Vikram Seth, Una’s Lecturer

Kristin Hanson
September 26, 2012
Photo of Vikram Seth.

The Townsend Center is pleased to present Vikram Seth as Una’s Lecturer in the Humanitites, 2012-2013.

Many Bay Area readers know Vikram Seth’s portrait of this place from his verse novel The Golden Gate (1986), but inspiration from his encounters here appears even before that, in his first book of poems, Mappings (1981):

A web hung from the avocado tree
The spider rested in the dew and sun
And looked around the grove contentedly
Awaiting visitors; and I was one:
Neither a Californian nor a fly,
And humming to myself in Bhairavi. (“A Morning Walk,” 1-6)

In retrospect like a to-do list for his working life, but more lovely to read, Mappings contains the first green shoots of many of the literary interests Seth has since cultivated and made flower: stories of life in India and England as well as California; depictions of romantic and family love, of displacement and home, and of airports and cats; translations from Hindi, Urdu, Chinese and German; meditations on the fascination and consolation of poetry, music and nature.

Seth was born in 1952 in Calcutta. Shortly thereafter his father was transferred to London for five years; Seth spent some time with his parents there, but stayed mostly in India with his maternal grandmother, who, as he recounts in his memoir Two Lives (2005), insisted he speak only Hindi: “She herself was perfectly bilingual, but had decided I would get more than enough English in England.” He attended boarding school in India, but in 1969 returned to England to live with his Indian great- uncle and his German great-aunt who are the subjects of Two Lives. He enrolled in Corpus Christi College, Oxford to read English, though he abandoned that degree for one in Philosophy, Politics and Economics—which by his own account he also occasionally neglected for new interests in Chinese poetry, the Welsh language, and the flute.

In 1975 Seth came to Stanford to begin a Ph.D. in Economics. He spent 1977-78 as a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing, composing many of the poems that appeared in Mappings. From 1980-82 he sojourned at Nanjing University doing research along the Yangtze River for his Economics degree, but bureaucratic delays left him time to travel and write about the experience in From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983). Finally, back at Stanford, an encounter with Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin enticed him again to neglect his Ph.D., this time fatally, in favor of composing The Golden Gate, a novel about a group of young friends building their lives in the Bay Area in the 1980s. Charming and funny, painful and moving, capturing and taking seriously subtle aspects of local morality, the novel recounts personal ads, Scrabble games, the dispatching of a jealous cat to Psycho- Kitty, love, despair and even a protest march to “Lungless Labs” all in fourteen-line stanzas of elaborately rhymed iambic tetrameter adapted from Pushkin:

They go to work, attend a meeting,
Write an equation, have a beer,
Hail colleagues with a cheerful greeting,
Are conscientious, sane, sincere,
Rational, able, and fastidious.
Through hardened casings no invidious
Tapeworm of doubt, no guilt, no qualm,
Pierces to sabotage their calm.
When something’s technically attractive,
You follow the conception through,
That's all. What if you leave a slew
Of living dead, of radioactive
'Collateral damage’ in its wake?
It's just a job, for heaven’s sake.

Finally committed to his literary vocation, Seth returned to India and spent years researching and writing what became one of the longest and finest prose novels in English, the international best-seller A Suitable Boy (1993). Set in 1950s India, A Suitable Boy recounts a story of the choice of a husband for its heroine Lata, in language ranging from family quarrels and political arguments to ghazals and acrostic poems. During those years Seth also published two more books of lyric poems, The Humble Administrators Garden (1985) and All You Who Sleep Tonight (1990); a book of translations of Tang dynasty poetry, Three Chinese Poets (1992); a delightful collection of animal fables in rhymed couplets, Beastly Tales from Here and There (1992); and a beautiful libretto, Arion and the Dolphin, for an opera with music by Alec Roth commissioned by the English National Opera and produced at the Royal Navy Dockyards. Seth then moved back to England, and amidst the interviews with his great-uncle, which formed the basis for Two Lives, wrote his third novel, An Equal Music. As intense and interior as A Suitable Boy is expansive and wordly, An Equal Music recounts the loves, losses and restorations of a second violinist in a classical string quartet in London, in language which from the outset conceals verse amidst its prose: “The branches are bare tonight, the sky a milky violet. It is not quiet here, but it is peaceful.”

Certainly these successive tours de force of a verse narrative, verse lyrics, a prose narrative, and a long (mostly) prose lyric are formally intriguing, and their rich portrayals of different characters and their different worlds fascinating; but what makes all these works transcendent is Seth’s distinctive combination of lucidity and soul, his completely clear language that takes one beyond language, simultaneously into and beyond the self. Music figures increasingly across them, so it comes as no surprise that Seth’s most recent publication, not yet out in the United States, The Rivered Earth (2011), is a set of four libretti for music again by Alec Roth. The pieces are inspired by Chinese, English and Indian poetry; and, true to the loving portrayals of distinctive places that also figure in Seth’s works, by churches in which they were intended to be performed . One, “Shared Ground,” was inspired particularly by the poetry of George Herbert and by the Old Rectory in Bemerton, Salisbury, which nearly four hundred years ago was Herbert’s home and is now Seth’s home, along with its garden full of English birds.

Asked in an interview by Jake Kerridge of The Telegraph (December 2, 2011) about his admiration for Herbert, Seth quotes Herbert’s “The Flower:” “Who would have thought my shrivelled heart / could have recovered greenness? ....I once more smell the dew and rain, / and relish versing.” It is a lot to ask a writer to leave such a home, so it is with special gratitude that we welcome him to Berkeley this fall.

Kristin Hanson is Associate Professor in the Department of English. She is writing a book on English meter and its relationship to universal properties of linguistic rhythm.

This article can be found in the September/October 2012 newsletter.


2012-2013 Una’s Lecture Events

An Evening in Conversation with Vikram Seth
Monday, October 15, 2012
6:00 pm | Chevron Auditorium, International House

Una’s Lecture Panel Discussion
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
4:00 pm | Maude Fife Room, 315 Wheeler Hall