Author: Vikram Seth
Details: (c) Vikram Seth 2005; Pub Little, Brown 2005; ISBN 0-316-72774-1
Verdict: Two Lives is an interesting and personal memoir.
Reasons for reading it: I wouldn't normally read something so similar straight after A tale of love and darkness, but I had been planning to read Two Lives for ages and the library finally got it for me. So I had to read it before its return date as there is a long queue (which is why it took months to get to me in the first place!)
How it came into my hands: The village library, who are helpful and lovely (and when I went to return it today there was a whole queue of people waiting impatiently outside the door for the library to open)!
I really enjoy Seth's writing; he's both poetic and controlled, and really involves the reader in the story. Two Lives is impressive partly because it isn't novelized at all; the writer is clearly addressing his audience directly, and makes it clear what he actually knows and what is speculation. Yet it's not at all dry; I felt really engaged with Henny and Shanti as people and emotionally involved in their lives. The intertwining of their histories with the account of how Seth researched them and his own reactions works very well.
Seth seems to be really fascinated by people, and I really like his presentation of 20th century history through the lens of the personal lives of two individuals. In a way it would be hard for the stories of Shanti and Henny to be other than fascinating: Shanti, the author's Indian uncle, ended up in Germany in the 30s (where his passport described him as an Aryan in the literal sense!), escaped to England with Henny, a German Jewish woman whom he later married, lost his right arm at Monte Cassino but continued to practice as a dentist. But Seth is very clear that any life story could be fascinating if told right.
As history, Two Lives seems to assume a completely ignorant audience. This is no bad thing, because although I know a fair amount about the Nazi era and the European theatre in WW2, my entire knowledge of the history of India pre and post Independence is picked up from a couple of novels. Seth is absolutely even-handed in portraying the post-war years, when life was really hard for Henny's non-Jewish friends in partitioned Germany, but at the same time, pretty much all Henny's Jewish friends and family were dead. I personally thought that taking the reader right inside the gas chamber at Birkenau was a bit much, but I can see what Seth is trying to accomplish with that imaginative exercise.
I have said that Seth's frank account of his own reactions to what he learnt when researching the book is a strength. I rolled my eyes a bit at his regurgitating the standard lazy leftwing cant about Israel, but whatever. He describes his repudiation of all things German when he learnt of the fates of Henny's mother and sister and visited Yad Vashem, and how he struggled to come to a more rational view (obviously, his beloved aunt was herself German, for a start!) And the section describing Shanti's old age, his physical and mental decline and the effects it had on the family including the author himself, is refreshingly honest, even if it's perhaps not as compellingly written as the earlier parts of the book.
If you read historical memoirs at all, I do recommend Two Lives.