Vikram Seth’s Two Lives

“A narcissism of small differences”

– Sigmund Freud

I’ve never been able to make up my mind about Seth. On the one hand, The Golden Gate remains one of the most stunning books I’ve ever read, and there were passages in An Equal Music that moved me almost to tears. On the other hand, I’ve never really been able to whip up much enthusiasm for his poetry (with the exception of a few notable poems) and I found A Suitable Boy fairly average. So that when someone asks me if I like Seth, I find myself hesitating, wanting to say yes but not quite sure how I really feel.

His latest book, Two Lives, only serves to deepen that ambivalence. If this had been a great book, I could finally have cast off my doubts about Seth; instead, it is a deeply disappointing work, one that I hesitate to criticise only because this is Seth, and I am reluctant to trade betrayal for betrayal.

Two Lives is non-fiction – it is the true story of Seth’s grand-uncle Shanti Seth and his German wife Henny. While the book is ostensibly the story of their lives, the bulk of it is concerned with the period between 1935 and 1950, when the two young people, forced to leave Germany because of Nazi oppression, find their lives shattered by the engines of history – Henny losing her family to the Holocaust, Shanti losing his right arm to a german shell. Using interviews with Shanti and Henny’s old correspondence, Seth skilfully re-imagines their lives in these troubled years, going on to explore the relationship that developed between these two people, both in their own way survivors. This story, which takes up Sections 2,3 and 4 of the book is inserted between the parentheses of Sections 1 and 5, which deal with Seth’s own relationship with these two relatives, and especially with the last years of Shanti Seth.

It must be said that the middle sections at least, make for an interesting read. Seth is a talented writer, a skilled story teller, and in his capable hands the characters of the two main protagonists come vividly alive, taking on a kind of familiarity – as though Henny and Shanti were people we ourselves knew, albeit in different avatars. The third section in particular, with Henny’s recovered correspondence as its key source, offers a fascinating look into a relatively less explored aspect of the Holocaust – the plight of the survivors, who having lost family and homes to the Nazi oppression, must now try to re-establish ties with their old friends (some of whom, they suspect, may have been supportive of the Nazis) and re-invent their own identities. This was easily my favourite section of the book.

Yet even here Seth does not get it quite right. For one thing, he spends, in my opinion, entirely too much time talking about the Holocaust in general. While parts of this are arguably critical if the book is not to seem incomplete – yet there is very little that Seth says that is new or insightful here (or at least so it seemed to me) . That the Holocaust must be remembered if it is not to be relived is a tenet that I entirely support, but there are times when Seth writes as though he were the first writer to even think about describing the horrors of this period, whereas the truth is that there are many, many books that do a far better job (either through fiction or through biographical accounts) of bringing the abominations of the Nazi regime to life (just read Maus for instance).

A second problem in this section is with the source material. While Seth is lucky to have found, after Henny’s death, a whole stack of her correspondence, thus making an account of her life possible, he is clearly handicapped by not being able to interview her or get a more targeted or nuanced understanding of her life. This means that the account that finally emerges feels haphazard and incomplete – and you are left with the sense that Henny ultimately eludes Seth, so that her letters, though certainly contextually relevant, are only peripheral to who she really is.

A third problem is with the fact that Seth seems too close to the material. This means that he often sounds less than objective, heaping praise upon praise on his beloved relatives. Such devotion is touching in a grand-nephew, but suspicious in a researcher. It also means that Seth feels justified in playing a large role in the book, so that in the middle of what is purportedly Shanti and Henny’s story, we have long excursions that deal with Seth himself – his trip to Jerusalem, his sudden aversion to the German language – all of which strike a false note.

Despite these failings, and a more general tendency to ramble on Seth’s part, the middle section manages to hold one’s interest, showing us, through the lives of these two fairly ordinary people, the fate of millions just like them, and the larger political, economic and social context of their time. These sections are by no means brilliant, but as Seth himself puts it, “What is perfect? In a world with so much suffering, isolation and indifference, it is cause for gratitude if something is sufficiently good”. And sufficiently good these sections undoubtably are.

Beyond a point however (somewhere around the beginning of the fifth section) Seth’s book slips from being plain yet elegant to being frankly tedious. Perhaps Seth is trying to mirror the disillusionment he finally felt with his Uncle Shanti in his last years, but if so, he is doing too good a job. The trouble is that by this stage Seth’s novel has become entirely self-obsessed – there are no broader themes to be explored here, instead we are plunged into a protracted nostalgia trip, spiced with liberal doses of increasingly petty family politics. Why did Uncle Shanti become a bitter recluse as the years passed? The answer that Seth provides is cogent and I’m certain will be of considerable interest to the Seth family, but it is entirely presumptuous to think that anyone else shall care. In fact, it is my opinion that this would have been a much better book if Seth had completely erased his own presence from it, and allowed the two lives of the title to speak for themselves, instead of constantly insisting on his own relationship with them.

Bottomline: Two Lives is a mildly pleasant read about two mildly pleasant people leading their mildly pleasant lives in some wildly unpleasant times. It is a book that is almost certainly worth reading, but may not, in fact, be worth finishing. And coming from Seth, who we know is capable of much greater, it is, undoubtably, a let-down.