The first impression one gets while reading "Two Lives," Vikram Seth's extraordinary new memoir about his great-uncle and great-aunt, is that...
by Vikram Seth
HarperCollins, 503 pp., $27.95
The first impression one gets while reading “Two Lives,” Vikram Seth’s extraordinary new memoir about his great-uncle and great-aunt, is that it’s galloping along at an incredible pace.
Young Vikram, at age 17, arrives from India in 1969 to attend boarding school in England, where his Great-Uncle Shanti and Aunty Henny provide him with a London home base. We’re given quick-sketch facts about the couple. “Shanti Uncle” has no right arm but manages, amazingly, to flourish as a dentist. Native Berliner Henny, lone survivor of her German-Jewish family (most of them killed by Hitler), generously helps Vikram learn German in a matter of months to meet a last-minute foreign-language entry requirement for Oxford University.
The author’s memories of the pair are as fond as can be, and they appear to dote on him. When he wants to hitchhike through Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Shanti furiously objects, then capitulates: “Don’t worry about me, darling, I’m just your old Uncle, I’ll soon be gaga.” Henny maintains what she calls her “optimismus” even as Shanti’s health declines. A decade goes by, then another — and within 50 pages, we’ve seen both Henny and Shanti into their graves.
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Suddenly we realize we’ve merely been skating the surface. Now the author of “A Suitable Boy” and “Equal Music” wants to take us deeper into these two lives, drawing on interviews he conducted with Shanti late in his life and an archive of Henny’s letters found in the attic of the London house.
Vikram Seth will read from “Two Lives” at noon Nov. 7 at Seattle’s University Book Store (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com). He will read at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
And take us, he does — to the India of the 1920s where Shanti grew up; to the Berlin of the 1930s where Shanti went to study dentistry and where he first met Henny and her boisterous Jewish/Christian circle of friends; to wartime London where Henny, a late escapee from Hitler’s Germany, finds work and, eventually, a prestigious career with a pharmaceutical firm; to the battlefields of World War II, where Shanti loses his right arm.
We see what it took for the right-handed Shanti to re-master his skills with his left hand and reclaim his profession. We glimpse what it must have been like for Henny to have her mother, sister and friends sequestered in the “separate, incommunicable universe” of Nazi Germany during the war. And at war’s end, we feel the weight of her task as she tries to discover how her mother and sister died and becomes aware of some “troubling” wartime behavior on the part of those close to her.
It is sometimes said that there can’t be much more to reveal about the Holocaust — that we know as much about it as we can usefully know, or could possibly want to know.
“Two Lives” makes nonsense of such beliefs. What Seth has done here is draw multiple paths between now and then, between pre-war and post-war, between visceral personal details and the big historical picture. (In one remarkable chapter, Seth pulls back from Shanti and Henny altogether to deliver a slippery, crystalline analysis of the role Germany played in 20th-century history. )
Relying on Henny’s correspondence with her German connections and on Seth family members’ memories, Seth shows us Shanti and Henny from all angles. In the case of Henny’s wartime experience, questions of personal loyalty, fear and forgiveness are raised. We’re left in no doubt of how hard-earned her “optimismus” was, and how her defenses affected even her later marriage to Shanti, to whom she scarcely confided about her losses. (This may, Seth speculates, have been her only way “to create in her marriage a zone where she could be at peace.”)
Seth lays all this out in a translucent, telling prose that delicately unveils facet after facet of Shanti and Henny, until they stand before us poignantly, yet with humor to them, too. Henny only cried twice in Shanti’s presence, we learn. The first time was after a playful spat during their pre-war years. The second was when her English hosts served the newly arrived refugee Marmite. (For those unfamiliar with the foul English sandwich spread, believe me, it’s worth crying about.)
Seth remains unsentimental in his estimate of whatever romance there was between Henny and Shanti. His father’s feeling was that “it was more a mutual support system than any great love.” But that may have been enough.
“In a world with so much suffering, isolation and indifference,” Seth concludes, “it is cause for gratitude if something is sufficiently good.”
This beautiful, loving, clear-eyed book bears tough testimony to that.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.