Thursday, November 17, 2005

A Suitable Book.

Confession du Jour:
I love reading lengthy novels.
And if it’s heftiness you’re after, you can’t beat Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.
I read this slab a few years ago, and it was AWESOMELY good! It’s one of my favorite novels ever.
Published in 1993, some say that it’s the longest novel ever written in the English language.
This is puzzling to me, however, because certainly Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa is longer. By sheer word count alone, Clarissa has over a million, whereas Seth’s book has 591,554.

And even Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged contains 645,000 words. So... I am not sure how the press gets away with saying Seth’s book is the lengthiest. Maybe they mean in a single volume or something? But wasn’t Rand’s book published in a single volume also? Are they using pages, rather than wordcount, as a rule?
Who cares though, right?
We aren’t trying to pull off the world record here! [Like this Simon Roberts shyster who included a a pile of meaningless pages in his Knickers book just so it could get into the Guinness Book (2003) only to be retracted later when officials realized what he had done.]
Seth is above such shenanigans. [That's quite a tongue-twister, seriously. Say it real fast, like.]

He is a fine author. I have also read his An Equal Music, and I am very much interested in reading his new (2005) historo-memoir type book, entitled Two Lives, an account of the marriage of his great uncle and aunt.

I think that the only flaw in A Suitable Boy is that it is not long enough.
If I had it my way, I would want the additional 600 pages Seth excised from his original manuscript tacked on to this pared down concrete slab we readers were left with. It took him nearly a decade to write it.
I loved the book, and here are a few reasons why:

The whole story makes sense, for one thing. Seth's characters live and breathe like real people.
His style has been called “classic realism” in the tradition of Leo Tolstoy and George Eliot.
Seth describes his preferred prose style as follows “...the kind of books I like reading are books where the authorial voice doesn’t intrude … [or] … pull you up with the brilliance of their sentences”. I think he achieves this very thing in A Suitable Boy, one of the least “affected” books I have ever read.
No-one is really a superstar, or superhero, no one individual always saves the day.
Almost everyone takes their turn at being admirable, vulnerable, humiliated, elated, dejected, disappointed, unsure, hypocritical, sincere, lovable, revered, loathed, snooty, exalted, and cast down.
Even Lata Mehra, the girl for whom a suitable boy is being sought out, even she is not technically the undisputed protaganist in the novel... so many interesting sub-stories are at work throughout this year long adventure, that, at the end, it would be difficult to single out anyone as having the leading role.
It would only be proper for them all to join hands and take a bow, our job being merely to applaud.

This book is a river with many tributaries. But it IS a river. There is a source, a unity, a connecting thread... it flows from a high point, yet the structure of A Suitable Boy is different from most "plots". There certainly is no single "bad guy" or "good guy" to point to. Here we've got four families, each member of which has their own growing up to do... and as in real life, there is no time or place for a single plot. Yet, all of them (the Mehras, Kapoors, Khans, Chatterjis), have a profound effect on each other and great themes such as pride and humility, passion and patience, the practical vs. the romantic, power and authority, cultural taboos... these themes emerge and keep the reader not only awake, but enthralled. [As opposed to what Samuel Johnson allegedly said of Richardson’s Clarissa, "...if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment.”]
With Vikram Seth, we are reading for the STORY!
It's true that there is a lot of tedious (yet necessary) political stuff going on in this book. But I found that just as I was getting tired of it (or overwhelmed, or let's say it, bored) Seth moved on... just in time, for me anyways.
Set in India in the early 1950s, it is the story of a young girl, Lata, and her search for a husband.
I must say that I found Lata's decision unpredictable and surprising, and right up until reading the very sentence I did not have a clue as to what she would decide to do, if anything at all.
I accredit my surprise to the author's skill.
When Mrs. Mehra says to her younger son Varun at the end of the book "You too will marry a girl I choose" I had to laugh, and think Hey! What a great foreshadowy segue into a sequel called A Suitable Girl.
And if there were such a thing of equal size to this present book, I would wade right into it without hesitation. A Suitable Boy is a masterpiece, and I'm confident that any true lover of story will not only appreciate it, but find it unforgettable.
There is plenty of bookpuddle to splash around in, here. You'll only wish there were more. You know an author has succeeded at something when you close his or her book, and feel a bit lonely afterward.



Stefanie said...

I like reading long books too. I'm reading Clarissa right now. Maybe I'll give A Suitable Boy a go next.

Cipriano said...

Wow, that is really quite the coincidence. I must say, I don't know much about Clarissa.
My favorite gi-normous books have been War & Peace, The Seth one, Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, The Brothers Karamazov, London by Edward Rutherfurd, David Copperfield, Anna Karenina, Lord of the Rings, stuff like that.
I want to read Middlemarch, and also the big Ayn Rand novels. Maybe Boccaccio, too. And even Cervantes, if I get brave-as-hell, as in your picture image.
Was it good?
Reading is like baptism, I guess. You can go in for the sprinkling, or you can go in for the total immersion.

Stefanie said...

Don Quixote was a good read. The first part of the book got bogged down in the middle but part two was great. Worth the time.

Did you read Rutherford's Sarum? It's about Salisbury and was pretty good. I haven't read London though.

Middlemarch is good but I liked Mill on the Floss better. I'd like to get to Gormenghast, Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina and David Copperfield one of these days.

There's a book called Hunger's Bride that came out in September that is over 1,000 pages. It sounds like a good story, but I haven't brought myself to buy it yet. I've got The Iliad in waiting as well as several long Neal Stephenson books. I expect my shelves to start sagging anytime now :)

Isabella K said...

I loved An Equal Music, but have yet to read A Suitable Boy.

Don Quixote — definitely worth it.

I didn't think of Gormenghast or Anna Karenina as particularly ginormous, but they were worth it too.

Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon was big, and worth it if you like that sort of thing (which I do). His recent trilogy, and Middlemarch, are in my to-read stack.

Cipriano said...

Isabella, your comment inspired me to look into the Stephenson Baroque Trilogy at the bookstore.
That is a LOT of book! They had all three parts there.
And it looks so interesting, I love stories about old old London, and England in general.
Middlemarch too. I've got to read it.
Did you know that there is this tortoise that was born in the 1830's and it is still alive? I saw it on TV the other day. It's cute as hell. They predict he (or she, I forget which it is) will live past its 200th birthday! Well, even if I live as long as that tortoise does, I will never be finished reading all the stuff I want to read.
You did not think of Gormenghast as gi-normous? My one-volume Tusk-Overlook edition is 1023 pages. I drive my car up onto it so I can get under and change the oil! I also have Gormenghast in a real nifty three-volume boxed set too.

Stefanie, I have Rutherfurd's Sarum and Russka here on my shelf, both unread.
I know I know, and there's people starving!

roxanestoner said...

Have you read "The Golden Gate" by Vikram Seth? A brilliant novel, all in verse. So perfect! Not a very long book though, sorry about that, but a lasting impression.

Amritorupa Kanjilal said...

Hello Cipriano.
The hugeness was what basically scared me away from A Suitable Boy, though I have loved other works by Seth. Thank you for this lovely review, I just booked this book at Flipkart :)

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