Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy (I)

I’m about 300 pages into A Suitable Boy, and I thought it might be useful (and, frankly, motivating) to commit to blogging my way through it, as I did with He Knew He Was Right last summer. Actually, the two novels have some features in common so far. First, both give a whole new meaning to the concept of a “slice of life” novel: call it, perhaps, a “swathe of life”! Both are multiplot novels organized around a variety of households. Both emphasize character, plot, and setting over overtly aesthetic or literary effects or themes–though with 900 pages of the Seth novel to go, that could change. Both also are told in a fairly flat prose style; so far, I would say Trollope is the livelier narrator, more playful and intrusive, with a wider variety of styles. Seth’s writing here is certainly descriptive, evocative of a specific time and of specific places, but (so far) it lacks the intensity of An Equal Music. The first-person narrator there is a key difference, of course, but third-person narration can be more engaging or intense than I am finding A Suitable Boy so far: it seems tepid or distanced.

This effect, however, may be purely in my mind, the result of the difficulties I am having getting close to the novel myself. As someone who reads long books professionally, I wasn’t intimidated by this one (though I continue to be frustrated by the logistical problems it raises because I literally can’t fit it into my tote bag for those precious stolen moments of pleasure reading). But I’m not doing as well as I’d expected. For one thing, I’m really struggling to keep track of who the characters are. I keep flipping back and forth to the handy family trees in the front. Presumably I will get better at this as I press on.

A more difficult problem for me is my unfamiliarity with the milieu of the novel, meaning not so much the bold outlines of the historical context (though my relative ignorance is certainly being impressed upon me) as the details of dress, food, and social and religious customs invoked on every page. I’m longing for a glossary! Scott provided one for his non-Scottish readers; Ahdaf Soueif, much more recently, provides a very helpful one in In the Eye of the Sun (from “Abu-l-rish: a popular district in South Cairo” to “Zebiba: a raisin; a brown mark that appears on the skin of the forehead as a result of much praying”). Soueif is self-evidently concerned with orienting (no pun intended) readers from outside the culture she writes about, a concern that is thematically appropriate to a novel itself preoccupied with cross-cultural communication and the intricate ways literary language participates in defining personal and national identities. Why does Seth see no need to provide a similar aid to his readers? Or, if he recognized this as a potentially useful thing to include, why did he opt against it? Maybe the fault lies in me. Am I particularly ill-informed–do most readers get all the allusions and know all the vocabulary? Am I supposed to be content to get only an approximate sense of so many details? Am I just lazy not to be reading with a stack of reference books beside me? Or is this a deliberate strategy of alienation for readers on the ‘outside’? I’m not finding this an overwhelming problem; I’m certainly learning as I go along.

Update: I went over to Sepia Mutiny for some more information about this book and one of the first things I found was a comment about the absence of a glossary:

A Suitable Boy: … the publisher asked, can we have a few more foreign characters to appeal to the foreign market… that’s why I was rather surprised that the… interminable book about a rather obscure period of Indian history in the ’50s… without war, without the assassination of prime ministers, without… much in the way of sex… without even a glossary… was successful outside India…

Whether to include a glossary: You can describe what a duck is, but if somebody hasn’t even seen a duck… If someone’s read Dickens… they have certain references to the geography of London… that we don’t get. But as long as the writer’s not trying to be particularly obscure… we give them latitude…

These are “liveblogging” notes from an interview Seth did with members of the South Asian Journalists Association; the complete interview (which I hope to listen to soon) is archived here.

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