Reading family histories: Vikram Seth’s Two Lives

When Natalie Pithers interviewed me for Twice Removed, she asked the question, that she asks to most of her interviewees, what do you say to someone who thinks that their family history is not interesting?

I’ve recently finished reading Vikram Seth’s auto/biography, history, family history Two Lives and I think he answers this question beautifully there:

‘Behind every door on every ordinary street, in every hut in every ordinary village on this middling planet of a trivial star, such riches are to be found.’

Family histories are ordinary, but only as ordinary as life itself. The conditions that have enabled this ‘middling planet’ to successfully sustain life are inherently extraordinary.

Seth’s account of his uncle’s and aunt’s lives are framed through Seth’s relationship with them. For him, this is a necessary vantage point, but he acknowledges this perspective might be ‘sometimes distorted, sometimes overexplicit’. Seth takes his reader on his journey of discovery, unravelling his personal relationship with his uncle and aunt while sharing a traumatic history that stretches across the globe.

Two Lives is an account of the lives of Seth’s uncle, Shanti Seth, and aunt, Henny Caro, lived through the twentieth century across India, Germany, and the UK. Shanti Seth moved from India to Germany in the 1930s to train as a dentist. Henny Caro was born in Berlin and her Jewish family were subject to the persecution of the Nazi regime. All of Henny’s family are murdered, except for one brother who had moved to South America. Shanti had lodged with Henny’s family in Berlin; later, after the Second World War, both are living in London and they marry.

Vikram Seth’s framing of this narrative from his own unconscious naivety staying with relatives who seem elderly to a young man, enables the gentle unfolding of an impossibly difficult narrative that starts and ends in the mundanity of London’s suburbia.

The history is pieced together by Seth through independent research, interviews with his uncle, a trunk of letters that he found that belonged to Henny, and his own memories. It is explicitly a history told from the perspective of a personal relationship. Family histories are embodied narratives; Seth channels Henny and Shanti’s story through his experiences and it is a more resonant and nuanced telling for that honesty.

The ‘riches’ that Vikram Seth uncovers through his investigations into the lives of Henny and Shanti Seth is the revelation of the complexity of human character. And written from the first decade of the twenty-first century, Seth’s family history is witness to the astonishingly awful events that were experienced by so many families in the twentieth century.

Reference: Vikram Seth, Two Lives (London: Abacus, 2006)

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