“I find it difficult to talk about the book. I don't think writers should be expected to be as articulate at speech as they are at writing,” said the charmingly unpolished Vikram Seth at a recent reading for the Vancouver International Writers Festival.
The book he was there to talk about was Two Lives, part memoir, part biography of his great-uncle Shanti and wife Henny.
After the success of his mammoth novel A Suitable Boy (a 1500-page tome affectionately known in his family, he said, as “the fat boy”), Seth found himself unsure what his next project should be. His mother suggested he interview 86-year-old Shanti, whose beloved wife Henny had died a few years previously. “He lacks purpose. And clearly you lack purpose as well,” Seth quoted his mother with a chuckle.
He began to interview his great uncle, who was sent from India to pre-war Germany to train as a dentist. There, he fell in love with his landlord's daughter, who was engaged to someone else at the time, and who was initially disdainful of the “black man” to whom her family was renting a room. Before they were to marry years later, personal and global tragedies intervened. Jewish Henny fled her homeland for England weeks before war was declared, leaving behind a sister and mother she would never see again, victims of Nazi concentration camps. Shanti, who had also emigrated to England, lost his arm while serving in the war – a devastating injury that ended his career temporarily, until a friend encouraged him to practise one-handed dentistry, which he mastered.
Seth relied on his great-uncle's account of his life to provide much of the material for Two Lives, but ran into difficulties when trying to flesh out the other life. Shanti and Henny had not spoken of the loss of her family, or her thoughts on the war – their relationship was not built on confidences, Seth said, but on confidence. His father's discovery of letters in an attic trunk ended up providing the fortuitous second core of the book. Henny had communicated her thoughts and feelings on the war at length with friends back in Germany, and, Seth laughed, was “Germanic enough” to have kept carbon copies of her own half of the correspondences. With Shanti's blessing, he used portions of those poignant letters in Two Lives.
“This was no longer a family chore that had been foisted on me,” Seth said about the discovery of the letters and what they revealed about Henny's life. “It became the book I couldn't not write.”
(Cross posted to Blogcritics)