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Two Lives by Vikram Seth

Two Lives (2005)

by Vikram Seth

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Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
Two lives is a hefty volume consisting of a dual-biography of Vikram Seth's great-Uncle and great-Aunt. As a young man, the author came to live with his great-Uncle and great-Aunt as he moved from India to live with them in England, where he went to school. While their lives are perhaps interesting to the author, they are not necessarily interesting to readers.

Reading 500 pages about people who are only remotely related to Vikram Seth is quite a struggle, especially if one wonders why one would read a book like that. Althought the book does tell the reader something about the young Vikram Seth, that would barely be enough motivation to read a tome like this.

The distance in the relationship shows equally in the way the authors deals with the material. The first biography is distanced, and confusing as the story jumps across history and places, alternately referring to the great-Uncle using different names, such as Uncle Shanti and the Shanti-Uncle, Shanti, etc. While Shanti B. Seth led an interesting life, there are no doubt countless other anonymous people who have lived equally or even more interesting lives.

The second live describes the biography of Seth's great-Aunt, Henny Gerda Caro. Much time is invested into describing the horrible fate of the great-Aunt's German Jewish family, most of whose family members perished during the holocaust. Here, the author's descriptions of their fate are so incredibly horrendous and hard that they can barely be seen as being written by a family member. Here he describes the death of his great-Aunt's sister, Lola:

Lola's naked body, groteskly contorted, possibly broken-boned, her face blue and unrecognisable and bleeding from mouth and nose, her legs streaked with shit and blood, would, after a hosing-down, have been dragged out of the room, possibly with a noose and grappling-hook, to a large lift that would have taken her together with the man others up to the ground floor of the building. Here, in the furnace room, a trolley would have moved her body along to continue the procedure. Any gold teeth she might have had would have been broken out of her mouth with pliers, and she would have been tipped out of the trolley into one of the fifteen cast-iron ovens. She would have been disposed of in about twenty minutes, her own residual fat helping to sustain the heat of the oven, thus saving fuel.

The description of the holocaust and how it affected the family of his aunt takes up the largest part of the book. Clearly, the author must have been filled with a fascination or horror to write this part of family history out of his system.

Obviously, while some writers write about what they think their readers or publishers might like, Vikram Seth is known for his idiosyncratic choice to write about what fascinates him, breaking any taboo or convention, to pursue what interests him. This is the prerogative of the author. ( )
  edwinbcn | Dec 7, 2014 |
Another by one of my favourite authors, and this one spans a large amount of time and space, so right up my alley. It's a bit like a partial memoir, starting by tracing Vikram Seth's move to the UK as a teenager, and then his first few years, then the focus shifts to first his Uncle and then his Aunt, both of whom have very interesting stories, involving the second world war, Nazism and the Holocaust. It includes lots of letters, and traces the relationships his Aunt and various friends in detail, giving an intimate portrayal of what life was like at that time. Although I knew the facts and the history, this story gave me a view into the personal side of it all. A warning: I was starting to lose interest during the part about Vikram, and thought about abandoning the book, but it was well worth it in the end. It is very detailed, sometimes perhaps too much (especially towards the end), but I think it's well worth the effort). I've always thought that Vikram Seth, in all his books, has a talent for writing kindly and sympathetically about people. Even people who you might dislike if you met them, somehow seem to come off well under his pen. I can't wait for A Suitable Girl! ( )
  kmstock | Jul 7, 2013 |
This is an interesting idea: writing biographies of relatives is normally the province of self-published amateurs rather than well-known novelists, unless of course the relatives happen to be distinguished figures themselves. It's maybe considered as being a bit below the dignity of a serious literary figure; fortunately, Seth seems to be a "try anything once" sort of writer, who's not afraid of stirring up a little family dust.

Seth here has a go at applying his novelist's insight to untangling the various threads in his personal relationship with, and understanding of, his great uncle and great aunt. In the process, he brings out some interesting ideas about the ways extended families and groups of friends ("Wahlverwandschaften") work, the way we relate to people of different generations in different stages of our lives, and how little we sometimes know about the significant events in the lives of people we are close to. This works very well, and I found a lot in this aspect of the book that I could identify with.

The book works rather less well when you read it as conventional biography. The non-chronological structure is sometimes confusing or requires a lot of repetition for us to keep track of the sequence of events, particularly in the section that is based on Henny's surviving letters from the 1940s; there are big chunks of historical background material that will be redundant for almost all readers; there are some areas of his subjects' lives that we would gladly know less about (their health problems in old age, for instance), and others that Seth seems strangely uninterested in, like Henny's working life.

A little disappointing, perhaps, but definitely worth reading. ( )
1 vote thorold | Jan 8, 2013 |
Two Lives: A Memoir is the first Vikram Seth book I've read (I seem to be making a habit of introducing myself to authors who primarily write fiction by reading their non-fiction work; the only Barbara Kingsolver book I've read is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and On Writing is the only Stephen King book in the house, although I haven't read that one yet.) I found the title of the book slightly misleading – while the book is certainly about Seth's uncle Shanti and aunt Henny, it's also very much about his relationship with them.

The book is divided into five independent parts, each approaching different facet of the story. It starts off with the young Vikram Seth arriving to live with his aunt and uncle while he attends school in England, and his perceptions of them. Then, we learn about Shanti's life, then Henny's, then their life together. I was expecting the book to be more narrative than it was; a large portion of it quotes various interviews and letters. Much of the narration that accompanies the quotes seems more like annotation or clarification of context. At first, I found this annoying, but I got used to it.

The story of Shanti and Henny is certainly makes fascinating reading. Shanti is a Hindu from India who studies dentistry in Germany, and Henny is the daughter of the Jewish family he boards with while doing so. However, their love story blossoms in England. Both of them are remarkable people in their own right – Shanti is a much-loved practising dentist, even though he lost one of his arms in World War II. Henny's story is quite tragic; her mother and sister do not make it out of Germany, and she has to face many truths about her family and friends after the war is over. I think her correspondences were the most interesting part of the book – we got an intimate look at how she coped with a tragedy of the magnitude of the Holocaust. She always remained incredibly dignified and restrained, though.

At times, I found myself wishing that the book was a little more focused. It seemed like Seth structured the book around trying to present every bit of information that he had (especially about Henny), rather than build a cohesive narrative. At other times, I appreciated the tangents and extra details about the couple's family and friends.

I also had mixed feelings about the author talking about his own feelings at various points in the book. On the one hand, they made it feel more intimate – he is in fact, writing about the aunt and uncle that he loves and respects, so it's nice to see that come through. On the other hand, some of the things he said seemed superfluous and distracting; for instance, he talks about the different areas of the world and technologies that Germany has had an impact on (including some thoughts on the future.)

Originally posted on my blog. ( )
  kgodey | Jan 2, 2012 |
Vikram Seth never writes the same book twice. I don't know what's next, but it would not surprise me too terribly much if it were a brilliant 200-page coloring book about a family of flamingos. (It would, of course, have a sonnet in the dedication. It's nice to have at least one constant.)

This one is a memoir of his great-uncle Shanti and great-aunt Henny, and it's an excellent memorial to two people he loved. It's generally interesting, often gripping. With that said, the last section in particular might have profited by a ruthless attack with a large set of pruning shears. ( )
  SR510 | Jul 23, 2011 |
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To Shanti Uncle and Aunty Henny
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When I was seventeen I went to live with my great-uncle and great-aunt in England.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060599677, Paperback)

Widely acclaimed as one of the world's greatest living writers, Vikram Seth -- author of the international bestseller A Suitable Boy -- tells the heartrending true story of a friendship, a marriage, and a century. Weaving together the strands of two extraordinary lives -- Shanti Behari Seth, an immigrant from India who came to Berlin to study in the 1930s, and Helga Gerda Caro, the young German Jewish woman he befriended and later married -- Two Lives is both a history of a violent era seen through the eyes of two survivors and an intimate, unforgettable portrait of a complex, abiding love.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:34 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Shanti Behari Seth, brought up in India, was sent by his family in the 1930s to Berlin--though he could not speak a word of German--to study medicine and dentistry. Helga Gerda Caro, known to everyone as "Henny" was also born in 1908, in Berlin, to a Jewish family--cultured, patriotic, and intensely German. When the family decided to take Shanti as a lodger, Henny's first reaction was, "Don't take the black man!" But a friendship flowered, and when Henny fled Germany just one month before war broke out, she was met at Victoria Station by the only person in the country she knew: Shanti. Vikram Seth has woven together their story, which recounts the arrival into this childless couple's lives of their great-nephew from India--the teenage Vikram. The result is a tapestry of India, the Third Reich and the Second World War, Auschwitz and the Holocaust, Israel and Palestine, postwar Germany and 1970s Britain.--From publisher description.… (more)

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