears that mischief is afloat….

—and the charm of the rhyming couplets eases us into the formidable river of prose. Light verse on the one hand, the prosy mass of a family saga on the other: How are the two to be bridged? Seth may have had in mind the Sanskrit epic in which, through all the digressions and diversions, the thread of narrative is maintained and imprinted on the memory of their readers—or, in the days when epics were composed, on their listeners—by frequent recourse to rhyming couplets and song, more memorable than rambling prose.

It is not possible to carry this analogy any further: the verse is extraneous, an embellishment, not a literary device of the author's. Seth's affection is for the ordinary and the everyday: he creates neither heroes nor villains of mythical proportions, nor does he build historical events into ahistorical legends. The epic belongs to an oral tradition beyond resurrection in an age of technological communication, and Seth's novel must be fitted into the modern literary tradition, which is essentially Western. He himself claims—or his publishers claim on his behalf—that his novel belongs to the nineteenth-century tradition created by Tolstoy, Dickens, George Eliot, and Jane Austen. One would like to think that the assertion is enough to bring a blush to the cheek of even so phenomenally successful an author as Vikram Seth.

Seth's touch is feather-light and airy; one can ascribe to it neither the great dark weight of Tolstoy's searching meditations nor the flashing satiric swordplay of Jane Austen's pen. The great Victorian zeal for reform that inspired so much of Dickens's and Eliot's work can hardly be said to be Seth's purpose: he is too fond and too tolerant of his characters to want to transform them. Although, in their rash youth, they might be tempted by the possibilities of change, defiance, and the unknown, they learn their lessons and return, chastened, to the safety and security of the familiar and the traditional, represented here, in the Indian fashion, by the great god Family.

We are left with the undeniable length of the book—a family saga stretched to the point when "Victorian" does become an apt adjective: one thinks of the Albert Memorial in London, the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, of Victorian skirts and Victorian meals and Victorian furniture as other examples of such amplitude and substance. How did the author of such delicately proportioned verse as in The Humble Administrator's Garden and All You Who Sleep Tonight get drawn into a prose project on such a scale? At times one might even find oneself asking why. Surely the story of Lata being maneuvered by her mother into choosing between three suitors, or the story of the Hindu boy Maan's friendship with the Muslim boy Firoz, or of the Urdu teacher Rasheed's desire to bring change to his unchanging village, would have made a more shapely story in itself, of a more conventional length of two to three hundred pages.

Yes, but one soon sees that such a story would have been slight, and negligible in itself (and has often been written, by others): it is precisely by interweaving all their tales with such skill into patterns of such intricacy that Seth achieves his effect of bulk and mass impossible to overlook. His intention was clearly to reproduce India on a scale in keeping with its history, its population, its diversity, and abundance of life. Neither two inches of ivory nor the more sizable stretch of a Victorian oil painting in a heavy gilt frame would have suited his purpose, and if his novel has an artistic equivalent then it is the folk painting on a village wall, a mural in a cave, or a stitched and embroidered quilt patiently patched together and embellished by that multiplicity of detail that gives it density and richness. In The Speaking Tree: A Study of Indian Culture and Society Richard Lannoy termed such art a display of "the unified field awareness" which involves a disregard of a single focal point, an even distribution of emphasis, a giving of importance to both foreground and background by flattening perspective, and the resulting cyclical effect that makes possible a study that begins at any point and ends at any point and yet covers all the territory.

The canvas is provided by the fictitious state of Purva Pradesh in north India (which bears a very close resemblance to present-day Uttar Pradesh, now commonly known as the Hindi Belt, or the Cow Belt, being the home of Hindu fundamentalism) in the year 1951. Not a year that is particularly memorable in modern Indian history, yielding up not even one momentous event to memory. By choosing it rather than another, Seth again displays his proclivity for the commonplace and quotidian, and he is able to convince his reader of its historical accuracy by means of thorough research and the painstaking reproduction of the politics of the time—the beginnings of disillusionment with Nehru, who only four years before had led India from colonial rule to independence, the beginnings of the rift in the ruling Congress Party between those who continued to support him and those who had become impatient for change, and the preparations for the first general election held in independent India:

And then finally it would be the voters who mattered, the great washed and unwashed public, sceptical and gullible, endowed with universal adult suffrage, six times as numerous as those permitted the vote in 1946. It was in fact to be the largest election ever held anywhere on earth.

Nevertheless it could not have held the reader's interest if Seth had not created characters who are personally involved in these public affairs, and for this purpose he employs the services of four large, sprawling families that live in the dusty environs of Brahmpur, the state capital, and the more sophisticated city of Calcutta—the Mehras, the Chatterjis, the Kapoors, and the Khans. The first three, being Hindu, are related by marriage; the last, being Muslim, only by friendship. To the first two are given all the lighter roles—they provide us with amusement and laughter; to the latter two are given the darker ones—they provide the drama, and the melodrama.

For all the breadth and the scope of the author's intention, there is at the heart of his work a modesty that one would have thought belonged to the miniature, not the epic scale. The characters are not heroes or villains, and we see them involved in the usual affairs of love and business. They are so numerous that Seth runs the risk of seeming to skim over the surface of their lives; occasionally one finds oneself wishing he would pause and give us a moment to reflect. No, no, we must get to our feet and rush on regardless-scarcely has Pran the college lecturer had his heart attack than his wife Savita has her baby; no sooner have we dispatched with Maan's court case then it is time to get Lata married.

This leaves Seth little space to develop his characters. They come to us extremely well-equipped with easily recognizable characteristics: in the Mehra family, the matriarch Mrs. Rupa Mehra is identified by her capacious black handbag, her collection of greeting cards that she cannibalizes to commemorate every new family occasion (on the birth of her new granddaughter she chooses one that reads, "A Lady Baby came today!—what words are quite so nice to say?"), frequent recourse to tears, and constant reference to her dead husband; her son Arun by his pompous and officious ways; and her son Varun by his cringing evasiveness.

In the Chatterji family Amit the poet is reclusive and difficult to draw out, Dipankar is spiritual and discourses on profound matters with the Grande Dame of Culture ("'… not Unity, not Unity, but Zero, Nullity itself, is the guiding principle of our existence'"), Kakoli talks almost exclusively in rhyming couplets, and the frivolous Meenakshi divides her time between canasta at the Shady Ladies Club in the mornings and casual promiscuity in the afternoons. At the end of the book they have progressed no further in any new directions.

If, in spite of their predictability, we become so engaged in their lives and even devoted to them, it is because of the author's skill in providing them with details we find recognizable and true, and in this he goes to tireless lengths. Arun Mehra is only a minor character but one is given all the information one could want about the management agency for which he works and which controls trade and commerce in "Abrasives, Air Conditioning, Belting, Brushes, Building, Cement, Chemicals and Pigments, Coal, Coal-Mining Machinery, Copper & Brass …" and so on down the alphabet to "Tea, Timber, Vertical Turbine Pumps, Wire Rope," thereby giving Arun the aplomb that informs his every gesture:

He got out of the car, leaving his briefcase behind, and protecting himself with the Statesman. His peon, who had been standing in the porch of the building, started when he saw his master's little blue car. It had been raining so hard he had not seen it until it had almost stopped. Agitated, he opened the umbrella and rushed out to protect the sahib. He was a second or two too late.

"Bloody idiot."

The peon, though several inches shorter than Arun Mehra, contrived to hold his umbrella over the sacred head as Arun sauntered into the building. He got into the lift, and nodded in a preoccupied manner at the lift-boy.

The peon rushed back to the car to get his master's briefcase, and climbed the stairs to the second floor of the large building.

Unerring as is his eye for the telling detail, the method works best in humorous scenes and is less successful in portraying the darker, more sweeping passions, which are often rendered as bathos. Maan's infatuation with the Muslim courtesan, Saeeda Bai, and its effects are analyzed in a perfunctory manner: when Maan's mother, Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor, "saw Maan so drunk and unsteady she was very unhappy. Though she did not say anything to him, she was afraid for him. If his father had seen him in his present state he would have had a fit." The Hindu boy discovers his best friend, Firoz, in Saeeda Bai's drawing room, misinterprets his intentions and attacks him in a blind rage, then staggers off, dripping with blood, into a dark and misty night. This scene belongs to melodrama, complete with a slowly clopping tonga horse. The courtroom scene in which Firoz withdraws his accusation and Maan is acquitted is one in which Seth feels so ill at ease that he winds it up in one page and hurriedly tidies it out of sight. The revelation made about the true ancestry of Saeeda Bai's "sister" Tasneem ("the child she had conceived in terror, had carried in shame, and had borne in pain") rings false—it is not a moment of truth but merely a device of the plot.

Seth himself seems to be on the side of Maan's father, Mahesh Kapoor, who slaps Maan when he comes home drunk: "'Love?' cried his father, his incredulity mixed with rage … 'Get out! Out!'" and he seems positively relieved when Maan sees the folly of his ways and rejects Saeeda Bai:

So shattering had been his mother's death, Firoz's danger, his own disgrace, and his terrible sense of guilt that he had begun to suffer a violent revulsion of feeling against himself and Saeeda Bai. Perhaps he saw her too as a victim…. "I am to blame for all that has happened." "You don't love me—don't tell me you do—I can see it—" she wept. "Love—" said Maan. "Love?" Suddenly he sounded furious.

Lata Mehra, the charming young heroine of the book, whose mother in the opening scene declares her plans for her—"'You too will marry a boy I choose,' said Mrs. Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter," and in the final chapter brings off this highly desirable ending—Lata, too, less dramatically but equally soberly, abandons youth's dreams of passion and gives up her unsuitable Muslim suitor so as not to distress her mother. Both she and Maan sacrifice romance in the name of family and stability. Lata tells her appalled friend Malati, "If that's what passion means, I don't want it. Look at what passion has done to the family." When Malati protests, "You are mad—absolutely mad. How could you do it?" Lata tries to explain. Being modern and "Westernized," a student of English literature at Brahmpur University, she does so by quoting Clough:

"'There are two different kinds, I believe, of human attraction. One that merely excites, unsettles, and makes you uneasy; the other that—' Well, I can't remember exactly, but he talks about a calmer, less frantic love, which helps you to grow where you were already growing, 'to live where as yet I had languished….'"

Her mother, who begins each day by reading two pages of the Bhagavad Gita, would have quoted instead: "He who can withstand the impulse of lust and anger even here [in this life], before he is separated from the body, is steadfast and truly a happy man."

If any philosophy is being expounded here it appears to be that of Aristotle's golden mean—the avoidance of excess, the advisability of moderation, the wisdom of restraint, temperance, and control. Whenever these rules are flouted, grief results.

Even changing the rules can cause a dangerous imbalance. Mahesh Kapoor, as revenue minister, is largely responsible for the Zamindari Abolition Bill that proposes to dispossess such landlords as Firoz's father, the nawab of Baitar, of their land. Many landlords, less noble and generous than the old nawab, act quickly to remove tenant farmers from their lands before the bill can turn them into virtual owners. Maan's Urdu teacher Rasheed who passionately hates the old feudal system and longs to bring about reform in his ancestral village, sees the risk to the peasant Kaccheru on his father's property. He marches into the village patwari's office to insist that the family land holdings be changed in favor of Kaccheru who has worked so loyally for his family through the years. For this he is punished severely: his family denounces him for his meddling zeal, he is unable to help a single person in the slumberous, mosquito-ridden village, and he loses his mind and commits suicide (a scene so distasteful to the author that it is the shortest in the book).

These dangerous and fraught involvements actually take up the lesser amount of space: more is given to the light-hearted and the pleasurable in which Seth is clearly more in his element. Some of the set pieces are on the grand scale, rendered either in the detailed informative manner of official reports, for example, the Pul Mela (the gigantic fair held on the banks of the Ganga)—

The roads on the Pul Mela sands were packed with people…. Men, women and children, old and young, dark and fair, rich and poor, brahmins and outcastes. Tamils and Kashmiris, saffron-clad sadhus and naked nagas, all jostled together….

—or in more lurid descriptive prose as in the raising of the Shiva-linga, the phallic symbol of the god Shiva, from the riverbed and its inadvertent descent:

It kept rolling on, down, down, swifter and swifter towards the Ganga, crushing the pujari who now stood in its downward path with arms upraised, smashing into the burning pyres of the cremation ghat, and sinking into the water of the Ganga at last, down its submerged stone steps, and onto its muddy bed.

The Shiva-linga rested on the bed of the Ganga once more, the turbid waters passing over it, its bloodstains slowly washed away….

—a description which resembles nothing so much as one of those grim steel engravings of the Mutiny of 1857 that expressed the British colonial nightmare.

Fortunately there are the lesser activities, at once so busy and so leisurely in the distinctively Indian way, that occupy the four families—a boat ride on the river at dawn, feeding monkeys with fruit under a banyan tree, a courtesan's recital of Urdu love poetry, a tea party at which three matrons discuss their grandchildren, the making of mango pickles and the dangers of allowing young daughters too much freedom ("'You see, it is like this,' said Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor gently, 'please look after your daughter, because someone saw her walking with a boy on the bank of the Ganga near the dhobi-ghat yesterday morning'"), a discussion with a gardener over a matter of sloping lawns and pond herons, and a good many eminently civilized games of cricket played on dusty university fields by handsome young men showing off with bat and ball while demure wives sit in the sun with their knitting.

With the glee of an anthropologist let loose among Pacific islanders, Seth describes for us all the festivals of the Indian calendar year, from the colorful spring festival when characters stagger through the canna lilies in a happy haze of bhang—on that day not merely permitted but prescribed—and then are dunked in tubs of pink water, through Rakhi when brothers and sisters swear loyalty to each other by the tying of pretty wrist bands and gifts of sweets and money; Janamashtmi to celebrate the birth of the baby Krishna; Bakr-Id celebrated by Muslims by the slaughter of goats and the feasting on their flesh; Karva Chauth at which good wives fast to ensure long lives for their husbands; and winding up with Christmas and New Year's Eve with plum pudding and brandy sauce in the clubs of Calcutta, that haven for boxwallahs left over from the heyday of the East India Company. (Inexplicably, the greatest festival of the Hindu year, Diwali, is left out.) So ardently are these celebrated by one set of citizens or the other that when the Hindu festival of Ramlila, commemorating Rama and Sita's triumphant return to their kingdom after fourteen years of wrongful exile, occurs on the same day as the Muslims are conducting the Mohurrum procession of the funerary tazias of the Prophet's murdered nephews, Hasan and Hosain, through the city toward the mosque, a slight delay on the part of one leads to what police and politicians had dreaded—a bloody clash accompanied by knives, fires, riots, and deaths. Even when Hindus are celebrating the Pul Mela by themselves, with processions of sadhus taking turns at bathing in the holy waters of the Ganga they manage to contrive a colossal tragedy.

For the most part, however, the celebrations are affectionate and enjoyable as family life is. If there are bad experiences, few are so bad that they cannot be put right by a basket of ripe mangoes, or a timely song. When shadows loom, Seth steps forward to drive them away with a flap of his hands; if the schoolboy Tapan has been traumatized by the cruelties of his schoolfellows in the British-style public school Jheel (Seth himself studied in one called Doon), a rescue is quickly devised by his resourceful brothers and no lingering effects such an experience might have had on the boy are shown us. There is only one truly nasty character in the whole book—Uncle Sahgal, who plods quietly down the corridor to his daughter's bedroom at night and then tries to slip into Lata's—but he is seen as a figure in a nightmare: daylight drives him into oblivion and no more is made of his sinister vice.

When Mr. Sahgal, her uncle from Lucknow, approached them with a repellent smile, she held Haresh's hand tightly…. Lata had closed her eyes. He looked at her face, at the lipstick on her lips, with a slight sneer, before moving away.

It is the last we see of him and the wedding celebrations go on apace.

Critics have remarked on the remarkable absence of Freud from the book, which is written as if Freud's theories had never filtered down into the bazaars of Brahmpur, and, in fact, the vast majority of Indians have never heard of them and feel they do not need to—everything has surely already been portrayed in the Mahabharata, the Ramayana

If Seth displays an old-fashioned regard for the "normal," and an unpoetic one for anti-romanticism, so does he show himself an admirer of another old-fashioned virtue: work. He is surely redressing a common lapse on the part of novelists when he ascribes more space to his characters' trades and professions than he does to their looks, dress, or love lives, and thereby accords them an unexpected dignity. He transforms Lata's most humble suitor, Haresh Khanna, something of an upstart in his flashy silk shirts and two-tone shoes that so distress her, into a kind of hero, for he is devoted to his work in the far-from-sweet-smelling shoe trade. So that we may know exactly how Haresh rises from rung to rung of it, Seth takes us on a tour from the fetid open-air tanneries, where low-caste chamars stand in pits soaking the flayed skins, to the Czech empire of Prahapore (closely resembling the ubiquitous Bata Shoe Company and Batanagar). So intense is his involvement with his profession that on the morning after his wedding, he proposes to visit the local shoe factory: he is obtuse enough to invite his bride to accompany him. She demurs. On the train carrying them to their new home in Prahapore, he is so exhausted that he falls asleep, leaving her to entertain herself by feeding the monkeys at the railway station with a somewhat pensive air.

Not a romance in the Western sense, or even the Eastern. To which hemisphere then, and to what era, does Seth belong? By virtue of his age and nationality, to a generation of Indian writers born after Independence and now in their forties, who have attracted attention abroad and even made the reading and writing of novels a respectable pursuit in India. Yet he has little in common with them in any literary sense: he writes as if Salman Rushdie had never written Midnight's Children or The Satanic Verses, firmly turning his back upon the unconfined imagination and dangerous fantasy. He does not have Amitav Ghosh's taste for fine shadings and subtleties, or for the historical satire marked out by Shashi Tharoor and Alan Sealy as their territory. Seth has refused to either equal or outdo his contemporaries. He is quoted in interviews as having said that he wished to strip fiction of ideas and style, suggesting these only get in the way of a reader's enjoyment.

Yet it is impossible for a writer of either prose or poetry to disregard an essential element of style: language, especially troubling to an Indian writing in a non-Indian language, English. Novelists of an earlier generation—Raja Rao, R. K. Narayan, and Mulk Raj Anand—found their own individual solutions to the problem, but that did not obviate the need for experimentation on the part of the younger generation. Seth, with his cheerful disregard for anything that proposes to be "a problem," has decided to throw together all their experiments and all their solutions: some of his characters are fluent users of the English idiom ("How fearfully dowdy!" and "A bit of a bounder, I'd say"), some in a more laborious schoolroom English ("Your superstitious mother will start panicking if they miss the correct configuration of stars"), and others in the casual multilingualism common to urban Indians ("So you're his sala," "I'll be kutti with you," "You can't be kutti with your uncle"). There are also passages in the babu English in which British satirists used to delight, at its most hilarious in a meeting of the Brahmpur Literary Society at which a Dr. Makhijani reads an interminable patriotic poem:

        Let me recall history of heroes proud,
        Mother-milk fed their breasts, who did not bow.
        Fought they fiercely, carrying worlds of weight,
        Establishing firm foundation of Indian state.

At times Seth helps clarify matters by telling us, "His conversation with his father had been in Hindi, hers with her mother in English." At other times he leaves us to draw our own conclusions: for example, the courtesan's dialogue with her admirers is so courtly, allusive, and elaborate, it can only be in Urdu, e.g., "Sit down and illumine our gathering." Seth provides no glossary for non-Hindi-speaking readers, counting upon the energy of his prose to help them over any hurdles of speech, and in this his instinct seems to have been right, for the text moves at an unencumbered pace, leaving his readers amazed at their ability to read some 1,400 pages so easily, and awed, of course, by Seth's having written them with seemingly equal ease.

Awe, too, is what Seth's labor inspires in the reader. At the end it is as if one had listened to a raag played by a musician with skill, dexterity, and charm. It may seem ungrateful, then, to wish there had also been moments of silence, of stillness, in the midst of such a buzz of words and actions, when one might have heard the great resounding boum emerge from the heart of the cave, the dark heart of even the most ordinary man or woman.

Robert Towers (review date 1 June 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1737

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 the Sanskrit marriage rites. It is true that her new son-in-law, Pran Kapoor, is darker than she would like and not in the best of health, but he is "a good, decent, cultured khatri boy" of 30. The term "khatri," as the reader will soon deduce, applies to the high caste to which both the Mehras and the Kapoors belong. The warmhearted, superstitious and excitable Mrs. Rupa Mehra can now focus her attention on her younger daughter, Lata. But the virginal Lata is dismayed at the thought of the nuptial night her sister must undergo and blurts out to her mother that she doesn't think she ever wants to get married. Mr. Seth continues:

Mrs. Rupa Mehra was too wearied by the wedding, too exhausted by emotion, too softened by Sanskrit, too cumbered with congratulations, too overwrought, in short, to do anything but stare at Lata for 10 seconds. What on earth had got into the girl? What was good enough for her mother and her mother's mother and her mother's mother's mother should be good enough for her. Lata, though, had always been a difficult one, with a strange will of her own, quiet but unpredictable…. But Mrs. Rupa Mehra too had a will, and she was determined to have her own way, even if she was under no illusions as to Lata's pliability.

This passage, which illustrates the conventionality of the novel's language and sentiment, sets into motion what will become the reader's main concern: will Lata submit to Mrs. Rupa Mehra's arrangements, or will she exercise that spirit of her own even if it means defying not only her mother but also the prohibitions of caste and religion? Three candidates eventually present themselves. One of them, a handsome cricket-playing fellow named Kabir, strongly attracts Lata, but he is a Muslim and therefore out of the question as far as her mother is concerned. Then there is Amit Chatterji, a poet and a member of a Calcutta Brahmin family related by marriage to the Mehras. And finally there is Haresh, a brisk young man determined to make a career for himself in the shoe-manufacturing industry.

But the marrying off of Lata provides only the main plot line, which often drops from sight for 50 pages at a time while Mr. Seth pursues one of his numerous, almost equally important subplots. These involve the Congress Party politician Mahesh Kapoor, who is the father of Pran and of another son, the indolent and troubled Maan; the Nawab Sahib of Baitar, an aristocratic Muslim zamindar, or landowner, and his son Firoz Khan, whose estates are likely to be expropriated under the Zamindari Abolition Act, sponsored by the Nawab's old friend Mahesh Kapoor; and the rich but somewhat feckless Chatterjis, one of whom, the selfish and adulterous Meenakshi, is married to Lata's snobbish older brother Arun. (Genealogical tables for each of these families are provided as a reader's aid in the front and back of the book.)

To me, the most moving of the subplots concerns the infatuation of Maan with an imperious Muslim singer-courtesan and his drunken stabbing of his dear friend (and, by implication, onetime lover) Firoz Khan, whose life he earlier saved during a Hindu-Muslim riot; here the suspense hangs on the question of whether Maan will have to stand trial (and a possible life sentence) for the almost fatal stabbing.

The above barely begins to suggest the multitude of characters and events that throng A Suitable Boy. Although Mr. Seth takes what might be called an avuncular interest in his characters, he seems more passionately concerned to offer his Western readers as thick—and as multilayered—a slice of Indian life in the 1950's as this huge novel can hold. The setting moves back and forth between the cities of Brahmpur (which is fictional) and Calcutta, with excursions to New Delhi, Kanpur and Lucknow and to a remote country village where Maan spends a month in exile. Each major setting is elaborately documented in terms of its social and demographic components, with the domestic routines of the various families lovingly recounted.

In Calcutta, where both the spirit and the customs of the recent British Raj still prevail some three or four years after independence, we join the frivolous Chatterjis at dinner in their Ballygunge mansion, go to cocktail parties given by British executives and to races at the Tollygunge Club.

In the city of Brahmpur, a state capital on the banks of the Ganges, we attend meetings of the legislative assembly and hearings in the high court, visit the university, listen to technically described performances of Indian classical music, venture into foul-smelling slums where the low-caste leatherworkers scrape the fat from rotting hides, follow the election campaign of Mahesh Kapoor, participate in the Hindu festivals of Holi and Ramlila and the Muslim celebration of Muharram.

It is the religious festivals that provide Mr. Seth with the occasion for his most striking displays of narrative energy. During the Pul Mela festival, as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims converge on Brahmpur to bathe in the Ganges at the time of the full moon, the pressure of the crowd trying to descend a ramp to the river produces a catastrophe:

Some people at the edges of the ramp tried to slip through the bamboo barricades and scramble down to the ditches on either side. But last night's storm had made these steep slopes slippery, and the ditches themselves were filled with water. About a hundred beggars were sheltering by the side of one of the ditches. Many of them were cripples, some were blind. The injured pilgrims, gasping for breath and clawing for a foothold on the slope, now came tumbling onto them. Some of the beggars were crushed to death, and some tried to flee into the water, which soon turned to a bloodied slush as more of those who were trapped on the ramp sought this, their only route of escape, and fell or slid onto the screaming people below.

Within 15 minutes more than a thousand people are dead.

Though many pages of A Suitable Boy are devoted to religious rites, processions, myths and beliefs, Mr. Seth's own attitude toward these phenomena seems determinedly secular—as if one of his aims is to demystify India, to counteract the Western notion of wonder-working holy men and gurus of profound spirituality. The swamis and their devotees in the novel are presented in mildly comic terms. "It is rare," he writes,

for religious feeling to be entirely transcendent, and Hindus as much as anyone else, perhaps more so, are eager for terrestrial, not merely post-terrestrial, blessings. We want specific results … whether to insure the birth of a son or to find a suitable match for a daughter. We go to a temple to be blessed by our chosen deity before a journey, and have our account books sanctified by Kali or Saraswati.

What Mr. Seth does not play down is the tragic interweaving of religion and politics, the ancient rivalry between Hindu and Muslim, the undying suspicion and resentment that can be blown into flame at any moment by unscrupulous office-seekers or bigoted religious leaders. In this respect, as in so many others, Vikram Seth's re-creation of the India of 1950 provides an accurate preview of the India of today.

Is this vast novel, which confidently aspires to the panoramic sweep of 19th-century fiction, an important work of literary art? A Suitable Boy is a Book-of-the-Month Club selection; it has received extensive prepublication publicity and has, in England at least, inspired comparisons to War and Peace and Middlemarch. Such claims are hyperbolic, to say the least. Mr. Seth's novel contains no Natashas or Pierres, no Dorothea Brookes or Lydgates. In his drive toward inclusiveness, he has sacrificed intensity. He does not stick with any one character long enough—even the most promising or interestingly troubled—or probe deeply enough to achieve the kind of impassioned empathy that renders a character unforgettable. Though he refers several times to Jane Austen's novels and seems to have modeled Mrs. Rupa Mehra to a considerable degree on Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, he settles for a genial, soft-edged treatment of this often foolish and intrusive woman and thus deprives her of the comic absurdity with which Austen endows her matchmaking mamma.

Similarly, Lata is a pleasant ingenue whose love for the unsuitable Kabir is made to seem hardly more profound than a schoolgirl's crush; she is no Lizzie Bennet. The other characters are conventionally conceived, well drawn and sufficiently interesting in their social and familial roles; none, I predict, will continue to haunt our memories. Despite a number of vigorously written scenes, the narrative as a whole is diffuse, often overwhelmed by long (and sometimes tedious) passages devoted to the processes involved in shoe manufacture or to verbatim campaign speeches or debates in the legislative assembly. In the end, A Suitable Boy succeeds less as a novel than as a richly detailed documentary focused upon a crucial era in the history of an endlessly fascinating country.

Richard Jenkyns (review date 14 June 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2843

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 recall to English children—and I suspect to middle-class Indian children too—the adventures of Rupert Bear. Mrs. Rupa Mehra, the heroine's voluble and sentimental mother, cuts out the verses in greetings cards, and finds the emotions stirred in her by the birth of her granddaughter summed up in a more than usually emetic poem by Wilhelmina Stitch ("'A Lady Baby came to-day—' / What words are quite so nice to say …"). Her family, which includes a lecturer in English at the local university and a student in the same department, adopts these verses as a running joke.

In perhaps the best scene in the book—certainly in its most amusing scene—the heroine, Lata, and her boyfriend attend a meeting of the Brahmpur Literary Society (next week: Professor Mishra on "Eliot: Whither?"), where Mr. Nowrojee reads his formally exact triolets and Dr. Makhijani his "Hymn to Mother India," babu English mated with the muse of William McGonagall:

       Let me recall history of heroes proud,
       Mother-milk fed their breasts, who did not bow.
       Fought they fiercely, carrying worlds of weight,
       Establishing firm foundations of Indian state.

Lata is advised by a friend to read P. G. Wodehouse when her love life is going wrong. Jane Austen is a recurrent name in the book: Lata sits in a train reading Emma and looking out at the burning plains of north India; Seth quotes several sentences. One of her suitors is Amit Chatterji, poet and novelist, whose sister remarks, "Jane Austen is the only woman in his life."

Not only English literature but also British values are an ever present background. Mothers looking for suitable matches for their children are concerned to find good spoken English and a light complexion: Haresh Khanna, one of Lata's suitors, has the advantage of having studied in England, the disadvantage of having gone to a Midlands technical college, unlike Amit Chatterji, who was at Cambridge. But he scores off the pushy anglophile Arun Mehra, whose knowing chat about London shops and theaters turns out to be entirely secondhand.

In some senses, then, this is a postcolonial novel. It is set at the start of the 1950s and mainly follows the lives of four connected families over a period of two years. There is no single story line and no central character, but a loose framework is provided by Mrs. Mehra's search for a suitable boy to marry Lata—hence the book's rather weak title. It is free, however, of the covert nationalism that is often hidden in the postcolonial novel.

The best of the postcolonial novelists—perhaps the best novelist of our time—was Patrick White. He is commonly seen as hostile to modern Australia, but his scorn is really nationalism frustrated: he is angry with his country for being prosperous, contented and suburban, when it should be grand and tragic. Salman Rushdie is not so different; in Midnight's Children he is cross because India ought to have the attributes of a world power but does not, and in Shame he is furious with Pakistan for not being India. The novels set in V. S. Naipaul's native Trinidad are straightforwardly colonial, yet he too, in a more muted way, has perhaps a streak of Indian nationalism, to judge from India: A Wounded Civilization, which castigates a country that, judged by reasonable standards, has done pretty well in appallingly difficult conditions. Seth, by contrast, has no ax to grind about India, no thesis to argue: he simply lays the life of his characters expansively before us. That, in itself, is fine. The question is whether he has anything much to say.

Is A Suitable Boy meant to be the Great Indian Novel? It is certainly a publishing phenomenon. Though there are some scenes of mass violence and death, it is mostly an uneventful narrative of the ordinary lives of middle-class people, and it is 1,350 pages long. Yet publishers have been falling over themselves to buy it. A huge amount of money seems to be riding on this book: the galleys sent to reviewers boast of the "100,000-Copy First Printing," "12-City National Author Tour" and "Extraordinary Three-Dimensional Single-Copy Counter Display." "Destined to become a monumental best seller … an international publishing event": we have become used to films that the motion-picture industry decrees shall be colossal box-office successes (the public, in a curious way, seems to have no say), and now it is happening to a novel.

It is true that very large books tend to get favorable reviews, for several reasons. Contrary to what writers believe, reviewers are quite softhearted people; faced with the prospect of rubbishing the result of many years' labor, they long to be in a kindlier line of business, like seal-culling or the white slave trade. More cynically, one may suspect that many reviewers will skip a lot of a very long book, and it is dangerous to condemn what you have not read. But there is also a subtler temptation: to suppose that a huge book can only be spoken of, whether for praise or blame, in superlatives. Amit Chatterji, the poet who has turned to writing a historical novel about India more than 1,000 pages long (no prizes for guessing who he is based on), remarks that he hates long books:

The better, the worse. If they're bad, they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they're good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals and making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch.

This, offering no middle ground, seems like a bid for our approbation: since A Suitable Boy is not obviously a bad book, it must be a marvel. What we do not expect, with something so massive, is to speak in neutral, colorless terms: pleasant, mostly unpretentious, some pale charm, some gentle humor, readable but a bit flat and dull. But such, I think, is the judgment that we should return on this book. It is certainly a surprising thing to come from the bravura performer of The Golden Gate.

"A story as big as India, as intimate as the heart"—thus the publicity, describing precisely what the book is not. For it is lacking in both largeness and in le petit fait signicatif, which Stendhal thought to be the essence of the novel. In an effort to be epic, Seth includes four violent scenes: a communal riot resulting in death; a religious festival that goes wrong, causing a thousand deaths; a communal riot bringing many deaths; a religious event that goes wrong, causing death (one notices a certain lack of invention). These episodes are poorly narrated, but in any case they are stuck on inorganically: in between, life trickles quietly on.

Since the novel is essentially a domestic saga, these misjudgments are comparatively unimportant. Much more damaging is the lack of intimacy. The problem is partly that almost all the characters, unlike the "extraordinary counter display," are two-dimensional, the chief exception being the small businessman Haresh Khanna, one of the suitors, a well-observed mixture of awkwardness, passion, dullness and persistence. Lata never comes alive at all. Other people describe her mostly, we note, in negatives: "unaffected," "intelligent without arrogance" and "attractive without vanity." Fifty pages from the end she rejects one suitor because "his moods veer and oscillate as wildly as mine"; we have seen no sign of this alleged temperament.

Seth seems unable to realize inner experience. Perhaps the most intimate moment in the whole novel comes near the beginning, when Lata and a boyfriend go up river to see the Barsaat Mahal (not described, but presumably we are to imagine a Taj Mahal transferred from the banks of the Jumna to the banks of the Ganges):

"Now sit and watch for five minutes," said the boatman. "This is a sight you will never forget in your lives."

Indeed it was, and neither of them was to forget it. The Barsaat Mahal, site of statesmanship and intrigue, love and dissolute enjoyment, glory and slow decay, was transfigured into something of abstract and final beauty. Above its sheer river-wall it rose, its reflection in the water almost perfect, almost unrippled. They were in a stretch of the river where even the sounds of the old town were dim. For a few minutes they said nothing at all.

That is not badly written (except for the helpless sentence, "Indeed it was, and neither of them was to forget it"). But it is not very well written, either. The Barsaat Mahal is not realized; we have to take its beauty on trust. And anyway, what a cop-out to wheel on this tourist-poster backdrop as a substitute for the exploration of the interior life.

That is meant to be a particularly charged passage. Much more of A Suitable Boy is like this:

At the stroke of ten, from behind the dull scarlet hangings to the right of Courtroom Number One of the High Court of Judicature at Brahmpur, the five white-turbaned red-liveried gold-braided ushers of the judges emerged. Everyone rose to his feet. The ushers stood behind the tall-backed chairs of their respective judges and, at a nod from the Chief Justice's usher—who looked even more magnificent than the others owing to the insignia of crossed maces across his chest—pulled them back to give the judges room.

All eyes in the packed courtroom had followed the ushers as they moved toward the bench in what was almost a procession. Normal cases required a single judge or a bench of two, and cases of great importance and complexity might be assigned to three judges. But five judges implied a case of exceptional moment, and here were the heralds of the five in all their resplendent regalia.

Again, that is not positively bad writing, but it lacks any positive quality. It just rambles on inertly, with what Austen called "too many particulars of right hand and left." Sometimes the proliferation of pointless detail becomes absurd. Consider this, about a character who will appear for only a page or two:

He had on an open shirt and fawn trousers. His coat was hanging across his chair. He was a well-proportioned man, about 5 feet 9 inches in height, and extremely soft-spoken. He was unsmiling and unbending and hard as nails…. His eyes were penetrating.

The book is like a soap opera, or to take a more literary comparison, like a Victorian serial novel, in that it often seems to go on simply because there is time or space to be filled. A mother has a baby; the delivery is painful; then the mother is happy. So what? And when invention runs out, there are doublet episodes. Lata is threatened with sexual abuse, but escapes; the youngest Chatterji is threatened with sexual abuse, but is rescued. Maan Kapoor gets drunk and misbehaves in a way that threatens his elder brother's career; his father turns him out of the house. Varun Mehra gets drunk and threatens his elder brother's career; his brother turns him out of the house. Sometimes Seth seems to be inspired by the schoolteaching technique of Waugh's Paul Pennyfeather: "There will be a prize of half a crown for the longest essay, irrespective of any possible merit."

The publicity material describes A Suitable Boy as "passionate and teeming," and compares the author to Dickens, Tolstoy, Austen and George Eliot. Actually, Seth seems somewhat distrustful of passion: readers can compare the decisions of Lata and of the heroine of The Golden Gate about their marriages (it would be unkind to potential readers to say more). "Teeming" gives us two clichés in a single word—one about India, another about long novels. If Seth is trying to teem, he fails; but perhaps it is fairest to judge the book as an epic of domestic life. This is no War and Peace, not least because Seth does not adequately fit together his story's public and private dimensions. Thanks to translations, we may have the subconscious impression that the great Russians all wrote the same decent, colorless prose; that, alas, is A Suitable Boy's nearest resemblance to Tolstoy. It lacks not only Dickens's genius but also his energy and his comic gusto (there is a clumsy chapter in which an old retainer is pushed onto the stage to mangle the English language in a series of comic malapropisms). Nor is this the Indian Middlemarch: Seth lacks not only George Eliot's psychological penetration but her sense that life is a matter of moral choices. Surprisingly, moral drama is absent from A Suitable Boy—or almost. True, the politician Mahesh Kappor decides to leave the Congress Party. Then he decides to rejoin. It is impossible to care.

The comparison with Austen is the one that Seth himself seems most to court. Indeed, the opening of the book, with a garrulous, silly mother looking for husbands for her daughters, the elder docile and beautiful, the younger more lively: Does this not recall the start of Pride and Prejudice? But within a page Austen has moved from the famous generalization of her first sentence into the heart of the Bennets' lifeless marriage, with a funny but terrible picture of a clever man, tied to a foolish woman, consoling himself by making jokes at her expense that he knows she is not smart enough to understand. Few writers, to be sure, could match that.

A Suitable Boy is a rather likable book, beneficent toward almost all its characters. We are constantly being told how high-minded, kindly or popular so- and-so is. This occasionally pooterish amiability extends to the smallest walk-on parts: "'Would you take down a letter, Miss Christie?' he said to his secretary, an exceptionally discreet and cheerful young Anglo-Indian woman"—and one who will barely last a paragraph. In a similar spirit of benevolence, Seth seems unwilling to hurt his characters, and this is ultimately debilitating to the novel: if you prick his people, they do not bleed.

Thus Pran Kapoor's standing with his boss is wrecked by his brother, but he expresses no anger. Lata is removed to Calcutta by her mother to get her away from her unsuitable Muslim boyfriend, but she continues to behave toward her with the same unruffled amiability. Mahesh Kapoor the politician is pushing through a bill to expropriate the lands of his old friend the Nawab, but the Nawab does not let this mar the friendship. Eventually the book lurches, unexpectedly, into novelettish melodrama, and two of the characters are very nearly murdered by a third; but despite their grave injuries they cheerfully forgive their almost-killer. One does not feel that this shows their nobility. They suffer no pain because there is nothing inside them except stuffing.

Near the end of the book Lata chooses between her three suitors. I had thought that I would be indifferent to the decision, but this was not so; her best friend's distressed belief that she has married the wrong man raises a genuine issue. The book ends, as it began, with a wedding; the close is mildly touching, mildly amusing—it goes against the grain to speak of so vast a novel in such unemphatic terms, but it seems right. A Suitable Boy is, of course, preposterously too long, but the publishers were probably right on commercial grounds not to cut it, for there is nothing prodigious about it except its length. Were it 600 pages shorter, it would be obvious for what it is: a decent, unremarkable, second-rate novel. As it is, after 1,300 pages the feeling still persists that it is a little thin.

Ben Downing (review date 1993)

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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 Reagan (or the odious metaphor that frames it) made you wince, The Golden Gate is not your book. Yet I would add, in limited defense of Seth, that the kind of crass collision exemplified by this rhyme is what The Golden Gate is largely about. Set in San Francisco circa 1980, it is a yuppie epic at once celebrating and satirizing the city's cultural pretensions. Enraptured lovers, who meet through a singles ad, "In phrase both fulsome and condign / Sing praise of California wine." Liz works as an attorney, John in Silicon Valley where he "kneels bareheaded and unshod / Before the Chip, a jealous God." Other characters spend weekends pickling olives or haunting cafés through which strains of Bach are eternally wafting. Homer's sea suffers a change into a lawyer's "wine-dark suit." Cats are given chardonnay to drink, pet iguanas quiche to nibble on.

All this might be funnier if it weren't so dated. Seven years after its publication, The Golden Gate already seems like a mildly amusing artifact of that excessive time when (in its own words) "the syndrome of possessions" reached epidemic proportions, and when AIDS had yet to cast the darkest portion of its shadow over San Francisco. Seth's sonnets are best suited to light subjects and mock-heroic catalogues, as in this blithe romp through contemporary materialism:

       John looks about him with enjoyment.
       What a man needs, he thinks, is health;
       Well-paid, congenial employment;
       A house; a modicum of wealth;
       Some sunlight; coffee and the papers;
       Artichoke hearts adorned with capers;
       A Burberry trench coat; a Peugeot;
       And in the evening, some Rameau
       Or Couperin; a home-cooked dinner,
       A Stilton, and a little port;
       And so to duvet …

Or here, where the responses John receives to his singles ad amount to a compendium of Bay Area perversities:

       Yes, why describe the louche lubricious
       Dreams of a Daly City Dame,
       The half-enticing, subtly vicious
       Burblings of Belle from Burlingame,
       And then from Eve of San Francisco,
       "Six novel ways of using Crisco,"
       Or the Tigress of Tiburon
       Who waits to pounce on hapless John.

These passages are pleasing in the clever way they comically enact the velocity, skittishness, and empty plenitude of urban America. But when Seth turns his attention to weightier matters, the results can be disastrous. In his long diatribe against nuclear weapons, Seth's sophistication on the subject rarely rises above the level of an average shrill rock 'n' roll band. Quoting these lines, I am truly embarrassed for him:

       It takes a great deal of moral clarity
       To see that it is right to blitz
       Each Russian family to bits
       Because their leader's muscularity
       —Quite like our own—on foreign soil
       Threatens our vanity, or 'our' oil.

Thankfully, such patches of wretched writing are relatively scarce, as are the obvious instances where Seth scrambles clumsily to complete a rhyme—"Sulawesi" laboring to chime with "crazy," or "et al." forced under the yoke with "Senegal." Given the book's length and formal constraints, a certain number of glaring surface imperfections are nearly inevitable, perhaps even forgivable. In fact, Seth is to be partially commended for his overall fluency; the sonnets slide in and out of each other with scarcely a hitch.

Ironically, it is just this fluency that most damages The Golden Gate. The scathing review received by one of the book's characters, a sculptor, seems to mirror Seth's own fear of critical persecution:

                  … the languid tedium
       Of lines too fluid to show pains
       Reflect this artist's dated chains:
       Derivative, diluted passion,
       A facile versatility …

For smoothness has been achieved only at great expense. In order to accommodate novelistic sweep, the poetry has been stripped of its focused intensities; very few individual sonnets could stand on their own foundations. Equally, the fiction has been severely simplified and reduced to fit into the sonnets's fourteen-line containers.

The plot, by the way, is really too innocuous to warrant much discussion. Suffice it to say that couples couple, uncouple, and then recouple in curious combinations; spirits, like the seasons, rise and fall; with two deaths and a birth in the final pages, tragic and uplifting elements mingle mawkishly. More interesting than the story itself is the fact that Seth chooses to parcel it out into such small packages. I suspect at least a few of his reasons for doing so are mimetic in nature. The use of sonnets says something about contemporary San Francisco: that many of the city's residents would like to think of their lives as the experiential equivalents of sonnets, as classically trim little epiphanies marching happily—ABAB—toward the well-heeled, tidy closure of GG. "Life's a sonnet!" might be the motto for yet another of those bumperstickers of which Californians are inordinately fond. Naturally, the characters' desire for shapely order is constantly crossed and frustrated in The Golden Gate by the world's inescapable vicissitudes (break-ups, death, bad reviews) and this tug of fantasy against reality is effectively heightened by the use of sonnets: Form remains stable while content veers toward entropy.

Yet despite Seth's ambition, The Golden Gate is neither good poetry nor good fiction. In attempting to bridge two genres, it falls between them. Instead of buttressing and enabling each other, the verse tends to hobble the narrative, the narrative to compromise the verse. The genres, in Seth's hands at least, are like an arranged marriage: not deeply compatible. One is nearly always conscious of the story straining against its poetic leash. In turn, the poetry is given free reign only during brief lyric interludes (encomia for landscape, an invocation of the city's patron saint) before being retethered to the plot. Like the game of Scrabble played in Chapter 8, The Golden Gate is limited by rules of its own devising. It moves deftly enough about its board; unfortunately, that board is a small one.

Further Reading

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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 Golden Gate: The First Indian Novel in Verse." In The New Indian Novel in English: A Study of the 1980s, edited by Viney Kirpal, pp. 91-100. New Delhi: Allied Publishers Limited, 1990.

Discusses character, style, and theme in The Golden Gate. Gupta asserts that the work is not great poetry but is a delightful evocation of life in San Francisco.

King, Bruce. "Postmodernism and Neo-formalist Poetry: Seth, Steele, and Strong Measures." The Southern Review 23, No. 1 (Winter 1987): 224-31.

Compares The Golden Gate to Timothy Steele's Sapphics against Anger, and Other Poems, noting the place of both works in modern poetry.

Koenig, Rhoda. "Whoa, Boy." New York 26, No. 20 (17 May 1993): 84-5.

Negative review of A Suitable Boy. Koenig argues that the novel lacks depth, insight, and drama.

Mehta, Nina. "A Saga of Four Families in India." The Christian Science Monitor 85, No. 162 (19 July 1993): 13.

Remarks on Seth's depiction of 1950s India in A Suitable Boy.

Mungo, Raymond. "Modern Love in Rhythm and Rhyme." The New York Times Book Review (11 May 1986): 11.

Favorably reviews The Golden Gate. Mungo writes the essay entirely in rhyme.


Woodward, Richard B. "Vikram Seth's Big Book." New York Times Magazine (2 May 1993): 32-6.

Essay based on a conversation with Seth in which the author discusses the ways in which A Suitable Boy mirrors his life.


Vikram Seth World Literature Analysis