Reviewed1 by Antony Beevor
- As a student, Vikram Seth lived with an uncle and aunt in London; their remarkable wartime lives, tales of courage and survival, inspired his new book
- Vikram Seth has defied that rule of modern publishing, which demands that an author sticks to a single sort of book. American publishers even say of authors who strike out in new directions that they face “brand disintegration”. Blissfully unaware of such concerns, Seth has progressed from one genre to another. After his travel book (From Heaven Lake) came a novel in verse (The Golden Gate), a libretto (Arion and the Dolphin), an epic family saga (A Suitable Boy), highbrow fiction (An Equal Music), and now this memoir-cum-double biography. The depth of Seth’s research indicates that the impression of effortlessness is misleading. It is simply the gift of a writer who wears his learning with an enchantingly light touch.
- Two Lives begins with an autobiographical section, explaining how he came to know his uncle, Shanti, a small, one-armed Indian dentist living in Hendon, northwest London, and his aunt Henny Caro, a tall and elegant German-Jewish refugee. Seth lived with this improbable couple from 1969 when he came to study in England. He knew little of their lives until after Henny’s sudden death 20 years later.
- In the hands of a lesser writer, the family story would have been little more than interesting. Seth, with his beautifully simple prose, creates a truly unforgettable double portrait. He zooms in on tiny details, then broadens his focus to include Nazi Germany, India and Israel, with all the great events of the 20th century. It is also a meditation on love, courage and friendship, on betrayal through opportunism and moral cowardice, on identity, exile and alienation, on the dehumanisation of racism, and on those acts of spontaneous generosity which are all that is left to maintain faith in humanity.
- Despite its eventual scope, this book began as an act of family piety. After Henny’s death, Seth interviewed his bereft uncle about his life. Shanti Seth arrived in Berlin to study dentistry in the final years of the Weimar Republic. He lodged with the Caro family, a mother, her two daughters Lola and Henny, and a feckless son, Hans. They were Jews who never thought of themselves as anything other than German.
- Shanti joined Henny and Lola’s circle of friends. Most were Christian, some partly Jewish. Only when Hitler came to power in 1933 did the issue of racial origin have an impact on their lives. Henny was sacked from an insurance firm because of the new anti-Jewish regulations. Shanti was probably in love with Henny from the start, but held back because she was engaged to Hans Mahnert, a half-Jew who professed undying love for her, yet was to abandon her and marry a Christian.
- Shanti, unable to find work in Berlin, although fully qualified, moved to England. In 1938 Henny also moved to London. Their friendship became even closer, but on the outbreak of war, Shanti volunteered for the Army Dental Corps. He was posted to North Africa, and then in 1943, served in Italy. During the battle for Monte Cassino, he lost an arm and was repatriated to Britain. Eventually he managed to set up his own dental practice despite his disability. Only then did he ask Henny to marry him.
- Seth’s interviews were suddenly supplemented when a trunk full of letters was found in the attic. He discovered how in May 1943 Henny’s sister, Lola, and their mother were sent east by cattle-truck, the mother to Theresienstadt and Lola to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Although Henny had always feared the worst, she heard about their fate only in May 1946. Henny’s postwar correspondence with the old circle of friends in Berlin soon revealed that not all had behaved well.
- Her brother, who escaped to South America, had plundered the money set aside for their mother and Lola. Hans, her half-Jewish fiancé who married a Christian to save himself, writes trying to justify himself. Her closest girlfriend had profited greatly from collaboration with the Nazi regime and refused to help Jews. She wrote to Henny evading the subject of the Holocaust, and emphasised that she had made “exceptions” to the anti-Semitism through her friendship with the Caro sisters. “Do you count me as one of those ‘bad Germans’?” she demanded.
- Henny found it impossible to forgive the Germans as a nation. “For most of them,” she wrote to one of the true friends, “the war was only a misfortune because they lost it and as a result don’t have anything to eat. That there are now people who wish to dissociate themselves from them, seems incomprehensible to them. I myself have written without mincing my words to a girl who wished to have the question of what I think of her clarified.” Henny’s reply to this former friend was indeed direct: “You demand an honest answer . . . Those people in Germany with whom I remain in contact belong to the category of those who I am 100 per cent convinced worked against the Nazi system, and not those like you, who only made ‘EXCEPTIONS’ of those in our circle.” Henny did not reply to Hans, who sent her another bad love poem and revealed a self-pitying unhappiness in his marriage.
- In recent years, there have been countless memoirs based on family papers, yet few are as moving and illuminating as Two Lives. At times, this rather long book can be heavy-going, but Seth has extracted from his material a wonderful richness of detail and considerable food for thought. I wonder what he will try next.
- Extract from Two Lives: When I talked to Shanti Uncle about his eldest brother Raj and his sister-in-law Chanda, what he had to say had a particular resonance for me. Chanda Seth, my maternal grandmother, whom I used to call Amma, was the only grandparent I have known. Mrs Rupa Mehra, the presiding character in my novel "Seth (Vikram) - A Suitable Boy", is based on her. Published a few years after her death, it is dedicated not only to my parents but also to her memory. As for my mythic grandfather, the very mention of whom would make my grandmother’s nose redden and her eyes fill with tears (“turning on the waterworks” in the acerbic view of her eldest son Michi), any information about him would add a few tesserae to the image that I had been piecing together for many years. The picture that emerges from Shanti Uncle’s description of him is of an intelligent, practical, upright, quick-tempered, impatient, affectionate man who was something of a workaholic. He was an executive engineer on the Railways and had a little silver disc which permitted him to board any train.
- Antony Beevor is the editor2, with Luba Vinogradova, of A Writer at War, Vassily Grossman with the Red Army, published by Harvill.
In-Page Footnotes ("Seth (Vikram) - Two Lives")
Footnote 1: The Times, September 3, 2005.
Footnote 2: And much else! See Wikipedia: Antony Beevor.
Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 2005
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