I’ve read two of Vikram Seth’s novels. The first was A Suitable Boy, which is 1500 pages of marvelous, chaotic, vibrant, sprawling postcolonial Indian epic. The second, which I find fewer people have read, I loved even more: An Equal Music, which tells the story of a love affair between two musicians, and also between a musician and the instrument that makes his music. (I have a highly individual, quirky top-ten list of Loveliest Prose Ever; this novel makes it onto the desert island with me.) Seth has also written a novel in verse (!), a travelogue, and several books of poetry, so it doesn’t seem at all odd that he should branch into yet another genre: Two Lives is a memoir, the story of his Indian uncle Shanti, his German aunt Henny, and his own relationship with them.
Seth begins the memoir with the story of how he came to Tonbridge from Calcutta at the age of 17, to go to school. His one point of reference — his home away from home — was Shanti and Henny’s house. It’s in this way that we meet them as a couple: middle-aged, Shanti ensconced in his career as a one-armed dentist, Henny meticulous but loving. The first part of the memoir gives a quick sketch of Seth’s relationship with them from this point to their deaths a few decades later, showing the love and the almost filial relationship between them and giving a surprisingly evocative portrait of all three personalities.
The second part follows Shanti’s life. He was born in India, then went to Germany to train as a dentist. It was there that he met Henny, the daughter of his landlady, though they were not to marry for many years. During the 1930s, when the Nazis came to power, both Shanti as a foreigner and Henny as a Jew were better off leaving the country; Shanti went to England, and eventually enlisted. After the war, he came back to England, shattered in spirit and physically badly wounded. Henny was still there, her friendship as warm as ever, her support invaluable as he began to set up practice as a dentist.
The portion of the memoir that deals with Shanti’s life is based on conversations that Seth had with his uncle. But Henny died before Seth even considered this memoir. How, then, to call this Two Lives and create any kind of balance? The third part of the memoir takes advantage of a treasure trove: a trunk stored in the attic that contained Henny’s correspondence from the war years and the decade after, including carbon copies of her own sent letters. These notes, sent back and forth to friends in Germany, are incredibly revealing and heartbreaking. Seth tells the story of the growing Nazi threat, the deportation and murder of Henny’s mother and sister, and the misery of the years after the war. He talks about Henny’s determination to cut off relationships with friends who collaborated with the Nazis, and her steadfast support of friends who resisted — at least those who were left alive. We see the fate of the former fiance who married a Christian girl instead of Henny and got himself to safety; we indirectly watch the progress of her relationship with Shanti, too. Henny comes alive in these letters, and so do her friends.
The fourth part of the memoir traces Henny and Shanti after they were married at about age forty. Theirs was not a passionate romance:
There was a great deal they did not understand about each other. They were not soulmates. Theirs was a companionship based on mutual confidence rather than on confidences. They believed in each other’s abilities, in each other’s character and in each other’s love. It may not have been a requited passionate romance, but it was a deep and abiding concern. Beset by life, isolated in the world, in each other they found a strong and sheltering harbour.
What is perfect? In a world with so much suffering, isolation and indifference, it is cause for gratitude if something is sufficiently good.
Seth’s tenderness and love for his aunt and uncle come through on every page. This memoir shines with humor, pity, and vitality. While Seth is occasionally carried into political musings that are beyond the scope of his memoir (and are sometimes not factually accurate, and therefore annoying), he is mostly involved in what a novelist does best: showing the extraordinary in the very ordinary.
The blurb from the New York Times on the front cover of my book reads, “A great love story involving two remarkable people.” Well, to my mind, that is exactly what this book is not. Shanti and Henny did not have a great love story. They cared for each other deeply; that’s undeniable. But theirs is no grand passion. And they are unremarkable. Brave, yes. Intelligent, certainly. Willing to make personal sacrifices for those they love. But not heroes. Most of us are unremarkable, and that is how the world is made:
It is also the lessons of history writ little that may be taken to heart — the sense that the acts and decisions of ordinary individuals, trivial or momentous, may lead, sometimes by imperceptible gradations, sometimes by sudden jolts, and not even always in the same direction, towards making the world a humane and reasonably secure home for all its denizens or a riven and uncertain place of grief and injustice, fear, hunger and pain.
The final section of the memoir has to do with the end of Shanti’s life. As he grew older, and his mind began to slip, there is confusion about his will, and Seth finds himself wrangling with his own veneration for this uncle he loved so well. Tenderness and bitterness mingle, and he must come to terms with his uncle’s humanity all over again, at the same time as his mortality.
The writing of this memoir is exquisite. Seth takes two very ordinary lives that touched his own, lives that more or less spanned the 20th century, and sees the perfect human beauty in them. If you like books about the great and the good, this one might not be for you. But if you just like to read about people, I suggest you run out now and read this as soon as you possibly can.