Posts Tagged ‘Vikram Seth’

What do Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Philip K. Dick, and Jean-Paul Sartre have in common?

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Hermann Hesse finds true love

I have a lot of writing to finish between now and Sunday night – I’ll be going at it 24/7.  Meanwhile, you might want to check out Buzzfeed’s “30 Renowned Authors Inspired by Cats.”  There’s also more at Writers and Kitties.

Mark Twain was an obvious choice.  But I combed through to see if they were going to remember some of the world’s most famous cat-lovers.  Colette, for example, who famously said, “Plus je connais les hommes, plus j’aime mes chats.”

Mississippi and J.B. (Photo: Bengt Jangfeldt)

She’s there, along with Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, Philip K. Dick, Hermann Hesse, Edward Gorey, George Plimpton, Jacques Derrida, W.H. Auden, and Jean-Paul Sartre make the cut.  But where’s T.S. Eliot, for goodness sake?

A few other notables were missed.  Where is Joseph Brodsky and his famous cat Mississippi?

I’m not entirely sure Vikram Seth is a cat-lover, but I think he must be.  The gnarly old tomcat Charlemagne, in The Golden Gate, is one of the great literary cats. I could find no photo of him with cats – only this from Delhi Walla, which is as close as I’m going to get tonight.  And since my own copy of Golden Gate is loaned out to a good cause, I found this sole sonnet (the novel is composed of Pushkin tetrameter sonnets), in which the lawyer John is warned of his romantic competition for the heart of fellow attorney Liz.  I like the way these fleet, four-footed sonnets fit onto wordpress better, next to a photograph, without awful line breaks:

Vikram Seth and fan

Ah, John, don’t take it all for granted.
Perhaps you think Liz loves you best.
The snooker table has been slanted.
A cuckoo’s bomb lies in the nest.
Be warned. Be warned. Just as in poker
The wildness of that card, the joker
Disturbs the best-laid plans of men,
So too it happens, now and then,
That a furred beast with feral features
(Little imagined in the days
When, cute and twee, the kitten plays),
Of that familiar brood of creatures
The world denominates a cat,
Enters the game, and knocks it flat.

Charles Bukowski and friend

Speaking of Vikram Seth, let’s take a moment to give equal time to dogs.  I have in mind one that played prominently in Seth’s novel, An Equal Music. It’s St. Augustine’s small white Maltese dog in Vittore Carpaccio‘s Saint Augustine in His Study, in Venice’s Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. It’s from Carpaccio’s mature period – he began it in 1502 and completed it in 1507. It’s one of seven panels he made, still in the Schola, depicting the guild’s patron saints.

On Vikram Seth’s authority, I shlepped to the Schola a decade or so ago. It’s tucked away on one of Venice’s sidestreets and not easy to find.  It was worth it. The schola is dark and mysterious and pure magic. The painting everything he said it would be.

Highly recommended.


A saint's best friend...Carpaccio's Augustine in his study


Happy birthday, Bell’s Books!

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

I knew that downtown Bell Books on Emerson Avenue predated my own arrival in Palo Alto by at least a few years — but who would have guessed the family-owned bookstore is 75 this month? Bell’s still gives the younger generation a taste of an old-fashioned bookstore, pre-Kindle, pre-Amazon — back in the days when the proprietor knew the entire inventory without resort to the computer or shelves (none of this “Dante?  How are you spelling that?” stuff).  Back in the days when a bookstore was a dimly lit chamber of mysteries, with the musty smell of old paper and leatherbound volumes.

Bell’s Books is featured this week in Palo Alto Online News.  Store manager Faith Bell, daughter of owner Valeria Bell, recalls her childhood this way:

“For us, reading was like breathing — there was a nonstop flow of books through our lives. Even when we [Faith Bell and her husband and children] were up in Canada, my mother would send me enormous boxes on a regular basis. We had a tiny library in the town, and we read through it in no time.”

I remember when Chimaera Books was the big green house on Lytton Avenue, and you could browse, even read for hours in hidden rooms, among its exhausted couches with creaky springs.  When rent hikes threatened to oust it, Denise Levertov came to the rescue with a fundraising reading and a show of support that roused the city.  When the rents went up persistently, the store eventually moved to Redwood City. And now it’s gone.  I remember the California Avenue Printer’s Inc, where you could sip coffee on well-worn wooden chairs while perusing a new purchase.  Printer’s Inc boasted of a legendary bookstore cat (a skinny brown tabby — can’t recall its name).  Few other bookstores in the world have had several sonnets written in their praise.   From Vikram Seth‘s Golden Gate:

The enchanted bookstore, vast, rectangular,
Fluorescent-lit, with Bach piped through
The glamorous alleys of its angular
Warren of bookshelves,the dark brew
Of French roast or Sumatra rousing
One’s weak papillae as one’s browsing
Lead to the famed cups, soon or late,
That cheer but don’t inebriate.
Magical shoe box! Skilled extractor
Of my last dime on print or drink,
Mini-Montmartre, Printers Inc!
Haven of book freaks, benefactor
Of haggard hacks like me, who’ve been
Quivering for years to your caffeine.

But Printer’s Inc is gone, too, subsumed by a clattery, trendy, not-so-hot cafe that has commandeered its name but not its memory.

Only Bell’s has survived.  Faith Bell apparently enjoys her clientele:

“I think Palo Alto has more multiple advanced degrees than anywhere in the nation — you never know who you’re talking to,” Bell said.

“I’ve had a very eclectic education. I’ve been to multiple colleges and universities and never got a degree in anything. This store was my education — and is every day.”

“Golden Gate,” the opera: Coming to a theater near you!

Friday, August 20th, 2010

Well, what do you know!  This week’s posts (here and here) on Vikram Seth‘s The Golden Gate elicited this reaction from Kären Nagy:

“I thought you might be interested to learn (if you don’t already know!) that it’s become the basis of a new chamber opera with music by Conrad Cummings.   I learned about this from Shelley Fisher Fishkin several months ago after she had seen the New York City production noted in the blurb I just forwarded to you. Via Shelley, I’ve learned that Cummings is trying to bring the production to San Francisco, and SiCa [Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts] has indicated we’ll try to help with some Stanford programming connections if/when that happens – getting students to the production, perhaps a panel and/or some curricular connections here, etc.  All this just FYI to keep your eyes open for developments in the future!”

Indeed something to look forward to.  The poster she included from American Opera Projects had this to say:

An Opera in Two Acts
Music by Conrad Cummings
Libretto from the novel in verse by Vikram Seth, adapted by the composer

With a libretto adapted from Vikram Seth’s best-selling novel in verse The Golden Gate, five twenty-somethings experience love, life, and loss in the magical and innocent San Francisco of the early 1980’s. John, handsome and successful, will discover too late the price of  his emotional detachment. He has just met Liz through a personals ad placed by his former college girlfriend Jan, a sculptor and punk rock drummer. Meanwhile, John’s best friend from college Phil, reeling from a divorce which has left him the sole single parent of a six-year-old, begins a passionate relationship with the Ed, Liz’s younger brother. Ed is bright, gorgeous, in search of a lover and mentor, and a profoundly conflicted devout Catholic. Couples come apart; new couples form, families are created, friendships are severed. A tragic death leads John, always the outsider, to the promise of a deeper connection and a warmer life.

Kären Nagy tipped me off (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Vikram Seth’s source novel is composed entirely of 690 rhyming tentrameter sonnets and was inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

Leah Garchik at the San Francisco Chronicle explains how it all came about:

“In New York, opera lover and San Francisco Opera aficionado Perry-Lynn Moffitt went to a Brooklyn performance of six scenes from operas workshopped by America Opera Projects. At the end of the evening, the one chosen for further development wasa setting of Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, a novel in sonnet form. The composer, Conrad Cummings, grew up on Masonic in the Upper Haight. Moffitt, who used to live here, too, says it’s a ‘dramatic, moving, lyrical piece with lush vocal writing that deserves to be heard in San Francisco, above all other cities.”


Honestly, San Franciscan Cummings himself looks like a character out of The Golden Gate.

Steve Smith writes about the first (semi-staged) production in the New York Times here:

In creating an opera based on Mr. Seth’s novel, the composer Conrad Cummings has fashioned an equally improbable fusion: lithe melodic lines that flow and entwine in the manner of Monteverdi, peppered with musical references to Henry Mancini and the punk band Black Flag.

Mr. Smith may know music but he doesn’t know verse:  he refers to Seth’s “stately sonnets” — heavens, they’re not “stately,” they’re witty, brisk, fleet-footed, and playful!

Ease, effervescence, and endless verse

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

A few days ago, I wrote about near-forgotten novel-in-verse, The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth — and was surprised to learn that an acquaintance actually bought the book on the strength of my reportage. Such, such is the power of the word.  So let me have another go at it.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll sell three.

In citing Gore Vidal‘s encomium, however, I somehow neglected the one below it, by his fellow poet, the late James Merrill:  “Mr. Seth’s beautifully conventional characters would self-destruct on the page of any prose fiction.  But his verse sets them glowing from within, and the result is as humanly poignant as it is mechanically reassuring — in short, a cause for rejoicing.”  So true.  And a large reason why I found it, despite its slight and commonplace characters, so much more satisfying than his novels.  The verse sustains them.  Power of the word, etc.

Here’s another strong reason why the 1986 book is so much fun:  Nothing keeps happening.  It brings to mind what Somerset Maugham said about Jane Austen: “Nothing very much happens in her books and yet, when you come to the bottom of a page, you eagerly turn it to learn what will happen next.  Nothing very much does and again you eagerly turn the page. The novelist who has the power to achieve this has the most precious gift a novelist can possess.”

Take this, for example, a random sonnet early in the book, while John waits in a San Francisco Chinese restaurant for his sculptor friend Janet Hayakawa:

John thinks, “It’s not that I’m fastidious. …
I wish they’d turn that music down.  …
It’s gross. That calendar is hideous …
(He stares at a distasteful clown.)
… I’ve waited half an hour, blast her!”
Her hands encased in clay and plaster,
Janet arrives at twelve to two:
“So sorry, John, I had to do
This torso. Yes I tried to hurry.
I’m glad you’ve got yourself a beer.
What’s that? Tsingtao? Don’t look severe.
I didn’t mean for you to worry.
You’ve ordered? No? This place is fun!
What’ll you have? It’s family-run.”

Seth’s miraculous gift for playfulness and delight in meter and rhyme overwhelmed his Stanford class, I’m told.  One participant confided that the kids puzzled over the phrasing in one of his poems, till they realized he had rhymed all the first words in the lines, as well as the last.  One begins to understand how he might be able to write verse at a staggering 600 lines a month for over a year.

In The Golden Gate, his effervescence and ease brims over so thoroughly that he puts his dedication, author’s note, acknowledgments, and even his table of contents into Pushkin’s fleet, four-footed sonnets.  I wonder how many people understand his dedication:

Veracity and vim

So here they are, the chapters ready,
And, half against my will, I’m free
Of this warm enterprise, this heady
Labor that has exhausted me
Through thirteen months, swift and delightful,
Incited by my friends’ insightful
Paring and prodding and appeal.
I pray the gentle hands of Steele
Will once again sift through its pages.
If anything in this should grate,
Ascribe it to its natal state;
If anything in this engages
By verse, veracity, or vim,
You know whom I must credit, Tim.

The mentor he credits is Los Angeles poet Timothy Steele, author of several collections of verse, and a prosody scholar as well, with his Missing Measures and All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing.  Tim also edited the Poems of J.V. Cunningham, a kind of homage to the poet who weds emotional intensity to stylistic purity — and who was a major influence for Tim at Stanford.  Tim is also the subject of my third-of-a-book interview, Three Poets in Conversation, where he shares space with Dick Davis and Rachel Hadas (who, incidentally, was a close friend of James Merrill.)  Years earlier, I did a shorter online interview with him for the Cortland Review.

No longer on P.S.T.

Here’s Seth’s author’s note:

The author, Vikram Seth, directed
By Anne Freedgood, his editor,
To draft a vita, has selected
The following salient facts for her:
In ’52, born in Calcutta.
8 lb. 1 oz.  Was heard to utter
First rhymes (“cat,” “mat”) at age of three.
A student of demography
And economics, he has written
From Heaven Lake, a travel book
Based on a journey he once took
Through Sinkiang and Tibet. Unbitten
At last by wanderlust and rhyme,
He keeps Pacific Standard Time.

That last lines lie — when I interviewed him a decade ago, he was dividing his time between London and Calcutta.  Wanderlust had bitten again.

Update: Triumph!  Frank Wilson of Books Inq said this morning he is getting a copy of Golden Gate after what he purports is a vacation out in the hinterlands!  That makes two copies sold.  Any other takers?

Richard Wilbur

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Way over in England, they heard about Anis Shivani’s Huffington Post piece on the “15 Most Overrated Writers”, and ask instead “Who Are Your Favorite Underrated Writers?”  The photo with the article is of Milan Kundera.  Guardian writer Alison Flood seems to think he is underrated because he has not received a Nobel.  Most writers don’t receive a Nobel.  I’m not sure that counts.  (A late hat tip to Dave Lull… I wasn’t able to post this till 9.00 p.m.)

Anis Shivani himself promised in the Huffington Post to offer his own list at a future date, but meanwhile the Guardian’s commenters suggested:  G.K. Chesterton (several votes),  Péter Nádas, Shirley Jackson, Carl Michael Bellman, Elizabeth von Arnim, Russell Hoban, Marguerite Duras, Josef Skvorecky, Ford Madox Ford, Cees Nooteboom, Haruki Murakami, Terry Pratchett, Elizabeth Taylor, Rumer Godden, Antal Szerb, Anatoly Rybakov, Wallace Stegner (several votes, including this one: “Yes! Wallace Stegner! How could I have not mentioned him!  Angle of Repose is the best-written novel I’ve ever read, and one of my two favorites [the other being Forster’s A Room with a View ]. Stegner’s is the only novel to have ever made me cry merely for the beauty of the writing. Eat your heart out, Sherman Alexie!), Andrey Platonov (several votes), Sadegh Hedayat, Amin Maalouf, Guy de Maupassant (several votes), Mervyn Peake, Antonio Munoz Molina, among others.

What’s surprising is how little poetry is represented in the lists.  Anthony Hecht gets a much deserved mention from Alison Flood.  One mention of Edwin Arlington Robinson — which is going back a century.  Why not, say, Weldon Kees?  Or Tomas Venclova?

Fortunately, “Resurgence27” restores my faith in the future of poetry-reading by naming Vikram Seth‘s delightful The Golden Gate, a novel-in-verse (in which case, fiction and poetry) that was hailed when it came out in 1986, and then largely forgotten.

Seth wrote the book in 13 feverish months as a graduate student,  writing at a clip of  600 lines per month, all in Pushkinian sonnets, a project he described as “the whole passé extravaganza”:

How can I (careless of time) use
The dusty bread molds of Onegin
In the brave bakery of Reagan?
The loaves will surely fail to rise
Or else go stale before my eyes.

Gore Vidal wrote, “Although we have been spared, so far, the Great American Novel, it is good to know that the Great Californian Novel has been written, in verse (and why not?): The Golden Gate gives great joy.”’s reviewer says the book “will turn the verse-fearing into admiring acolytes.”

Vikram Seth

It’s not the book’s most glorious sonnet, by far, but those of us who remember the old bookstore/coffeeshop Printer’s Inc of California Avenue, Palo Alto, back in its pre-Amazon days (its current incarnation is a travesty), might appreciate perhaps the only tribute to a coffeehouse ever written in verse:

The enchanted bookstore, vast, rectangular,
Fluorescent-lit, with Bach piped through
The glamorous alleys of its angular
Warren of bookshelves,the dark brew
Of French roast or Sumatra rousing
One’s weak papillae as one’s browsing
Lead to the famed cups, soon or late,
That cheer but don’t inebriate.
Magical shoe box! Skilled extractor
Of my last dime on print or drink,
Mini-Montmartre, Printers Inc!
Haven of book freaks, benefactor
Of haggard hacks like me, who’ve been
Quivering for years to your caffeine.