Poetic License - Vikram Seth
Indian poet and novelist Vikram Seth talks fast, thinks fast and moves fast. His conversation is a machine-gun spray of energy and velocity: one moment he's interrupting his own sentences; the next he's contradicting himself or going back to something he said earlier. It's an infinite play of distraction and digression and diversion .
His third novel is about to go to press, and Seth is in the harried, final push to make last-minute corrections and revisions. That amplifies the pressure in his high-rise, light-filled London flat, which, in the current rush, has the curious feel of an encampment. The occasional mess spills over on a table or chair, but the rooms appear oddly unoccupied. The phone rings incessantly.
On the floor, stargazer lilies, red and pink mums, small white blossoms and purple poppylike blooms overflow the edges of a vase. An elegant handwritten note is attached: "Sorry for the misunderstanding -- Stella."
"I don't know any Stellas, and I don't even have time for a misunderstanding," says Seth (pronounced sate). He runs his hand through his hair in baffled amusement.
I sit down, and the show begins: would I like my chair moved, Seth suggests. Or perhaps another chair altogether? Is the lighting all right? Perhaps I would care for a cup of Chinese tea? No, no, perhaps the chair is best here after all -- meanwhile, did I notice the late-afternoon northern sun, slanting over the London rooftops? (The light is indeed heavy and low, pouring like pale honey over the buildings -- I can see Battersea, the Albert Memorial, and a horizon punctured by church spires and factory smokestacks.) By the time Seth has said all this, he has moved around the room several times -- to the window, to the kitchen -- before I have a chance to ponder fully the first question.
Watching him -- and there is little else I can do -- I begin to grasp how he could write 600 lines of verse a month for The Golden Gate (1986), his astonishing first novel written entirely in sonnets; then move to A Suitable Boy (1993), his 1,349-page Tolstovian prose epic about Indian life in the wake of independence; and now pen a third novel, An Equal Music, about the passions, peregrinations and problems of a London string quartet. Along the way -- amid periodic travel between London and Delhi -- Seth has put out four collections of poetry (Mappings, 1980; The Humble Administrator's Garden, 1985; All You Who Sleep Tonight, 1990; Beastly Tales, 1991), a volume of translations (Three Chinese Poets, 1992), an opera libretto (published as a children's book, Arion and the Dolphin, 1994) and a Tibetan travel book (From Heaven Lake, 1983).
He agreed to this interview before he realized how busy he was going to be. He also consented because of his fond memories of Stanford, the place where, as he puts it, he spent 11 years not getting an economics PhD -- the place where he became a top-selling, highly acclaimed international author instead.
"Vikram has a talent for so many things -- music, poetry, economics. Three or four muses were jealously tugging at him," says poet Timothy Steele, '70, one of Seth's mentors from his Stanford days. As a boy in Calcutta, Seth was trained in the classical Indian musical repertoire, specializing in singing. (He has a deep affinity for Western music as well; he admits he can "belt out" Schubert lieder when the occasion demands.) After taking an undergraduate degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University, Seth went to Stanford aiming for a PhD in economics. But just when you expect him to move forward in one direction, he moves sideways, like a crab.
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