Born and reared in India, schooled in England and the United States, resident at various times of all three of those countries as well as China, Vikram Seth is a genuinely international man, the personification and embodiment of globalism. He is also an amazingly gifted, accomplished, resourceful and charming writer. Published first as a poet and travel writer, he astonished and delighted readers with his first novel, The Golden Gate (1986), inspired by Pushkin's Eugene Onegin and written, as that classic is, in rhyming verse. His second novel, A Suitable Boy (1993), is a massive, panoramic portrait of India. His third (which I have not read), An Equal Music (1999), is about classical music, in which he has a deep interest.
Now, in Two Lives, Seth turns for the first time to a combination of biography and memoir. The two people in the title are his uncle and aunt, Shanti and Henny, to whom his parents sent him in 1969, when he was 17 years old and about to begin his British schooling at Tonbridge. He was a boarder there but often visited Shanti Uncle and Aunty Henny in their house in London at 18 Queens Road, Hendon. Both were then 60 years old, and he knew them only slightly. In time, though, they were to become two of the most important people in his life.
It was in 1994, five years after his aunt's death and four years before his uncle's, that Seth began to think about making them the subjects of a book. His parents were visiting England, and in the course of a drive to the opera at Plymouth his mother said, "You don't know what exactly to write about next. Why don't you write about him?" At first Seth was "not eager" to "write about someone so close," but the more he thought about it, the more appealing the prospect became. He started interviewing Shanti Uncle, who at 86 was eager to talk about the past. He assumed that Aunty Henny would be only a secondary figure because he could not interview her and there seemed to be no significant documentary trail. Then, a year later, his father discovered a trunk stowed away in the attic at 18 Queens Road; it turned out to contain a "trove" of letters dealing with her life during and after World War II. This permitted him to write a book that really is what its title promises: Two Lives.
Acquiring these papers greatly expanded the reach of Seth's story, for Henny was both German and Jewish. She and Shanti met sometime in 1933. He was studying dentistry in Berlin and looking for a place to live. He found a room with Ella Caro, who lived in a "very large flat with her two daughters," Henny and Lola, and her son, Heinz. A widower in need of money, she had decided to rent out the guest room: "Shanti discovered more than a year later that when Mrs. Caro phoned her younger daughter Henny with the news that they had a lodger, her first reaction had been: 'Nimm den Schwarzen nicht' [Don't take the black man]. This was the beginning of a relationship that was to last five and a half decades."
The two eventually became very friendly, and Shanti was welcomed as a de facto member of the Caro family, but a decade and a half passed before they married. Great and often terrible events intervened. Upon completing (with distinction) his dental studies, Shanti returned to London -- Seth does not understand precisely why he decided not to practice in India -- in 1937, where "his German degrees were not recognized," so he had to start all over again. Finally he qualified and in 1938 "was offered a position as an assistant to a Parsi dentist," who refused to give him a partnership until February 1940, when Shanti volunteered for the Army, at which point it was too late.
By then Henny was also in England. In 1939 she had found sponsorship in England and was able to get a job with the family of a noted scholar, doing housework and caring for his children: "She came with a trunk containing a few clothes, a few books and a few mementoes of the three decades of her life in Germany. Less than five weeks later, war was declared. Ella and Lola, who had been unable to emigrate, remained trapped within the borders of their own hostile country." Shanti met her at the train station and took her to her new residence, but soon he was off to Africa and then to Italy, where, in the calamitous battle at Monte Cassino, he lost his right arm below the elbow when a shell exploded nearby.
The two corresponded irregularly through the war. Shanti's letters grew ever more loving and beseeching, while hers, though hardly chilly, did not return his passion. She had dated a young man named Hans in Berlin and may have held out hopes for him, but after the war she learned that he had gone over to the Nazis. Since she knew by then that her mother had died at Theresienstadt and her sister at Auschwitz, she refused to have anything to do with anyone in her former life who had joined or collaborated with the Nazis, and whatever flame she might have nurtured for Hans quickly was snuffed. She and Shanti got engaged in 1949 and were married in July 1951.
Nearly four decades of married life lay ahead of them. Shanti set up his own practice in the first floor of their house; he had trained himself to work with his left hand and to use his artificial arm for supplementary support. His practice thrived, and Henny did well as a secretary. They went every year to Switzerland, but Henny refused to return to Germany. Shanti went to India by himself on occasion, but Henny never accompanied him. Seth suspects that she was intimidated by his immense extended family, though as a rule she was not one to be intimidated. They had no children of their own, but treated Seth as their own son -- a relationship his parents happily approved -- and were friendly with many other young people.
Seth is scarcely the first to say so, but he is right to note that "no one apart from the two parties concerned understands a marriage and what goes on in it; and often enough, not even they." Shanti and Henny appear to have been happy, but they were not demonstrative; Seth's father thought "it was more a mutual support system than any great love." Henny "was not overly affectionate" and "seemed indifferent to the importance of Indian family ties," yet "she was also protective and tolerant, affectionate, even gentle." Her family was her "Wahlverwandten, or 'chosen relatives,' as she put in a letter to one of her Berlin friends," while Shanti's was "his family of birth with all its subsequent branches." Seth writes:
"Where did Shanti and Henny belong, if not in the world of a family or a circle of friends? Which country did they belong to? Not Germany any more, not India. Nor did they have a refuge in the religions of their birth. Both Hinduism and Judaism are somewhat 'social' religions, in that dogma and belief are less crucial in practice than rites of passage and social relations. But their religion or the comforting society of their co-religionists did not cocoon either Shanti or Henny. Indeed, how could it have, since either cocoon would have excluded the other partner? . . . Shaken about the globe, we live out our fractured lives. Enticed or fleeing, we re-form ourselves, taking on partially the coloration of our new backgrounds. Even our tongues are alienated and rejoined -- a multiplicity that creates richness and confusion. Both Shanti and Henny were in the broader sense exiled; each found in their fellow exile a home."
Handsomely put, and the central point of this thoughtful, evocative, moving book. Admirers of Seth's prose, among whom I certainly count myself, will find much in here that meets their hopes and expectations. I especially like this example, a footnote of sorts to Golden Gate: "Someone had mentioned an analogy that had begun to prey on my mind. Going to California, he had said, was like entering a swimming-pool. It was pleasant, you swam a few laps, and before you knew it, you were fifty years old." They may also feel, as I do, that there is a bit too much of a good thing in the central part of the book, where Seth tells Henny's story and those of her mother and sister. Those papers in the attic may have been a "trove," but Seth makes too much of them. The section is too long by half, with too much quotation from letters that are not as interesting to the reader as they are to Seth. Probably Holocaust stories will never -- should never -- lose their power to shock and move us, but this one would have been told better if it had been told more briefly. *
Jonathan Yardley is the Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for The Washington Post. His e-mail address is email@example.com.