Finishing A Suitable Boy

“I hate long books,” says Amit Chatterji, Lata’s poet-suitor, near the end of A Suitable Boy:

“the better the worse. If they’re bad, they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they’re good, I turn into a social moron for a few days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, and making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch.”

It’s impossible not to realize this is Seth’s sly joke, not at the expense of, but on behalf of the reader who has read this far (page 1371, to be precise) in A Suitable Boy. It closes the self-referential frame begun with the epigraph, a little ditty called “A Word of Thanks,” which concludes,

Buy me before good sense insists
You’ll strain your purse and sprain your wrists.

As Seth clearly anticipated, the novel’s length is a major feature of any conversation about it. For many, it is a disincentive to even starting it; for some, including me the first time I tried it, it becomes an obstacle to finishing it. Now, having read to the end of its 1474 pages, I feel obliged to address the question whether it needed to be so long: is its bulk a necessity, or even a strength?

Thinking about this question, particularly after Seth’s own allusion to Middlemarch, I’m reminded of George Eliot’s comment about that novel: “I don’t see how the sort of thing I want to do could have been done briefly.” Middlemarch is subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life,” and among its ambitions is clearly coverage of a broad but complexly intermingled portion of English society at a carefully particularized moment in history. Her achievement is enormous, but not, of course, comprehensive, as many critics have pointed out; as I have often remarked to my students, the novel might have been longer still if she had carried her theory through to its fullest realization. As it is, because of her interest in representing so many elements of her story from multiple perspectives, she concedes some horizontal reach in favour of the three-dimensional structure I have inelegantly called the “giant hairball” effect. Here too, of course, the limit on the scale of the text is set only by her not in fact trying to give us everyone’s perspectives on everything. “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending,” she reminds us in the Finale, and with that principle in mind, we can read Middlemarch as itself revealing as many limits as insights, and leaving us with the challenge of reading the world as it has taught us. The scope of the novel, though, ensures that we realize the scope of the problem and the effort of the solution: though Book 1 is called “Miss Brooke,” there’s so much more in Middlemarch that we can hardly make the mistake of considering her errors of perception idiosyncratic personal ones, or of imagining she can take some simple, heroic step to find happiness, regardless of historical or social contexts. You need a long book to do these things effectively.

Dickens’s best long books also justify themselves by their ideas about the world they depict. One of the governing ideas of Bleak House, for instance, is relationships–often unknown or underappreciated–between people of all kinds in all places, separate by vast differences in wealth and situation, family and education, philosophy and values. That we are all, in effect, one human family is a simple idea but one that increases in potency the more dramatically its reach is extended–from Lady Dedlock, say, brightly illuminated in the glare of fashionable society, to poor Jo the crossing sweeper. To assert the connection is one thing, and Dickens’s narrator does this, but by populating the novel so densely Dickens gives his social message emotional resonance.

Thackeray, too, inVanity Fair . . . but you get the idea. Abundance in a novel reflects abundance in life; artfully deployed, it gives us both ideas and feelings about that abundance and our own relationship to it, and at its best, a long book reflects its ideas in the way its abundance is structured into a unified whole. And these are just the intellectual aspects. Despite the popularity of James’s infamous line about “loose, baggy monsters,” long books can be enormously satisfying, both formally and aesthetically. They also occupy mental and physical space in our lives so that we develop a special relationship with them, with the world into which we go when we read them. Here my chief example would be Trollope: immerse yourself, as I did one sabbatical, in the whole Palliser series, or the Chronicles of Barset, and you feel as if you are living two lives, one with your actual family and friends, the other with your friends in this enormously specific alternative universe (as Hawthorne said, Trollope’s world seems “as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting they were made a show of”). Escapism? Perhaps, but another way to think of it is as vicarious living, including plenty of exercise for our moral imaginations.

OK, so. What about the length of A Suitable Boy? Does the novel satisfy the standard set by these illustrious predecessors of the doorstopper form? Do its ends justify its means? I would say, mostly yes. Of the novelists I have named, Trollope seems closest in spirit to Seth, whose reach, like his, is primarily horizontal. The novel’s principle seems to be inclusivity: in brief, Seth hates leaving things out. The relatively large number of major characters in the novel is itself a bit startling, though the family trees provided are helpful here. But then there are the relatively minor characters, dozens of them, and the crowds of incidental figures, and, literally, the crowds. Then there’s the historical detail. There isn’t a lot of straight exposition, but there are long sections of political wrangling, most of which require at least some contextualizing (though one striking feature of the novel, I think, is how much it opts not to explain). And there are details of other kinds, too, crowding the book: clothes and books and food and drink (lots and lots of food, and many, many drinks) and religious rituals and holidays, both Hindu and Muslim. And cricket. And shoe-making. And curriculum wars in the English department. And singers and songs and musicians–and their instruments.

Of course, any novel interested in time and place has to include details, but the overall impression of A Suitable Boy is of crowds of them, not noisily clamouring for attention, but filling every available space, as if somehow the book is a tangible object, like Meenakshi’s lacquered box, overflowing with sights and sounds and smells (the tanneries!). Did it always seem artistically controlled? No, not always, but I would be hard pressed to single out any expendable piece: once begin trimming and tidying, and where to stop, after all? Life is cluttered: why can’t that be an artistic rationale?

With so many characters, plots and stories, too, are abundant. Here Seth’s control is more overt, as the story of Lata’s quest (or, more accurately, her mother’s quest) for “a suitable boy” provides a unifying structure used, I thought, to lovely dramatic purposes at times, as when the three top contenders–Kabir, Amit, and Haresh–meet up, quite unaware of their status as competitors for her favour. The rituals that open and close the novel also show its underlying tautness: major events (birth, marriage, death) do give shape to our lives, much as we like to insist that plots are all impositions, and yet life itself presses on, as does the momentum of the novel even as its central mission is resolved (how, I won’t tell you–read the 1474 pages for yourself!): “You too will marry a boy I choose,” says Mrs Rupa Mehra on the first page, and “You too will marry a girl I choose,” she says on (almost) the last one. (Would I read A Suitable Girl? You bet I would.)

As I neared the end, though, the unity I felt the most strongly, and found the most poignant, was precisely the one best supported by the risky choice of putting so much into the novel: that principle of inclusivity is itself, I think, a theme of the novel, perhaps its main idea. Everyone is in it together. Seth’s inclusivity reflects what the novel shows as the greatness but also the curse of India (India as he depicts it, of course). Often, people in the novel are, or feel, deeply divided by their differences: the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims, including some horrifically violent ones, are the most serious examples, refracted much more delicately through Lata’s lingering conviction that Kabir can never truly be “suitable.” Others are good friends in spite of their different religions–Maan and Firoz, for instance. That difference seems insignificant to us and them, until they are caught up in larger events that remind them (and us) that it means life or death when they are among those who define their communities by exclusion rather than inclusion. Many scenes in the novel–such as the ultimately disastrous attempt by the Raja of Marh to raise the Shiva-linga and install it at the new temple being built basically right beside the Alamgiri Mosque, or the earlier riot sparked by the same awkward proximity, or the painful memories of Partition, which haunt Hindu and Muslim characters alike–evoke the human cost of intolerance, even as the same neighbouring sites of worship have the potential to represent the peaceful alternative. By the end of the novel, the relationship I felt exemplified its most cherished possibility was that between Mr. Mahesh Kapoor and the Nawab Sahib, though I can’t point to its key moments without giving away some of the more dramatic events of the novel. Their story reminds us forgiveness is essential to friendships that persist over time and in the face of violence and difference, an idea that is easily extended from their particular case to the larger context.

As for Lata’s final decision about marriage, well, you don’t think I’m going to give that away, do you? After all, one of the most important reasons to read 1474 pages is to find out what happens. I will say, though, that I was surprised at first, and then pleased. Her choice is not conventionally romantic, or unconventionally heroic; it’s not a triumphant conclusion for her, but she rides away into a future that felt true to what she had learned from participating in the complicated panorama of A Suitable Boy.

Reading A Suitable Boy

Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy has been in my TBR pile for some time. I started it once before but didn’t make it much past page 300, which isn’t really that far in a 1500-page novel. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it: I just started picking up other things to read instead, because they were more portable, for instance, or met some more immediate need. Then I decided that if I were going to finish it, I’d have to start all over again, if only to remind myself who everybody is. Eventually I moved it back onto the shelf, and there it sat, until for some reason when I was looking for my next book to read for myself earlier this month, I pulled it off again.

I don’t know what possessed me, to be honest, given how busy this term was shaping up (and is turning out) to be. And yet now that I’m about 600 pages along, I think my instinct was a good one. Though the book is long, and that in itself makes certain demands, its leisurely pace and even tone make it a kind of calming retreat from the rapidity of the rest of my activities. The action (if that’s the right word) unfolds so gradually that it makes Trollope’s novels look like thrillers, but it’s certainly Trollope I am reminded of, rather than Dickens or George Eliot (both cited often as comparisons in the excerpted reviews that lead off my edition). Like Trollope, Seth exudes a quiet confidence in the intrinsic interest of people going about their business. Also like Trollope, he seems unconcerned about literary language: the prose is commonplace and persistent, not poetic or philosophical–though it can be evocative, nonetheless, partly because of its attention to details:

But even when he closed his eyes to cut out the dry brightness of the afternoon light and the monotonous fields stretching out to the huge visible quadrant of dusty sky, the sounds of the train bore in on him with amplified volume. The jolting and clicking of the train as it rocked sideways and slightly upwards, the sound of it going over a small bridge or the whooshing of a train rushing past in the opposite direction, the sound of a woman coughing or the crying of a child, even the dropping of a coin or the rustle of a newspaper, all took on an unbearable intensity. He rested his head on his hands, and stayed still. (542-3)

I assume reviewers have compared Seth to Dickens or George Eliot because A Suitable Boy is very long and has the breadth of character and incident typical of Victorian realist novels. But (so far at least) A Suitable Boy gives me none of the sense of underlying design you get from Dickens, or at least from the great later novels like Bleak House or Little Dorrit, in which the multiplicities are charged with significance because they develop a common idea. There’s also no narrative presence: no metafictional reflections, and no philosophical commentary providing perspective or a sense of purpose to the abundance of specifics. At this point, I would say that I can’t discern the “aboutness” of A Suitable Boy: it just is. That’s not necessarily a flaw, though I do find myself wondering sometimes, as characters and details accumulate, why they are necessary, whether there is anything more at stake than creating a narrative that reproduces the crowding of people and incidents in real life. The 19th-century novelists alluded to seem far more self-conscious about the constructedness, the artifice, of their results; this is why the chargesof naive realism seem so misplaced in their cases, but it does not seem so far off, about Seth.

When I tried to read A Suitable Boy before, I was frustrated at the absence of a glossary. I still find it a disadvantage, though inevitably you acquire a working understanding of what things are. I’ve been thinking this time, though, that that absence, certainly a deliberate choice on Seth’s part, may make a kind of tacit statement about the novel. Though it is definitely a learning experience for me to read the book, it is not, itself, set up with me in mind, or at least with my education in mind: it is a not a didactic book for outsiders about “understanding India.” It is “just” (and I don’t mean that pejoratively) a novel about India, or, better, about people in India. It’s my problem, not Seth’s, if I don’t know what a ‘ghazal’ is, or a ‘munshi’ or a ‘dupatta.’

Finally, for now, I’m amused at how I’ve begun imitating Mrs Rupa Mehra as I read. I look at every young man to see whether he’s “a suitable boy” for Lata.

Summer Re-Run: Vikram Seth, An Equal Music

(originally posted June 5, 2007)

2008 Update: An Equal Music was definitely one of my favourite reads of 2007. I did get the soundtrack, too, and have listened to it many times, though I have yet to reread the novel with it playing on my iPod. I have some other favourite books that also entwine their plots and characters closely with music. One, which I would like to write up soon as part of a thread about books that stand now as old friends, is Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s wonderful Disturbances in the Field; another, brilliantly and darkly comic, is Angela Huth’s Easy Silence (which sadly seems to be unavailable everywhere I checked); and another is Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. (I did find while reading Bel Canto that many of its ‘tracks’ were on my iPod, and it definitely took the reading experience to another level to coordinate the words and the sounds. In fact, it occurs to me that these books would lend themselves well to multimedia editions, for just that reason.) Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading names several more musical books in this post from last February, many of which sound extremely interesting.

What an extraordinary, intense, poignant book. The central love story is compelling as a romance but would be conventional, perhaps even trite, if it weren’t entangled with another story about a different kind of love–for music. Michael’s desire for Julia, which borders on the obsessive, is itself a musical passion, aroused by and motivated by her playing, or their playing together. But his desire for his violin comes to seem like a purer form of desire, for something that transcends the impurities of human relationships or even human characters, with their flaws and imbalances. People (alas!) cannot be tuned to accommodate different needs, to make new or different combinations, new beauties. How utopian chamber music comes to seem here, as the members of the quartet ease away from their messy lives through the simplicity of a scale played in unison, until they are ready and generous enough to take their turns, to share the work and the pleasure of the music. But though I felt it this way, the novel itself is never sentimental.

In his “Author’s Note” Seth remarks that he felt “gripped with anxiety” at the thought of writing about music, to him “dearer even than speech.” Perhaps as a result, he uses a spare but high-pressure style, relentlessly paced, never indulgent; the moments of grace appear as just that, moments in a turbulent, complicated world, themselves achieved by hard work, constant rehearsal, trial and error. Even the risky conceit of Julia’s hearing loss is handled coolly; like Michael, we shy away from pity even as we wonder how and why she can continue to make music she can hear fully only in her head. Beethoven too, we know, of course made music even after he could not hear it himself. In Julia’s case (she’s a fictional character, after all) we might ask if there is a metaphorical or symbolic dimension. Characters lose their sight in order to gain insight; is music here also a state of mind or perception from which sensory experience is a distraction? “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter”? But in the end it does seem to be the “heard melodies” that matter here, outweighing and outlasting every other desire, met or unmet, every painful, joyful love:

Music, such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music–not too much, or the soul could not sustain it–from time to time.

Some love stories leave us longing (no doubt in vain) for that “happily ever after” ending, the miraculously harmonious human relationship. This one has left me longing for Bach and Schubert.

Follow-up: To my joy, it turns out there is a companion CD for this novel. I eagerly await its arrival and, eventually, a second reading of the novel complete with soundtrack.

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.

Vikram Seth, An Equal Music

What an extraordinary, intense, poignant book. The central love story is compelling as a romance but would be conventional, perhaps even trite, if it weren’t entangled with another story about a different kind of love–for music. Michael’s desire for Julia, which borders on the obsessive, is itself a musical passion, aroused by and motivated by her playing, or their playing together. But his desire for his violin comes to seem like a purer form of desire, for something that transcends the impurities of human relationships or even human characters, with their flaws and imbalances. People (alas!) cannot be tuned to accommodate different needs, to make new or different combinations, new beauties. How utopian chamber music comes to seem here, as the members of the quartet ease away from their messy lives through the simplicity of a scale played in unison, until they are ready and generous enough to take their turns, to share the work and the pleasure of the music. But though I felt it this way, the novel itself is never sentimental. In his “Author’s Note” Seth remarks that he felt “gripped with anxiety” at the thought of writing about music, to him “dearer even than speech.” Perhaps as a result, he uses a spare but high-pressure style, relentlessly paced, never indulgent; the moments of grace appear as just that, moments in a turbulent, complicated world, themselves achieved by hard work, constant rehearsal, trial and error. Even the risky conceit of Julia’s hearing loss is handled coolly; like Michael, we shy away from pity even as we wonder how and why she can continue to make music she can hear fully only in her head. Beethoven too, we know, of course made music even after he could not hear it himself. In Julia’s case (she’s a fictional character, after all) we might ask if there is a metaphorical or symbolic dimension. Characters lose their sight in order to gain insight; is music here also a state of mind or perception from which sensory experience is a distraction? “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter”? But in the end it does seem to be the “heard melodies” that matter here, outweighing and outlasting every other desire, met or unmet, every painful, joyful love:

Music, such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music–not too much, or the soul could not sustain it–from time to time.

Some love stories leave us longing (no doubt in vain) for that “happily ever after” ending, the miraculously harmonious human relationship. This one has left me longing for Bach and Schubert.

Follow-up: To my joy, it turns out there is a companion CD for this novel. I eagerly await its arrival and, eventually, a second reading of the novel complete with soundtrack.