The first thing I did when meeting Vikram Seth was check to see if he still had all 10 fingers. If he did, it meant he had honored his vow to keep his new novel under 100,000 words. Since An Equal Music is 381 pages long, he barely made it. Any more, and he had promised to chop off a digit.
Seth is sensitive to questions of length because his previous novel, A Suitable Boy, was celebrated in part only because of its mass. At 1,349 pages, it was endlessly labeled the longest single-volume novel in English -- maybe ever, maybe only since Clarissa in 1747.
Published quietly, A Suitable Boy might have been passed over by most reviewers and readers, but the novel had the good fortune to be preceded by a swirl of enthusiasm and its indistinguishable companion, hype. Undoubtedly many picked it up who otherwise would not have cared about love and marriage among the Indian middle class of the mid-20th century.
In some senses An Equal Music is an even harder sell. First of all, it's a conventional novel from a writer who made his reputation doing the unconventional, not only with A Suitable Boy but most famously with The Golden Gate, a novel composed entirely in rhyming sonnets. But the really problematic part of An Equal Music is its subject: It's about loving and then losing someone but being unable to let go.
Such tales are the foundation for a fair amount of Western literature, but these days we're taught to see such behavior as creepy. If Michael, a violinist, can't give up Julia, a pianist, more than a decade after he foolishly drives her away, that's not love, that's stalking.
Even Seth seemed a little uncertain. "If you're a novelist, you take on the persona of your characters. I've been obsessively in love. But not for 10 years! Michael's much more of a loner than I am."
We were having a fancy hotel breakfast. "How about some champagne?" Seth suggested. I demurred, but he ordered a glass anyway. "It's supposed to be very good for bronchial syndrome," he said, explaining that he was suffering.
All three of Seth's novels are love stories. It's a preoccupation that goes back nearly two decades to his first book, a self-published volume of verse titled Mappings that he took around to bookstores near Stanford, where he was a student, begging them to take copies on consignment. It was the last time he had to struggle for an audience.
"Some of the poems now make me cringe," he says, "but I don't fault the desire to present myself to the world." They're raw emotion, addressed to both men and women: "I'd thought that I was free. Wrong from the start./ I found I loved him entirely instead." The poem ends: "I try to tell/ Myself this sorrow like this ink will dry."
The passage of time has him less inclined to easy answers. An Equal Music searches for a balance between the desperate Michael and the uncertain Julia, who is torn between her old boyfriend and her new life, including a husband she loves: "In the worst days," she says, "when I could hardly recognize myself in the mirror, I saw in his eyes that I was myself. That was enough."
Whatever the current nature of Seth's own romantic life, he doesn't share it with journalists. He notes, however, that "it's absurd to imagine this one person is the only person for you," which is exactly the way Michael feels about Julia. "You know that isn't statistically true -- or that it's at least absurd. There are probably a thousand people floating around who meet the right qualifications for you."
That's his training as an economist speaking. Born in 1952, Seth studied not only at Stanford but at Oxford, picking up two MAs in the process. A chance encounter with the work of the ancient Chinese poet Wang Wei reshaped his brain, so much so that he set out to learn Chinese. He lived in China for two years, ostensibly studying but also translating Wang Wei and eventually writing a travel book about Tibet.
"I'm glad I studied economics, philosophy, politics," he says. Curiously for a novelist who has focused on love, he says these subjects taught him "that life's not just love. Many novelists now write as though the affective passions are everything. But I want to include the world, too."
Despite A Suitable Boy, he is the least Indian of Indian writers. An Equal Music could have just as well have been written by Penelope Fitzgerald, The Golden Gate by Kenneth Koch. "I feel it's me in the book, my sensibility, which is Indian," he says. "But I don't feel it's the job of the author to lay his ethnicity on thick." So where is home? "India, because my library's there."
One last query on romance. Is it possible to live happily ever after? "Well, yes, I know plenty of couples that have." His next book, another departure in form, may be about just such a husband and wife. "It'll be a dual biography of my great aunt and great uncle. So much had gone wrong in their lives -- they were victims of Nazism, socialism, colonialism, all the isms. But this is a personal story." In other words, another examination of his persistent theme.
"It may be that your press is slightly less prurient than ours. Ours actively hates artists, I think at times. The culture is slightly philistine in Britain. I've never been asked a serious question there about the state of my country. When you go to Italy, Germany, Spain, a writer is viewed as someone who spends a lot of time studying the society in which he lives, and therefore might have a useful opinion about it."
So says Julian Barnes. To force the issue, perhaps, he has written a novel about the state of his country. "I said, the millennium is coming up. Let's give the country a birthday present -- an unwelcome one." Although it inexplicably lost the Booker Prize to Ian McEwan's Amsterdam, Barnes's England, England has been getting generally impressive reviews, many of which use that worrisome word "satire."
"That's not what I was after. I was after something that moved between seriousness and farce. The novel's about a falsification and commodification of a country's culture -- how countries, as they become more and more homogenous, distinguish themselves by making a sort of rouged and pancaked image of themselves."
Part of the story involves the creation of a Merrie Olde England theme park that is more attractive than the real thing and ultimately becomes the real thing. Set against this is the affecting story of a woman who works there. The first part is funny, the second moving, but both ultimately sad. Barnes doesn't disagree. "My writerly temperament, I guess."
No matter how grizzled and laureled they may get, few writers forget their first moment of validation -- when not only their soul but the world told them, "Yes, you can do it." The world being what it is, mere publication isn't enough to achieve this. It has to involve the disbursement of money.
In cultures where writing is basically unknown as a professional activity, such rewards are difficult to come by. Describing the society into which he was born and grew up 72 years ago, George Lamming once wrote: "On the one hand a mass of people who were either illiterate, or if not had no connection whatever to literature since they were too poor or tired to read; and on the other hand a colonial middle-class educated, it seemed, for the specific purpose of sneering at anything which grew or was made on native soil."
He was speaking of Barbados but might have easily been talking about Jamaica or Trinidad. On any of the islands, newspapers might publish your poem or story, but they wouldn't pay, so it didn't count. The only official recognition came with a radio program that began shortly after the war. Broadcast by the BBC at half-past seven on Sunday evenings, "Caribbean Voices" was devoted to poems and stories by local writers, accompanied by critical examinations.
The whole thing was an exercise in colonialism; the program was not broadcast in England itself, under the presumably accurate assumption that people in Cornwall and Kent would have no interest. And it left the writers whose work was being dissected, while grateful for the attention, arguing with critics thousands of miles away who couldn't hear them. Yet without "Caribbean Voices" Lamming and compatriots like Sam Selvon might never have been inspired to make their own journeys to London, where the idea of being a writer wasn't entirely a fantasy. "If I had not gone to England, I would have written," Lamming says now, "but you wouldn't have heard of me."
He is best-known for his first novel, the autobiographical In the Castle of My Skin, generally considered one of the top half-dozen works of fiction produced in the region over the last half-century. It has been now been reissued by the University of Michigan Press, along with several other works of fiction and one of nonfiction, the collection The Pleasures of Exile.
It is a title meant ironically. "I am still young by ordinary standards," Lamming wrote when he was 32, "but already I feel I have had it (as a writer) where the British Caribbean is concerned. I have lost my place, or my place has deserted me. This may be the dilemma for the West Indian writer abroad: that he hungers for nourishment from a soil which he (as an ordinary citizen) could not at present endure."
The prophecy was accurate. His last novel appeared more than a quarter-century ago. "I don't miss fiction," he maintains. For a long time he transferred his creative energy into political and social movements, lecturing on, say, the hopes engendered by the Cuban revolution or the evils unleashed by the American invasion of Grenada.
His goals now are more cultural than political. "I don't want to erase the diversity, but to break down the fragmentation that takes place in people's responses to it. When you're Jamaican, you become more aware of your Jamaican roots when you know your organic connection to the region. It doesn't diminish the response, it deepens it."
As a small step toward this, he published a collection of essays that had French translations in the same volume. A new edition adds Spanish as well. More significantly, he has embarked again on a creative work, although it's unclear what the format will be.
"I'm using as a framework a ceremony of the dead, where after seven years the family summons the shadow and there is an interrogation. My trial is of Columbus. The people he met, the people he exploited, those who sent him are all introduced. Columbus is free to explain himself, defend his honor. It's a massive effort. I'm nowhere near done." Luckily, he's hale and fit. "In Barbados," he explains, "I live in a hotel and swim in the sea every day."
CAPTION: Vikram Seth