Two Lives

by Vikram Seth

Hardcover, 2005

Call number

BIO SETH

Collection

Publication

Harper (2005), 512 pages

Description

Shanti Behari Seth, brought up in India, was sent by his family in the 1930s to Berlin--though he could not speak a word of German--to study medicine and dentistry. Helga Gerda Caro, known to everyone as "Henny" was also born in 1908, in Berlin, to a Jewish family--cultured, patriotic, and intensely German. When the family decided to take Shanti as a lodger, Henny's first reaction was, "Don't take the black man!" But a friendship flowered, and when Henny fled Germany just one month before war broke out, she was met at Victoria Station by the only person in the country she knew: Shanti. Vikram Seth has woven together their story, which recounts the arrival into this childless couple's lives of their great-nephew from India--the teenage Vikram. The result is a tapestry of India, the Third Reich and the Second World War, Auschwitz and the Holocaust, Israel and Palestine, postwar Germany and 1970s Britain.--From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member wandering_star
There's a Hindi word, Dhaayi, which means two-and-a-half, and Vikram Seth has said that if there was an equivalent word in English, this would have been called Two-and-a-Half Lives. The two lives of the title are those of Seth's great-uncle and aunt, Shanti and Henny. The half would have been Seth
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himself, who lived with the couple when he first went to England and who continued to stay in close touch with them throughout their lives.

Between them, Shanti and Henny have personal experience of almost everything the twentieth century could throw at them. They became friends in Germany in the 1930s. Shanti was born into colonial India, injured while serving as an officer in the British Army during World War Two. Henny, a German Jew, escaped to England a month before war broke out. Her mother and sister died in the Holocaust.

This story would have been interesting in any hands. But Seth's love for the couple shines through, and makes it especially moving. Seth traces their story through letters, as well as conversations with Shanti and with other relatives and friends of the family. He has an unerring eye for the telling details, which means that his narration makes the well-known sequence of events horrific all over again. For example, he reproduces an exchange of 25-word telegrams between Henny and her mother and sister in the early 1940s, which were sent through the Red Cross. Almost comically short, all they say in effect is 'I am well, thinking of you, write soon'. But four months passed between each one.
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LibraryThing member kambrogi
Vikram Seth’s work is always a surprise. Whether it’s a travel memoir, a book-length poem, or a brilliant epic of Indian life, he is bound to be investigating something new.

And this book is no exception. Seth’s memoir focuses little on himself, mostly on his aunt and uncle. Shanti Uncle was
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an Indian dentist, trained in Germany but later an officer for the English forces during WWII. Aunty Henny was a German Jew, a dear friend during Shanti’s student days and only his wife many years later, after she fled the Nazis and settled in England.

Seth’s treatment of his beloved relatives, their heartbreaking trials and the intense disappointments of their lives is both gentle and honest. It is a story that investigates race, nationality, war and family, and clearly a book that has taken Seth himself on a difficult personal journey. Traveling with him, the reader is invited to look at issues both historical and contemporary, but always within the compassionate frame of an intimate family portrait.
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LibraryThing member messpots
This is a book about the lives of two ordinary people who meant a great deal to the author but, of course, mean nothing to us — until the author has introduced them to us. They lived in difficult times, and where most of us just philosophize about hard questions, they had to answer them, at least
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in some fashion. Most of the hard questions they answered dealt with hate: Who are you allowed to hate? Can you be in love with a person you ought to hate? Should you help people you hate? Should you hate people who don't help people you love? Truly awful questions, most of which arise, in the lives of the two subjects, after the war is over. (Perhaps this is therefore a good book to read alongside other after-the-war accounts, like Primo Levi's The Reawakening or even Art Spiegelman's Maus.)
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LibraryThing member labfs39
When Vikram Seth, an Indian author of acclaim, was seventeen, he went to live with his uncle and aunt in London in order to attend school there. The first part of the book, and frankly one of the most interesting parts, is the story of his childhood spent bouncing between India and England and the
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account of his intense schooling. Once Vikram is fledged, he keeps in touch with his surrogate family, and after his aunt dies, decides to begin interviewing his uncle in order to someday write a dual biography. It's an interesting idea.

Shanti Seth was born in India and in 1931 moves to Berlin to study dentistry. He ends up rooming in a Mrs. Caro's house, despite Mrs. Caro's daughter Henny advising her mother not to take in the black man. Despite this initial impression, Shanti and Henny become friends and the two of them have a busy social life in Berlin. In 1939 Henny flees the coming Holocaust and with the aid of her fiancé’s father escapes to London. A year later Shanti joins the British Army's Dental Corp. He serves in North Africa and Italy, is seriously injured in the battle for Monte Cassino, and returns to London to continue his dental career. Henny has been in London since the war began, and the two of them continue a rather lopsided relationship until they are married in 1951.

The memoir has the potential to be fascinating: an Indian man's relationship with a Jewish girl in pre-war Berlin, the loss of her family and many friends in the Holocaust, and her extensive correspondence with friends in post-war Germany. However, I found reading the book rather like being stuck watching someone's interminable home movies. Shanti fails to share with his nephew any insights into his life, so the account is rather flat and uninspired. Henny is more complex with secrets that are only revealed through correspondence discovered after her death. Unfortunately she didn't keep copies of all of her letters, so too often the account is construed from what friends wrote to her. This reading between the lines is frustrating and leads the author to assumptions that can never be proved.

To balance the personal stories, Vikram adds occasional chapters meant to provide historical background, but he is not an historian, and the chapters stick out like the interruptions they are. So the book ends up neither fish nor fowl, neither interesting history nor compelling personal narrative. During the last section, when the author returns to the present and his uncle’s decline, I began wishing the book would just end. Then came the reading of the will and the inevitable ensuing family drama. The end was a welcome relief.
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LibraryThing member thorold
This is an interesting idea: writing biographies of relatives is normally the province of self-published amateurs rather than well-known novelists, unless of course the relatives happen to be distinguished figures themselves. It's maybe considered as being a bit below the dignity of a serious
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literary figure; fortunately, Seth seems to be a "try anything once" sort of writer, who's not afraid of stirring up a little family dust.

Seth here has a go at applying his novelist's insight to untangling the various threads in his personal relationship with, and understanding of, his great uncle and great aunt. In the process, he brings out some interesting ideas about the ways extended families and groups of friends ("Wahlverwandschaften") work, the way we relate to people of different generations in different stages of our lives, and how little we sometimes know about the significant events in the lives of people we are close to. This works very well, and I found a lot in this aspect of the book that I could identify with.

The book works rather less well when you read it as conventional biography. The non-chronological structure is sometimes confusing or requires a lot of repetition for us to keep track of the sequence of events, particularly in the section that is based on Henny's surviving letters from the 1940s; there are big chunks of historical background material that will be redundant for almost all readers; there are some areas of his subjects' lives that we would gladly know less about (their health problems in old age, for instance), and others that Seth seems strangely uninterested in, like Henny's working life.

A little disappointing, perhaps, but definitely worth reading.
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LibraryThing member davidroche
Seth is a genius. Autobiography or a crafted and woven narrative?
LibraryThing member Clif
I was expecting a love story. But this book is better described as a story of two people making the best of their lives following the upheaval of the WWII and the holocaust. The author first explains why the couple Shanti and Henny, his great uncle and aunt, were important people in his life. Then
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he proceeds to tell their stories. His great-uncle Shanti, a native of India, attended school in Berlin in the early 30s and became part of a circle of friends centered around the family apartment where he boarded. The group included both Jewish and non-Jewish friends. Henny was the daughter of the Jewish family also living in the apartment. Then Hitler came to power, and we all know what happened after that. Both Shanti and Henny were able to leave Germany before the war at different times and by different routes. Shanti lost an arm during the war while serving as a surgeon with the British Army.

The most heart-wrenching part of the book for me was the part containing Henny's correspondance with her German friends after the war trying to learn what had happened to her Mother and sister. It is an up-close and personal look at the sorrow and suffering repeated millions to times over during the holocaust. And, in addition to the anguish of learning about the fate of her family, Henny had to deal with her ambivalent feelings toward her non-Jewish friends. She even received a letter from her former German boyfriend, who had played the part of a good Nazi during the war, hinting at an interest in a continuing relationship. She also learns that her brother was able to flee to South American prior to the war but had squandered money that could have been used to get her mother and sister out of Germany. She was particularly disturbed to learn that the husband of one of her closest friends may have been a member of the Nazi SA.

In England the only person Henny knew who shared any memories of her family and former life was Shanti. Shanti's life on the other hand was dramatically changed by the loss of his arm. So they found comfort in each other’s company. They eventually got married, but the slow deliberate pace of their courtship indicates little romantic passion.

The author spends considerable time talking about world politics and the modern history of Germany and Israel. He also shares some details of settling Shanti's estate after his death. I question whether these parts of the book were needed.
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LibraryThing member Ruby_Bastet
Great, insightful and touching; highly to be recommended
LibraryThing member deslivres5
Vikram Seth's memoir of the lives of his uncle and aunt, with whom he lived, with on and off, during his school years in England. His uncle, a dentist who served in WWII, and his aunt, who lost her mother and sister during the Holocaust, have loving marriage and interesting back story which Seth
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only investigates many years later.
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LibraryThing member momeara
Intimate biography of Seth's great aunt and uncle. The uncle is an indian-born dentist who studied in Germany where he met, fell in love with, and eventually married a Jewish-German girl in the shadow of the Nazi parties. Very sad book at times, but gives a personal insight into the horror of those
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events. In many ways a study of privation, struggle and triumph by two exception people as representatives of the greatest generation.
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LibraryThing member mjg123
I liked Seth's previous books: "A suitable boy" and "An equal music". "Two lives" is different, as it is explicitly autobiographical. Seth tells the story of a beloved uncle and aunt. At the same time it is a story about an Indian family, one of whose members is attracted to and later marries a
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German woman; a story of the interbellum and WWII. Interesting, but less so than his previous work.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Two Lives: A Memoir is the story of the two lives of the title, but it is very much more and that is why I enjoyed reading it. First there is the story of Shanti Behari Seth, an immigrant from India who came to Berlin to study in the 1930s, and Helga Gerda Caro, the young German woman who became
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his wife. Secondly we have the introductory section (Part One) that introduces the author, Vikram Seth and his schooling in England (and later the United States) which precipitated his close relationship with Shanti, his grandfather's brother, and Helga. Thirdly the author leads the reader on a voyage of discovery of the background of Shanti and Helga and in doing so discusses some of the darker events of the twentieth century for they were survivors of that violent era. The combination of memoir, family reminiscence and history makes this a unique memoir. It is a welcome contribution to the literature of this era and the human drama that makes it memorable.
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LibraryThing member SR510
Vikram Seth never writes the same book twice. I don't know what's next, but it would not surprise me too terribly much if it were a brilliant 200-page coloring book about a family of flamingos. (It would, of course, have a sonnet in the dedication. It's nice to have at least one constant.)

This one
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is a memoir of his great-uncle Shanti and great-aunt Henny, and it's an excellent memorial to two people he loved. It's generally interesting, often gripping. With that said, the last section in particular might have profited by a ruthless attack with a large set of pruning shears.
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LibraryThing member kmstock
Another by one of my favourite authors, and this one spans a large amount of time and space, so right up my alley. It's a bit like a partial memoir, starting by tracing Vikram Seth's move to the UK as a teenager, and then his first few years, then the focus shifts to first his Uncle and then his
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Aunt, both of whom have very interesting stories, involving the second world war, Nazism and the Holocaust. It includes lots of letters, and traces the relationships his Aunt and various friends in detail, giving an intimate portrayal of what life was like at that time. Although I knew the facts and the history, this story gave me a view into the personal side of it all. A warning: I was starting to lose interest during the part about Vikram, and thought about abandoning the book, but it was well worth it in the end. It is very detailed, sometimes perhaps too much (especially towards the end), but I think it's well worth the effort). I've always thought that Vikram Seth, in all his books, has a talent for writing kindly and sympathetically about people. Even people who you might dislike if you met them, somehow seem to come off well under his pen. I can't wait for A Suitable Girl!
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LibraryThing member edwinbcn
Two lives is a hefty volume consisting of a dual-biography of Vikram Seth's great-Uncle and great-Aunt. As a young man, the author came to live with his great-Uncle and great-Aunt as he moved from India to live with them in England, where he went to school. While their lives are perhaps interesting
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to the author, they are not necessarily interesting to readers.

Reading 500 pages about people who are only remotely related to Vikram Seth is quite a struggle, especially if one wonders why one would read a book like that. Althought the book does tell the reader something about the young Vikram Seth, that would barely be enough motivation to read a tome like this.

The distance in the relationship shows equally in the way the authors deals with the material. The first biography is distanced, and confusing as the story jumps across history and places, alternately referring to the great-Uncle using different names, such as Uncle Shanti and the Shanti-Uncle, Shanti, etc. While Shanti B. Seth led an interesting life, there are no doubt countless other anonymous people who have lived equally or even more interesting lives.

The second live describes the biography of Seth's great-Aunt, Henny Gerda Caro. Much time is invested into describing the horrible fate of the great-Aunt's German Jewish family, most of whose family members perished during the holocaust. Here, the author's descriptions of their fate are so incredibly horrendous and hard that they can barely be seen as being written by a family member. Here he describes the death of his great-Aunt's sister, Lola:

Lola's naked body, groteskly contorted, possibly broken-boned, her face blue and unrecognisable and bleeding from mouth and nose, her legs streaked with shit and blood, would, after a hosing-down, have been dragged out of the room, possibly with a noose and grappling-hook, to a large lift that would have taken her together with the man others up to the ground floor of the building. Here, in the furnace room, a trolley would have moved her body along to continue the procedure. Any gold teeth she might have had would have been broken out of her mouth with pliers, and she would have been tipped out of the trolley into one of the fifteen cast-iron ovens. She would have been disposed of in about twenty minutes, her own residual fat helping to sustain the heat of the oven, thus saving fuel.

The description of the holocaust and how it affected the family of his aunt takes up the largest part of the book. Clearly, the author must have been filled with a fascination or horror to write this part of family history out of his system.

Obviously, while some writers write about what they think their readers or publishers might like, Vikram Seth is known for his idiosyncratic choice to write about what fascinates him, breaking any taboo or convention, to pursue what interests him. This is the prerogative of the author.
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LibraryThing member kgodey
Two Lives: A Memoir is the first Vikram Seth book I've read (I seem to be making a habit of introducing myself to authors who primarily write fiction by reading their non-fiction work; the only Barbara Kingsolver book I've read is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and On Writing is the only Stephen King
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book in the house, although I haven't read that one yet.) I found the title of the book slightly misleading – while the book is certainly about Seth's uncle Shanti and aunt Henny, it's also very much about his relationship with them.

The book is divided into five independent parts, each approaching different facet of the story. It starts off with the young Vikram Seth arriving to live with his aunt and uncle while he attends school in England, and his perceptions of them. Then, we learn about Shanti's life, then Henny's, then their life together. I was expecting the book to be more narrative than it was; a large portion of it quotes various interviews and letters. Much of the narration that accompanies the quotes seems more like annotation or clarification of context. At first, I found this annoying, but I got used to it.

The story of Shanti and Henny is certainly makes fascinating reading. Shanti is a Hindu from India who studies dentistry in Germany, and Henny is the daughter of the Jewish family he boards with while doing so. However, their love story blossoms in England. Both of them are remarkable people in their own right – Shanti is a much-loved practising dentist, even though he lost one of his arms in World War II. Henny's story is quite tragic; her mother and sister do not make it out of Germany, and she has to face many truths about her family and friends after the war is over. I think her correspondences were the most interesting part of the book – we got an intimate look at how she coped with a tragedy of the magnitude of the Holocaust. She always remained incredibly dignified and restrained, though.

At times, I found myself wishing that the book was a little more focused. It seemed like Seth structured the book around trying to present every bit of information that he had (especially about Henny), rather than build a cohesive narrative. At other times, I appreciated the tangents and extra details about the couple's family and friends.

I also had mixed feelings about the author talking about his own feelings at various points in the book. On the one hand, they made it feel more intimate – he is in fact, writing about the aunt and uncle that he loves and respects, so it's nice to see that come through. On the other hand, some of the things he said seemed superfluous and distracting; for instance, he talks about the different areas of the world and technologies that Germany has had an impact on (including some thoughts on the future.)

Originally posted on my blog.
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Awards

National Book Critics Circle Award (Finalist — Autobiography/Memoir — 2005)
Dayton Literary Peace Prize (Longlist — Nonfiction — 2006)
Crossword Book Award (Winner — 2006)

Pages

512

ISBN

0060599669 / 9780060599669
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