The Seth Variations
SOURCE: The Atlantic, June 23, 1999
A few decades ago English-language writing from the Indian subcontinent was primarily the province of Western journalists and travel writers. Of course there were many fine Indian writers — R. K. Narayan, Nirad Chadhuri, and Khushwant Singh, among others — but they remained largely undiscovered. It took a couple of pioneers, in the form of Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie, to open the floodgates to the Western reading public. In 1981, Rushdie publishedMidnight’s Children, an almost unbearably imaginative, and critically acclaimed, epic of modern India; in 1986, Seth wrote The Golden Gate, an improbably successful novel-in-verse, inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and set in California. Those books showed the Western publishing world that Indian writing could sell. Equally important, they gave confidence to the Indian writers who are making waves today.
Earlier this year, Seth and Rushdie each published a new book. Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet is in many ways a reiteration of his oeuvre: riotously imaginative, characterized by a wordsmith’s touch for metaphor and the double entendre, and obsessed with the city of Bombay. Seth’s, on the other hand, is unlike anything he has written before. An Equal Music is a delicate and poetic story about love and music; highly internalized, this first-person narrative — told from the perspective of the novel’s central character, Michael Holme — represents a clear break from the epic sweep of the author’s last book, A Suitable Boy(1993). In many ways, though, the very originality of An Equal Music is a reiteration of Seth’s earlier work: from the beginning, Seth has defied easy categorization. Since publishing his novel-in-verse, Seth has written a libretto, a travel book, several volumes of poetry, translations of Chinese poetry, and the Tolstoyan A Suitable Boy (at 1300-plus pages, one of the longest novels ever written in English). In addition to varying dramatically in form, the books have been marked by diversity of location. Unlike so many authors of Indian origin, Seth refuses to succumb to the narcissism of place: his books have been set not only in India, but in California, China, and — in this latest book — London, Vienna, and Venice.
Currently Seth lives and writes in London. He spoke recently to Akash Kapur while on book tour in Minnesota. Kapur, a contributing editor at Transition Magazine and a regular contributor to Atlantic Unbound, was in Pondicherry, India.
There’s a melancholic strain running through An Equal Music that I haven’t seen in your work before. I was wondering, if it’s not too personal a question, where that strain came from.
You are right. You can sense that strain from the beginning of the book. It came in the first instance from the character Michael; I visualized Michael looking at the water of the Serpentine, and I could tell that his thoughts were quite dark. I didn’t know what to do with this at first; it was simply an aspect of his personality. Once I realized that I was writing about him in the first person, and had decided to take on his persona, I just had to follow it through.
Of course, to some extent you’ve got to draw on your own experiences for all your fictional characters, and I suppose I drew upon my own experiences of having been in emotional states like Michael’s — even if not exactly to the same degree. Writing about different characters is simply a question of drawing upon different sources in one’s experience.
You were trained as an economist. How did you come to writing?
I guess good luck. I’d always written poetry, but poetry — or, at any rate, writing individual poems — isn’t very time-consuming. You can manage to do that while doing something else full-time. But anything that’s a full-length book requires time. I wrote a book about hitchhiking across Tibet during my second year in China, From Heaven Lake.But as far as my writing fiction is concerned, it came about in a peculiar way, partly as a result of filing economic data on villages into a computer at Stanford. One morning I just couldn’t stand it anymore, and I walked into the Stanford bookstore and picked a few books of poetry off the shelf. One of them happened to be a very good translation of Pushkin’s novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, and I was so astonished by it, and so affected by it, that I decided that rather than continue working on my dissertation I would take time off to write a novel using the same stanza form, but set in California. I didn’t realize then that I would never finish my dissertation; I thought it was a temporary time out.
So you never seriously considered being a full-time writer before that?
Not really, no. I didn’t think there were enough nonfiction works in me, and I had never seriously thought of writing novels. I didn’t really think I had the taste or the stamina for it. The fact that my first novel was a novel in verse gave me a stepping stone into fiction.
I think you’ve said before that you thought of yourself primarily as a poet. Is that still the case?
Well, I’m forced to confess that in terms of the actual number of words I’ve written, I’ve probably written more prose than poetry. But in terms of the books, seven out of my ten books are entirely in verse. And although the remaining three — A Suitable Boy, From Heaven Lake, and this most recent one, An Equal Music — are in prose, I’ve infiltrated quite a lot of verse into them. Of course, I have to consider that I’ve written a lot of prose, but I do in my heart think of myself as being originally, and still primarily, a poet.
The public probably knows you better as a novelist, though. Does that bother you?
No, not really. People very often have a picture of themselves that’s about five years out of date — and not just in terms of their impression of their profession, but also in how they see themselves physically, how they view themselves mentally, and so on. The public might be right in how it sees me. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter whether they’re right or wrong.
So the public’s conception of you doesn’t shape your own self-conception?
No, it doesn’t. If it did, then I’d already have written a sequel to A Suitable Boy, because apparently, based on what my publishers want and the impression I get from the public in my mailbox, a sequel would be the best thing possible. I do hope that the books are not obscure, and that they can be read by a general reader. But dear though the reader might be, I’d be silly to cater to what the reader wanted.
Would you have the energy to write another Suitable Boy? You might never recover from that!
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I hope I would if I was inspired to do so. This time, of course, I wouldn’t be going in with my eyes closed. When I began writing A Suitable Boy, I thought, Well, this could take two or three years and be maybe two- or three-hundred pages long. I never knew what I was letting myself in for. This time, of course, I would know, and I’m not so sure I would be so adventurous.
I’m curious to know who your influences are. Are they as varied as your different forms of writing?
It’s difficult to answer that question. My influences are very general. My reading is also very scattershot. I suppose I have been most inspired by someone whom I haven’t read a single word of in the original — Pushkin — because he wrote in all sorts of different forms. He didn’t succumb to the temptation to repeat himself simply to please a public or a publisher, and at the same time he didn’t mind repeating the same form if he was inspired to. He wrote so wonderfully that even in translation, or at least in certain translations, his vision comes across. I really admire him. And I suppose he gives me the courage to experiment with form. Of course other writers — like Tagore, for instance, or Goethe — have written in very different forms. But Pushkin is very close to my heart because I like his mixture of levity and deep seriousness. He refused to be pompous, and to become a venerable man of letters.
You think it takes courage to experiment with form? A criticism that has been made of your work is that you haven’t found your voice, that you haven’t quite settled down yet.
Yes, sure. But what would critics say — not to take the comparison too literally — about people like Goethe or Pushkin or Tagore? “Well, he hasn’t found his voice, and he should either write poetry or he should write a play”? No, the fact is that at different stages of your life, and under the influence of different inspirations, you write different things. The point is not necessarily to find your voice, which grinds out the same sort of thing again and again, but to find a vehicle for people who are far more important than the author: the characters.
On to a more general topic, which is the subject of Indian writing. The large advance and publicity you received for A Suitable Boy is sometimes credited with having begun the current boom in Indian writing. Do you have any thoughts on why Indian literature is so popular in the West right now?
I think normal human interest makes people look for and explore worlds outside their own, whether in literature or in person. Also, I think Indians are writing with a lot of confidence. English is no longer a colonial language. You and I do not think it at all odd that we’re having this conversation in English. But I don’t think, in terms of quality, that good Indian writing is necessarily a recent phenomenon. There have been others, like R. K. Narayan or Nirad Chadhuri, who have been writing wonderfully in English for a long time. In fact, I can guarantee that their books are likely to last, whereas it isn’t very obvious what one can say about us lot. They are from a completely different generation. The fact that the West’s attention wasn’t really on them at the time says more about the West than about the caliber of what was coming out of India.
Many current Indian writers are pretty cosmopolitan. You, for example, have set your books in California, India, China, and now Europe, and you’ve lived in all those places. Given that many of your colleagues have been similarly peripatetic, how much sense does it actually make to speak of an “Indian” literature?
I don’t know. I think there is something in common — a sort of affinity, a sort of common experience. There’s the fact, for example, that in India you have Islamic culture, Hindu culture, and what is called Judeo-Christian culture, all mixed up. And, of course, not all of us have had the same degree of mobility. On the one hand, you have people like Arundhati Roy, who hasn’t traveled quite as much as some others have; even Narayan never liked traveling abroad all that much. On the other hand, there are characters like Salman Rushdie who have lived abroad since the age of fourteen. And I suppose some people might even include authors like V. S. Naipaul under the general umbrella of Indian writers, so you also have people who have only visited India.
I think that this is a problem more for critics or academics, or perhaps even librarians. You know: “Which shelf shouldThe Golden Gate be put on?” That book didn’t have any Indian characters in it, but it did have a Japanese-American, so I was often taken to task and asked, “If you can have Janet Hayakawa, why not an Indian-American character?” The answer is that I simply didn’t visualize her as being Indian-American. Of course, I got the opposite flak for A Suitable Boy. People asked, “Why are there no foreign characters? At least for your Western readers, you should have injected a few white faces here and there.” The whole thing is pointless. Although my books are set in different countries, I don’t feel that it makes me one of those stereotypical cosmopolitans who have a sort of mixed cultural experience in every book and feel they have to lay their ethnicity on thick. I think that the characters are so much more important than the writer. To be brought up short by the ethnicity of a particular writer throughout each book — that’s not my style.
Rushdie has suggested that Indian writing in English is the strongest body of writing ever to have come out of the subcontinent.
That’s complete nonsense. What is one to say about Ghalib or Mir or Surdas or Kalidas? Or Bengali or Tamil literature? What is one to say about the Ramayana and theMahabharata? It must have been an unguarded moment when Rushdie said that.
He also argued, more forcefully, that Indian writing in English is the best Indian writing since independence.
What is there to say? I disagree, because I think that there are plenty of fine writers in other languages. The only non-English-language writer included in Rushdie’s anthology is Saadat Hasen Manto. He is a very fine short-story writer, but I certainly don’t think he’s the only one. To be fair to Rushdie, I think he says that part of the problem might be the quality of translations. I must say that that’s the only way I can try to understand the point of his remark. You know the trouble with statements like these is that Westerners do believe them. They take them at face value. If Rushdie (or if I, or some of the other better-known Indian authors) make remarks like that, then people in the West really do believe that India has produced nothing except in the past fifty years — and that mainly in English. It’s just not tenable. There’s no particular animus between Salman and myself, but we clearly disagree on this point. I feel it’s so obvious, really, that to put my name to it is a bit absurd. It’s like saying, “No, no, no, the world is actually round.”
You’ve translated Chinese poetry. Have you ever considered translating any of the vernacular works being produced in India?
When writing original stuff you don’t really think too much of translating. I have translated some poems by Nirala and some by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, but nothing much more recent than that. And that was really more for my pleasure than for anything else. Even my book of Chinese translations was not something I would have normally done. I was just suddenly compelled to do it for one or two months late in 1989, and I can’t explain why. It isn’t something I see myself as being: a translator. Although, I must say, some of the greatest inspiration I have ever received has been through translation. Certainly, I would have never been a novelist if it hadn’t been for Charles Johnston’s wonderful translation of Eugene Onegin. But then Pushkin wouldn’t have written Eugene Onegin if he hadn’t read a bad French translation of Byron’s Don Juan. And so on and so forth.
I wonder if the success of Indian writing in English doesn’t stem in large part from its cosmopolitanism. Is there something too localized about Indian vernacular writings; something that might pose cultural rather than linguistic difficulties for translation?
That I don’t agree with. Take a book like A Suitable Boy.There’s so much in it that doesn’t make sense to a Western reader: huge discussions of Indian politics, of the Zamindari Abolition Act, and all sorts of other things that are unexplained. And yet the book was read abroad with some pleasure and comprehension. I read books set in China or Japan, and I think that as long as the writer is not trying deliberately to be obscure, most readers extend a certain tolerance to other literature. I don’t think that this sort of thing poses an insoluble problem.
You said somewhere that while writing An Equal Musicyou resisted reading all Indian writers except for Narayan.
I should have said I couldn’t resist Narayan. That’s my excuse. I didn’t read Indian writers for two reasons. First, because I knew that if the book ever got published I’d be asked about whom I’d read, and I didn’t really want that. But more importantly, I didn’t want to read other Indian authors because if they’d written something very well, then I might feel a bit daunted, or I might feel too influenced. On the other hand, if they wrote something very badly, then I might have been tempted to write about the same thing. Actually, I just wanted to be pushed one way or another by my characters and not by the literary milieu.
What are you working on next? Are you experimenting with any new forms?
I don’t really want to make a big thing about this experimenting with different forms and finding a voice and so on. If I’m compelled to do something, I don’t shy away from it simply because I haven’t tackled it before. But if, for instance, I was inspired tomorrow to write An Unsuitable Boy, I would do it. I don’t mind repeating myself. When I was on a book tour six or seven years ago, I was asked what I was going to write next, and I said, “A play.” Clearly, that wasn’t borne out. So I don’t know what I’m going to write next. Sometimes I think it’ll be a double biography of an aunt and an uncle of mine. Other times I think maybe a children’s book, or another novel. Or maybe just poetry, which is in a sense, as we touched on earlier, the thing that’s closest to my heart.