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Two lives by Vikram Seth

Two lives (original 2005; edition 2008)

by Vikram Seth

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922249,486 (3.68)61
Title:Two lives
Authors:Vikram Seth
Info:London : Abacus, 2008.
Collections:Your library
Tags:biography, memoir, Berlin, India, 1930s, 1940s, Holocaust, dentists, North London

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Two Lives by Vikram Seth (2005)

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Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
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. ( )
  Shmuel510 | Jul 23, 2011 |
Two Lives: A Memoir is the story of the two lives of the title, but it is very much more and that is why I enjoyed reading it. First there is the story of Shanti Behari Seth, an immigrant from India who came to Berlin to study in the 1930s, and Helga Gerda Caro, the young German woman who became his wife. Secondly we have the introductory section (Part One) that introduces the author, Vikram Seth and his schooling in England (and later the United States) which precipitated his close relationship with Shanti, his grandfather's brother, and Helga. Thirdly the author leads the reader on a voyage of discovery of the background of Shanti and Helga and in doing so discusses some of the darker events of the twentieth century for they were survivors of that violent era. The combination of memoir, family reminiscence and history makes this a unique memoir. It is a welcome contribution to the literature of this era and the human drama that makes it memorable. ( )
  jwhenderson | Jun 5, 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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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:05:44 -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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