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Vikram Seth, Writing About 'Two Lives'


The generation that lived through World War II is filled with lives swept up in the turbulent winds of history. Two such lives are the subject of a new book by Vikram Seth, the acclaimed novelist whose books include, "An Equal Music" and "Golden Gate." Seth's new book is part memoir, part biography and part history. It's called "Two Lives." Tom Vitale has our report.

TOM VITALE reporting:

Vikram Seth was 17 years old when he left India in 1969 to live with his mother's uncle and aunt in London while he studied at Oxford. The couple, Shanti and Henny, had settled into a middle-class life of gardening and bridge parties, but Seth writes that even the most ordinary-seeming life can yield a rich and complex story.

Mr. VIKRAM SETH: Behind every door on every ordinary street, in every hut, in every ordinary village on this middling planet of a trivial star, such riches are to be found.

VITALE: Seth's great-uncle and aunt were an unlikely couple. Shanti was a short, dark-skinned Hindu born in colonial India and educated in Nazi Germany where he studied dental surgery. When the Nazis made it difficult for him to work, he emigrated to England.

As a student in Berlin, Shanti lived with the family of Henny Caro, the woman he later married. Henny was a tall, fair-skinned German Jew who escaped to London just before the war. Her mother and sister were less fortunate. They died in concentration camps.

Seth says he began his memoir 11 years ago at his own mother's suggestion when he complained that he had nothing to write about.

Mr. SETH: My mother said, `Stop making a fuss. Why don't you interview Shanti Yentl(ph). A lot of family lore will die when he dies, and besides, it'll give him something to do.' So at first it began rather as a chore rather than as something born of deep-seated inspiration or even of family duty. But now, as I started interviewing him I became more fascinated.

VITALE: Seth was fascinated by the personal perspective that his uncle's story provided on historic events. For instance, the description of the prolonged and bloody Battle of Monte Casino in Italy, where Shanti was stationed as a dental surgeon in the British army when a German shell blew his right arm off.

Mr. SETH: (Reading) `It was the first time he had seen sustained warfare at close hand. He learnt when a major attack was to take place by noticing when the hygiene department, which had to estimate how many men were going to die, began to dig trenches in the rocky soil as a provisional resting place for bodies before burial later, possibly much later, in a cemetery. The presence of clergymen was also a good indicator of when battle was about to begin.'

VITALE: Seth says when he started the book he knew even less about his great-aunt Henny, who never spoke, even to her husband, about what the Nazis did to her family. But then the author discovered a cobweb-covered trunk in the attic filled with copies of Henny's letters written before she married Shanti. In July 1948, after learning about the death of her mother and sister, she wrote to her former employer in Berlin.

Mr. SETH: (Reading) `It is true that all of us have to die one day, whether we are rich or poor and irrespect of religion or port. And as a poet puts it in beautiful words, "Scepter and crown must stumble down and in the dust be equal made with the poor scythe and spade." But to die of an unnatural and beastly death, as has been the case with them, I can find no solace and peace. You can understand that I hate each and every German who has been connected with the Nazi ideology.'

Ms. MARJORIE KEHE (Critic, Christian Science Monitor): What it looks like to me is really the literary equivalent of those Russian nested dolls, where you keep thinking you've got the last doll, and you open and find yet one more tiny one inside.

VITALE: Marjorie Kehe reviewed "Two Lives" for the Christian Science Monitor.

Ms. KEHE: You begin the book thinking, `Well, this is the story of his aunt and uncle and their two lives and how they became a couple.' And then you read further and inside that you find, `Oh, really, this now looks like the story of Henny and the sufferings that she and her family went through and the sort of conscience-wringing that her friends went through in Germany.' Through this series of letters you're given this sort of unique perspective on the Holocaust. And then you get further beyond that and you find, `Oh, no, there's actually another story in here: the story of how Henny and Shanti managed to put that behind them.'

VITALE: Vikram Seth has written about members of his family before in his novel, "A Suitable Boy." But he says he knew that the facts of this story, sometimes stranger than fiction, would have a greater impact as non-fiction.

Mr. SETH: For instance, take Shanti Yentl being told to retreat from the front one day before his arm was blown off and saying, `Oh, no, I'll hang on for an extra day because my friends want to throw a party for me and nothing's happened to me for a month. There's nothing going to happen to me tomorrow.' And that is the day that, you know, the terrible thing took place. Or, for instance, the discovery of the trunk. Now this is the stuff of sort of romantic novels. You know, cobweb-covered trunks are not discovered in attics unless you're writing some sort of Gothic novel. But, indeed, that was what happened.

VITALE: Critic Marjorie Kehe says Seth's 500-page memoir is like a series of long, rambling family visits.

Ms. KEHE: It plods at times and it doesn't allow you the luxury of knowing what each character is thinking at all times. In fact, there are major gaps. And yet, for me, that reflects real-life relationships. This is how it is, even with the people that we come to know the best in our lives. Often later, perhaps when it's too late to ask them, we realize there were enormous things we never knew about them, and yet we knew them very well.

VITALE: Vikram Seth says he was often frustrated by the gaps in Shanti and Henny's story that he couldn't fill in, but he says it was better to paint part of a picture than nothing at all.

Mr. SETH: One can, eventually, only see through a glass darkly. But I hope that the love, and also I would say the courage, of people who struggled under, I would say, insupportable losses, rather it's your country and your family, in the case of Henny, or that it's your limb and your vocation and probably your future, in the case of Shanti--these were typical atypical people or ordinary extraordinary people.

VITALE: Vikram Seth says the value of his memoir also lies in the history of Shanti and Henny's times which spanned the 20th century. Shanti died in 1998. Henny died nine years earlier. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

ELLIOTT: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Vitale