Seth, Vikram 1952–
Seth, Vikram 1952–
PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced "sate"; born June 20, 1952, in Calcutta, India; son of Premnath (a consultant) and Leila (a judge) Seth. Education: Corpus Christi College, Oxford, B.A. (with honors), 1975, M.A., 1978; Stanford University, M.A., 1977; Nanjing University, China, graduate diploma, 1982.
ADDRESSES: Home—8 Rajaji Marg, New Delhi, India 110 011. Agent—c/o Irene Skolnick Agency, 22 West 23rd St., 5th Floor, New York, NY 10010-5211; c/o Giles Gordon, Curtis Brown, 37 Queensferry St., Edinburgh EH2 4QS.
CAREER: Poet, novelist, and travel writer. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, senior editor, 1985–86.
AWARDS, HONORS: Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, 1983, for From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet; Commonwealth Poetry Prize, Asian Region, 1985, for The Humble Administrator's Garden; Ingram Merrill fellowship, 1985–86; Quality Paperback Book Club New Voice Award and Commonwealth Poetry Prize, both 1986, for The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse; Guggenheim fellowship, 1986–87; W.H. Smith Award, 1994, for A Suitable Boy: A Novel; Commonwealth Writer's Prize, 1994.
Mappings (poems), Writers Workshop (Calcutta, India), 1980.
From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet, illustrated with own photographs, Chatto and Windus (London, England), 1983, Vintage (New York, NY), 1987.
The Humble Administrator's Garden (poems), Carcanet (Manchester, England), 1985.
The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse, Random House (New York, NY), 1986.
All You Who Sleep Tonight: Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.
(Translator) Three Chinese Poets: Translations of Poems by Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu, HarperPerennial (New York, NY), 1992.
A Suitable Boy: A Novel, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1993.
The Poems, 1981–1994, Penguin (New York, NY), 1995.
Arion and the Dolphin, illustrations by Jane Ray, Dutton (New York, NY), 1995.
An Equal Music, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 1999.
SIDELIGHTS: Vikram Seth will "no doubt … be proclaimed the reinventor of narrative verse in America," predicted X.J. Kennedy in a review of The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse for Los Angeles Times Book Review. "I don't know when a versifier has proved better versed in verse-form than Seth," continued the reviewer, declaring that such mastery of poetry "probably hasn't been heard in English since Alexander Pope." Seth's studies in economics and literature, in addition to travel and residency in eastern Asia and west-coast America, have given him ample and uncommon background for his writings, and he has acquired a reputation as a skillful poet who exhibits unique cultural understanding in all of his works.
From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet is Seth's account of his 1981 hitchhiking adventure from Nanjing University in eastern China through Tibet and Nepal to his home in Delhi, India. In what Jonathan Mirsky in New Statesman deemed "the perfect travel book," Seth tells of his episodes of loneliness, illness, and danger as well as the pleasures he took from visiting various civilizations, encountering interesting people along the way. Intermittently, he reflects—with both lament and satire—on the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the annihilation of Tibetan temples, and the treatment of foreigners by the Chinese. Mirsky noted that with his ability to read and speak Chinese, his attention to detail, and his acceptance of cultural differences, Seth is "a wonderful companion," able to manage better than the average tourist. "Very few foreigners have spent the night in Chinese truck parks and country inns," the reviewer added. "Few have had even a meal with a Chinese family…. Seth has, and he notices everything and tells us about it."
Seth conveys more of his cultural diversity through the medium of poetry in The Humble Administrator's Garden. Like his previous book, the collection of poems contains material gleaned from Seth's visits to both Eastern and Western countries. "Given the exotic nature of his background," noted Tom D'Evelyn in Christian Science Monitor, the poet could have gone "toward the specialized feeling and idea, toward myth and cultural arcana, toward anthropology." Instead Seth goes in the other direction, continued the reviewer, choosing "to represent in his poems feeling of the widest applicability." Divided into three sections—on China, India, and California (with occasional references to England)—the book was hailed by Raymond Tong in British Book News as an "impressive" collection in which "a high level is generally maintained throughout."
As with From Heaven Lake, critics liked The Humble Administrator's Garden for the unassuming tone Seth presents in the work. Dick Davis in Listener, for example, found the collection to be "modest, ordered, well-mannered and well-planned, with a trace of deprecatory self-pity." In his review in Times Literary Supplement, Claude Rawson praised Seth's "fastidious probing language," noting that the work includes "small masterpieces of delicate verbal and emotional discipline, observant of pathos, of ironies of behaviour, of the unexpected small exuberances of life." Extolling Seth's talent as a disciplined poet, the critic observed that "Seth focuses on the mundane with unusual clarity," and he added that Seth "is one of the few young poets who has taken the trouble to learn, really learn, the disciplines of meter."
Seth's widest acclaim as a technically solid poet came with The Golden Gate, his 1986 verse novel, which many critics hailed as a tour de force. Containing nearly six hundred sonnets of iambic tetrameter, Seth's long narrative poem is set in present-day San Francisco and concerns the lives of young, urban professionals, or "yuppies." The story introduces John Brown, a twenty-six-year-old computer expert working for a defense contractor, who suddenly comes to the realization that his life is meaningless. He has lunch with his old girlfriend Janet Hayakawa—a sculptor and a drummer in a punk-rock band called Liquid Sheep—after which Janet, unbeknownst to John, submits an advertisement on John's behalf to a lonely hearts column. The action is a catalyst for the presentation of The Golden Gate's other characters: Liz Dorati, an attractive lawyer; Phil Weiss, a divorced single parent, philosopher, and peace demonstrator; and Ed, an advertising executive. In addition to incorporating timely concerns within the novel—such as a long scene at an anti-nuclear demonstration and a dialogue between two homosexual men on sex and celibacy—Seth places his characters in typically modern situations, such as singles bars and wine-making parties. Seth "knows these people inside out," noted Kennedy, and he consequently "conducts us on a psychological safari through five interesting souls."
Deemed "one of the curiosities of the season" by John Gross in New York Times, The Golden Gate struck many critics as unusual in its portrayal of modern yuppies conveyed through narrative verse, a form that is a "throwback to our literary past," Raymond Mungo pointed out in New York Times Book Review. Seth once told CA interviewer Jean W. Ross that he patterned the style of The Golden Gate after Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, a work exhibiting intricately rhymed and metered sonnets. Expecting little, Seth found in reading Eugene Onegin that "I was reading it as I would read a novel. That was something that intrigued me, because the idea of a novel in verse had at first struck me as some curious hybrid, something that would not work. Here was something that did work, and that not only worked, but moved me and amused me and made me want to write something in a similar form set in my time and in a place that I knew." According to Alan Hollinghurst in Times Literary Supplement, the Pushkin stanza is "a form whose inner counterpoint gives it both gravity and levity." Moreover, the reviewer judged the unconventionality of Seth's novel entirely appropriate, declaring, "It is hard to imagine a better vehicle for social verse narrative which aims to be both reflective and lightly comic."
It took Seth years to complete and publish his next novel, A Suitable Boy, described by Michele Field of Publishers Weekly as "the longest single-volume work of English fiction since Samuel Richardson's Clarissa was published in 1747." At a dense 1,349 pages and weighing four pounds, A Suitable Boy is Seth's "magnum opus," according to Robert Worth of Commonweal. Seth completed several other works while A Suitable Boy was in progress: the poetry collections Beastly Tales from Here and There and All You Who Sleep Tonight, and the translation of a collection of Chinese poetry titled Three Chinese Poets: Translations of Poems by Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu.
A Suitable Boy is the story of the arranged marriage of Lata Mehra, an upper-class Indian woman rebelling against the traditional customs imposed upon her by her mother and Indian society at large. The widow Mehra, Lata's mother, is determined to find her daughter a husband of appropriate caste, color, religion, and financial stability—a "suitable boy." However, after attending her older sister's wedding at the beginning of the novel, Lata becomes skeptical of marriage and of the Indian traditions inherent in arranged matrimony. The plot centers on four families—the Mehras, Kapoors, Chatterjis, and Khans—yet Seth reaches beyond the limits of their experiences: "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," Schuyler Ingle remarked in Los Angeles Times Book Review. While the action in A Suitable Boy takes place in the fictional northern city of Brahmpur in the 1950s, not long after India's 1947 independence from England, Seth describes in great detail the political, religious, and cultural shifts gripping postcolonial India in a multitude of subplots.
New Republic reviewer Richard Jenkyns acknowledged the tendency of long books to "be spoken of, whether for praise or blame, in superlatives," which may seem to leave only one conclusion: "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." Vanity Fair's Christopher Hitchens noted, "Those who aren't so keen on Seth's blockbuster say that it's more like [English writer John] Galsworthy than [Russian epic novelist Leo] Tolstoy, a jolly giant of a saga with lots of characters and speaking parts but no darkness or depth and no real consciousness of evil and suffering." Robert Towers, writing in New York Times Book Review, found that "in his drive toward inclusiveness" the author "has sacrificed intensity," and he concluded, "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." London Review of Books contributor John Lanchester found, however, that the author succeeds in his quest for "complete transparency: all his energies are concentrated on making the prose a vehicle for the characters and the action." He further added, "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…. It's a considerable technical feat." In Los Angeles Times Book Review, Ingle noted the many hours required to read a novel of such length but concluded that "A Suitable Boy is a book that pays readers back, and richly, for their nightly effort."
As critics debated the issue of the book's length, some found it a hindrance, and others deemed it appropriate, though unwieldy. According to Jill Rachlin of People, although the author intended A Suitable Boy to be the first novel of a set of five, his first draft was close to two thousand pages. "After cutting it by a third," Rachlin reported, "he tried to divide it into two or three separate books. 'It didn't break in any right point,' he says with a laugh, 'so I was stuck with this monster.'"
In a Newsweek review, Laura Shapiro remarked, "Surprisingly, it makes very easy reading. What you can't do is hold the damn thing." She further observed, "Very few novels demand extraordinary length, and this isn't one of them. But Seth's publishers aren't entirely crazy: there is something strangely appealing about A Suitable Boy." Pico Iyer, writing for Times Literary Supplement, observed, "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…. [I]t is not immediately evident that its some 1,400 pages make it four times better than it would have been at 350." Yet Ingle found the book's length logical: "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."
Arion and the Dolphin, a 1995 children's book based on Seth's libretto for an opera, is a blend of prose and verse that retells an ancient Greek legend: the story of a young musician whose life is saved by a dolphin. Cruel fisher folk imprison Arion and put his dolphin friend on display; the dolphin soon dies. Though the book is meant for children, its message that humans can find love, liberation, and mercy in the natural world may be overpowered for them by the sadness of the dolphin's death. The opera on which the book is based, with music by Alec Roth, was first performed in 1994 in Plymouth, England. A flyer from the Singapore opera, where the work was performed in 1996, notes that the cast totaled two hundred people, the most ambitious production ever undertaken by the company.
Seth's novel, An Equal Music, is a love story between Michael and Julia who are both immersed, by vocation, in the world of Western classical music. It is the story of a resurrected love between the two protagonists who meet by chance years later. Writing for Time, Elizabeth Gleick opined, "An Equal Music is almost unbearably sudsy, a huge disappointment for the legions of A Suitable Boy fans waiting to see what magic Seth could possibly spin next." However, Donna Seaman of Booklist was much more enthusiastic, "Seth has moved from the symphonic scope of his best-selling A Suitable Boy (1993) to a love story set to chamber music…. Replete with feverish drama and elegant characters, staccato dialogue, and sweeping emotions, Seth's irresistible novel is destined to please diverse readers as it artfully bridges the divide between popular and literary fiction."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Agarwalla, Shyam S., Vikram Seth's "A Suitable Boy": Search for an Indian Identity, Prestige Books, 1995.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 43, 1987, Volume 90, 1996.
Contemporary Novelists, St. James Press, (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Third Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI) 1992, pp. 281-285.
Kirpal, Viney, editor, The New Indian Novel in English, Allied Publishers (New Delhi, India), 1990, pp. 91-100.
Parker, Peter, editor, A Reader's Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Oxford University Press, (Oxford, England), 1996.
Riggs, Thomas, editor, Contemporary Poets, St. James Press, (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Serafin, Steven R., editor, Encyclopedia of American Literature, Continuum Publishing, (New York, NY), 1999.
Stringer, Jenny, editor, The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English, Oxford University Press, (Oxford, England), 1996.
ACLALS Bulletin, 1989, Makarand R. Paranjape, "'The Golden Gate' and the Quest for Self-Realization."
American Poetry Revue, November-December, 1986, Marjorie Perloff, "'Homeward Ho!' Silicon Valley Pushkin."
Arkansas Philological Association, fall, 1996, Jay Curlin, "'The World Goes On:' Narrative Structure and the Sonnet in Vikram Seth's 'The Golden Gate.'"
Booklist, March 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of An Equal Music, p. 1261.
Books, summer, 1999, review of An Equal Music, p. 20.
British Book News, November, 1983; September, 1985.
Chicago Tribune, April 20, 1986; February 3, 1988.
Christian Science Monitor, August 21, 1985; June 10, 1999, review of An Equal Music, p. 16.
Commonweal, May 21, 1993, Robert Worth, review of A Suitable Boy, pp. 25-26.
Economist, May 15, 1999, review of An Equal Music, p. 12.
Entertainment Weekly, June 4, 1999, review of An Equal Music, p. 79.
Five Owls, January, 1996, p. 52.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), May 15, 1999, review of An Equal Music, p. D16.
Horn Book Guide, fall, 1995, p. 281.
Island, winter, 1995, J.H. Walker, "Trunks of the Banyan Tree: History, Politics and Fiction."
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1999, review of An Equal Music, p. 404.
Library Journal, April 15, 1999, Shirley N. Quan, review of An Equal Music, p. 146.
Listener, December 5, 1985, Dick Davis, review of The Humble Administrator's Garden.
Literary Criterion, 1986, Rowena Hill, "Vikram Seth's 'The Golden Gate.'"
London Review of Books, April 22, 1993, p. 9; April 29, 1999, review of An Equal Music, p. 15.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 6, 1986; May 23, 1993, pp. 4, 11; May 30, 1999, review of An Equal Music, p. 10.
New Republic, April 21, 1986, John Hollander, review of The Golden Gate, p. 32; June 14, 1993, Richard Jenkyns, review of A Suitable Boy, pp. 41-44; July 12, 1999, Karl Miller, review of An Equal Music, p. 44.
New Statesman, October 7, 1983, Kathy O'Shaughnessy, "From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet," p. 25; May 3, 1999, Tom Holland, review of An Equal Music, p. 58.
Newsweek, April 14, 1986, David Lehman, review of The Golden Gate, p. 74; May 24, 1993, Laura Shapiro, review of A Suitable Boy, p. 62; May 3, 1999, review of An Equal Music, p. 72.
New Yorker, July 14, 1986, Whitney Balliett, review of The Golden Gate, p. 82; June 7, 1999, David Denby, review of An Equal Music, p. 91.
New York Review of Books, July 15, 1999, review of An Equal Music, p. 20.
New York Times, April 14, 1986, John Gross, review of The Golden Gate, p. 18.
New York Times Book Review, May 11, 1986, Raymond Mungo, review of The Golden Gate, p. 11; May 9, 1993, Robert Towers, review of A Suitable Boy, pp. 3, 16; June 13, 1999, review of An Equal Music, p. 34.
Observer (London, England), September 12, 1993, p. 54; March 28, 1999, review of An Equal Music, p. 11; December 30, 2001, audio book review of Beastly Tales from Here and There, p. 14; January 27, 2002, review of The Golden Gate, p. 18; March 31, 2002, audio book review of A Suitable Boy, p. 16.
People, June 30, 1986, Cutler Durkee, review of The Golden Gate, p. 82; May 24, 1993, Jill Rachlin, review of A Suitable Boy, pp. 29-30.
Publishers Weekly, May 10, 1993, Michele Field, review of A Suitable Boy, pp. 46-47; June 26, 1995, review of Arion and the Dolphin, p. 106; April 12, 1999, review of An Equal Music, p. 53.
Rosyjska Ruletka, 1995, Roumiana Deltcheva, review of The Golden Gate.
School Library Journal, July, 1995, Cheri Estes, review of Arion and the Dolphin, p. 74.
Spectator, February 11, 1984; April 10, 1999, review of An Equal Music, p. 30.
Time, May 31, 1999, Elizabeth Gleick, review of An Equal Music, p. 98.
Times Literary Supplement, February 7, 1986; July 4, 1986; September 21-27, 1990, p. 1007; March 19, 1993, p. 20.
Vanity Fair, June, 1993, Christopher Hitchens, review of A Suitable Boy, pp. 36-40.
Wall Street Journal, May 14, 1999, review of An Equal Music, p. W9.
Washington Post, May 17, 1986.
Washington Post Book World, March 23, 1986; July 22, 1990, p. 4; December 2, 1990, p. 9; May 9, 1999, review of An Equal Music, p. 15.
Whole Earth Review, winter, 2001, review of A Suitable Boy, p. 6.
World Literature Today, spring, 1993, John Oliver Perry, review of Beastly Tales from Here and There, pp. 447-448.
Atlantic Unbound, http://www.theatlantic.com/ (June 23,1999), interview with Seth.
Connect Online, http://www.connectmagazine.com/ (November 20, 2003), overview of Seth.
Emory University Web site, http://www.emory.edu/ (June 19,2002), "Vikram Seth."
Four Elephants Web site, http://www.fourelephants.com/ (May 1, 2000), Samantha Brown, review of An Equal Music.
Illinois Institute of Technology Web site, http://www.iit.edu/ (November 20, 2003).
January Online, http://www.januarymagazine.com/ (November 20, 2003), interview with Seth.
Random House Web site, http://www.randomhouse.com/ (May, 2003).
Salon.com, http://archive.salon.com/ (May 13,1999), Akash Kapur, review of An Equal Music.
Seattle Arts and Lectures Web site, http://www.lectures.org/seth.html/ (November 19, 2003), "Vikram Seth."