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Vikram Seth admits to literary obsession

Vikram Seth's witty conversation is peppered with anecdotes as playful as his prose.
Speaking of the construction of poems, the author Vikram Seth says: 'It's a strange constraint that is placed on oneself until it ceases to be a constraint.'
Speaking of the construction of poems, the author Vikram Seth says: 'It's a strange constraint that is placed on oneself until it ceases to be a constraint.'

It is no coincidence that "Seth", when pronounced correctly, rhymes with the word "great".

Seth has indeed produced many great books over the course of his career, and greatness is also a theme within his work in various ways: characters are compelled to assess the greatness of the relationships in their lives. His first book, From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983), charted his epic journey overland, from China to India. His work is also ambitious in its great scope and form - A Suitable Boy stretches to 1,349 pages and is one of the longest single-volume novels in the English language.

We meet on a gorgeous sunny day in Kerala, India, where Seth is appearing at the Hay Festival Kerala. His conversation captivates - he is relaxed, witty, peppering his sentences with anecdotes as playful as his prose. He touches on a huge range of literary and biographical references.

"Obsession is absolutely the right word", says Seth, when I suggest what it is that drives him as a creative person. Obsession is at the heart of his creative life, which encompasses many forms: as well as writing prose, Seth is a great listener of music, has composed a libretto and is a talented painter, as well as having written a delightful children's book, Beastly Tales. He began writing poetry at the tender age of three years old, and this cradle passion became central to his life. Born in Calcutta in 1952, Seth's mother was the first female judge on the Delhi high court, and his father an executive in a shoe company. He moved to England at the age of 17 to live with his great aunt and uncle in North London. "I was very glad that I went there, at that time. I was a very, very introverted, painfully shy person", he says. "It enriched my life and breadth of thought".

His peripatetic streak was to continue throughout his life and literature in the years to come. "It was really when I went to California that I found it was possible to be relaxed. I think it was the sunniness". The Golden Gate wonderfully evokes the landscape of California, and the trials and tribulations of the young protagonist, John, trying to find his footing in the great city. Seth describes how he enjoyed the energy of the place and people - an energy which permeates his prose.

When his first novel was published, Kushwant Singh declared Seth "a new star in the literary firmament", saying that the book "outshines in brilliance anything that I have seen in half-a-century of star-spotting".

Seth achieved international stardom with the publication of A Suitable Boy, which won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize. He is now writing the book's sequel, to be called A Suitable Girl, and engagingly discusses the complexities of re-visiting his characters. Unlike those authors who periodically re-read their work, Seth has not returned to A Suitable Boy. As to how to approach the task of weaving in the past 60 years of social and economic change in India, he says that this might not be done directly but more obliquely. Soon, his hand is covered with ink, as he jokingly composes a few lines of the forthcoming book on his palm.

An incredibly versatile writer, he has also written Two Lives, an intimate biographical account of the extraordinary lives of his great aunt and uncle and their love during one of history's most turbulent times. His aunt, a German Jew, came to England as a refugee and eventually married his uncle Shanti Seth.

"Part of what I write about is her trying to find out what happened after the war", he explains. Seth discovered a trunk of correspondences from the 1940s in a loft in Hendon and the transcription of these forms the emotional heart of the narrative.

He has a broad range of international literary as well as biographical influences, but admits that "without Pushkin, I never would have written any novels. Initially, I always write a sonnet in the Pushkin form at the beginning of each book".

His poetry is almost musical, and music is indeed at the heart of his life, as described in the author's note to An Equal Music. "I suppose if I was given a choice of having to do without books and music", he muses, "I'm quite clear in my mind what I couldn't do without." He gains pleasure from listening to many different kinds of music, from Bollywood to Schubert to north Indian classical music. "In An Equal Music, the whole book is written in the first person and there's also the underlying question of those who can't hear music at all. These things interplay."

He speaks fascinatingly on the differences between forms: with poetry you look into your own heart and feelings; with novels you have to understand other people.

His poetry, too, shows great empathy, such as the incredibly powerful and haunting poem, Soon, which he contributed to the anthology Aids Sutra, in which he imaginatively put himself in the mind of someone with Aids. "There are so many people who are orphaned as a result of their parents dying of Aids", he explains.

It is a spine-tingling experience to hear him read poems that have not yet been published, the subject matter ranging from dark to light, sometimes within the same poem. Prayer for My Novel is four lines long and brilliantly evokes the sense of creative birth behind a literary work. His great skill is evident in his technical range, from the villanelle to a poem of one-syllable words, his mathematical precision harnessing complex emotions.

One memorable poem infused with a mood of ennui revolves around the repetition of "I simply can't get out of bed / My joints are rusted, my brain is lead", its speaker needing to "press that re-set button in my head".

Indeed, Seth's poems make us feel as if a button inside our heads has been pressed. Speaking of the construction of poems, he says: "It's a strange constraint that is placed on oneself until it ceases to be a constraint."

Seth retains a sense of wonder for the mysteries of poetry. "The more you try to examine the process, the less helpful to you as a poet it is," he says, about the dangers of analysing one's own work. I wonder if Seth could describe his search for a suitable form, to which to marry his subject matter? "The question [of form and content] is not a chicken and egg question, it is a knife and fork question. Philip Larkin said the inspiration and form come together and that's what happens. I would say poetry, in a sense, is a miracle. It is capable of accepting many different rules."

To read and listen to Seth breaking and making those rules in his own unique way is a suitable delight.

Updated: January 9, 2011 04:00 AM