January 30, 2010

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.


Davestator said...

I've never read it, but remember one of my undergrad poli sci profs describing it as a book that you could use to kill a cockroach on a shag carpet. Maybe that's why political scientists don't (shouldn't?) do literary criticism.

Rebecca H. said...

Hmmm...I'm not sure about this one. I want a really, really good reason to read a book that long, and I'm not quite sure I have one yet. I might miss the design and the narrative presence you talk about here.

Sisyphus said...

Haven't read it, but I know it's on one of our exam lists.

In terms of Indian writers, I loved reading The God of Small Things, and I wish she hadn't given up fiction writing, even though she is doing really important political work now.

Unknown said...

Hey!! Just stumbled across this page when trying to find books similar to 'A Suitable Boy'. I just finished it today, and it's left me with this feeling of... emptiness almost. It is such an enthralling book... I love love love it!! I'm so upset that I'm not gonna know the Mehras, and the Sharmas, and the Tandons, and the Chatergies, and all the million other characters for the rest of their lives!! I picked this book up again after leaving it on the shelf for over a year, and although I've had to struggle through the tedious talk of constituencies, and land abolition acts, it was worth it for getting to know the characters in such great depth.

If you do find something similar to Seth's writings, do let me know!!

P.S. A 'Ghazal'is poetry sung in 'urdu' language, a 'munshi' is an accountant (who in this case only takes care of the Nawab Sahib's accounts and stays in his mansion), and a 'dupatta' is a long scarf worn along with the traditional female attire of 'Salwar Kameez'.