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Rhyme and Reason : Vikram Seth Had the Audacity to Write His First Novel, About Young Bay Area Singles, in Metered Verse. To Considerable Surprise, the Critics Love It.

June 08, 1986|JACQUES LESLIE | Jacques Leslie, a former Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent, is a writer based in Northern California

That customarily curmudgeonly man of letters, Gore Vidal, asserts on the dust jacket of Vikram Seth's "The Golden Gate" that the book is "the Great California Novel." A New York Times review called the book "a splendid achievement," describing it as "a thoroughly Californian novel, peopled by unmistakably Californian characters." One reviewer, X. J. Kennedy in the Los Angeles Times, called "The Golden Gate" "a splendid tour de force"; John Hollander, in the New Republic, topped that by saying the book is "a tour de force of the transcendence of the mere tour de force."

Oddly, perhaps, the recipient of all this praise is not a Californian, nor even an American, and his path to literary celebrity has been anything but conventional. His curriculum vitae contains several surprises.

Seth (rhymes with "fate") is a graduate student at Stanford University, not in literature but economics; he is a year from completing his doctoral thesis on the demographics of seven villages in China, where he lived for two years.

Explaining why he chose not to study literature, Seth says: "I decided that I'd probably lose my interest in literature if I were to study it. I like putting books down when they bore me. I think that's a fundamental right that a reader has, and of course readers' rights aren't the same as students' rights. Alas, students have to write a paper on something or read every book of Dickens or something like that. That's a great pity, I feel, because it could easily turn off something that's very interesting, because they've been forced to read it at the wrong time or the wrong pace."

Seth, 33, was born in Calcutta, lived in India for all but a year and a half of his first 17 years, and didn't set foot in the United States until he was 23. He doesn't even drive, which makes him not exactly un-American but certainly un-Californian. Nevertheless, his novel suggests an intimate knowledge of California mores, from its billboards and bumper stickers to personal ads and pet psychiatrists.

"The Golden Gate" is filled with details about California that natives sometimes overlook because of excessive familiarity. Yet Seth emphasizes that it was not his detachment but rather his love of California that was most valuable to him in writing the book: "One can't come with a cold and objective eye from outside and then write with affection about a place. One must have lived years in that place and not just observed for years."

Seth's first language was Hindi, though he believes that English is now his strongest. He speaks in a mellifluous tenor, with a British accent that he absorbed as a student, first at prep schools in India and then at Oxford University. It was only after his Oxford experience that he decided to continue his studies in the United States. Given a choice among Harvard, Yale and Stanford, he chose Stanford, "basically on the basis of sunshine, which was quite a powerful inducement, considering that England doesn't have very much of it."

Despite living in California for all but two years since 1975, Seth didn't use American spelling until recently. He says he wrote the first draft of "The Golden Gate" with British usage: "I was inside the language but not inside the orthography."

"The Golden Gate," published in April, is Seth's first novel. He has written two other books: a travel book about hitchhiking through western China, called "From Heaven Lake," and a collection of poems, "The Humble Administrator's Garden."

"The people who published my travel book rejected my book of poems," he says. "Both the people who published my travel book and the people who eventually published 'The Humble Administrator's Garden' rejected 'The Golden Gate.' It's because each of them wanted me to write another book like the previous one. Well, that wouldn't have interested me. I know some people get into a particular genre and enjoy it, doing the same thing in a different place or about a different time, but I would have been bored stiff and the reader would have known it."

Having won a Guggenheim Fellowship in April, Seth plans to return soon to India for a year or more. He intends to take up the study of Indian classical music, one of his passions.

The praise that "The Golden Gate" has won is all the more remarkable considering that it is that rare and arguably anachronistic commodity, a novel in verse. The book consists of 593 sonnets, including the acknowledgments, table of contents and author's autobiographical note. All are written in iambic tetrameter, a meter that has not been fashionable for more than a century. Seth was inspired by Alexander Pushkin's 1831 masterpiece, "Eugene Onegin," which uses that poetic form.

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