on 11 May 2003
A novel written in sonnets; Well it worked for Pushkin and it most definitely works for Vikram Seth.
I first discovered Vikram Seth, when i was sent a copy of his first (travel) book 'From Heaven's Lake' to review. This book was brilliant and I boldly described it as one of the greatest travel books which would ever be written. Nearly twenty-five years later, I have not changed my opinion about that book one iota.
I approached 'Golden Gate' however, with hesitancy. It all seemed a bit gimmicky and although I was a big fan of Pushkin's 'Eugene Onegin', also written in sonnets, I felt that Seth's book would be, at best, an anachronism. How wrong I was! This book is truly one of THE great works of modern literature and cannot be praised highly enough. It is quite simply, beautiful.
Vikram Seth has now found international fame as a result of the bestselling 'A Suitable Boy', but, in my opinion, this is his greatest work. It's just a shame I won't be around in a hundred years to remind everyone of how perceptive I was! (and humble; we mustn't forget humble)
on 18 May 2002
This book, written complete in sonnet verse is simply amazing. When you open the cover and discover that not only, the main text, but the Acknowlegments, Table of Contents, Dedication, and "About The Authour" are also written in sonnet form, you'll know that Seth means business.
The entire book is written in Iambic Tetrameter (with strict rhyming to boot), yet though I thought this would be forboding, it really wasn't, and is amazingly readable. You'll even find yourself, having put the book down, thinking and talking in the line length that the authour uses!
The book itself, details the lives of a close knit group of Californians, initially centering about a programmer (though the omnisient narrator darts around a bit) and his life, relationships, and the waxing and waning of his friendships. Seth achieves this with utmost brilliance as the protagonist falls in and out of love, even venturing into brief promiscuity.
The Golden Gate ends with a few broken hearts, and is indeed vaguely depressing towards its finale. Seth's style, however, is true to the end, and indeed it is a well recommended read (even if just for the experience!). Just pick it up and be immersed - you won't be able to put it down.
on 12 February 2000
I found this book rather 'by accident' in the library (when actually looking for a different Seth title). Only back home did I discover what I had let myself into: A whole novel in VERSE! But it took me only a couple of lines to get lost in this more ambitious version of 'Tales of the City'. In fact, few prose novels are such easy, exciting reading. And hardly any prose novel provides fascination on the grounds of the sheer ease and perfection of its technique alone - without getting you stuck in form. On the plot level, you find yourself laughing and crying your heart out. Absolutely unique and very, very enjoyable!
on 2 August 2000
Read this book. Seth manages to sustain throughout the length of a novel a demanding verse form which allows him to demonstrate a high degree of technical dexterity and poetic wit. More important, he tells a tale which demonstrates a deep sympathy with all his characters: Seth pardons all because he understands all. Once you've read the story for the plot you will read it again to savour the many felicities of language and, pervading all, nothing less than a philosophy of life based on the acceptance of others and the value of friendship and love.
on 22 March 2008
Since I got a little - ok, a lot - carried away with my review, I thought I'd begin with my concluding paragraph so that you don't have to wade through my ravings (unless you'd like to, of course!):
What could so easily have been an "exercise de style"; an indulgent challenge for a talented and versatile writer, succeeds on every level. From a complex, classic verse form, Seth has crafted a contemporary novel which is both comic and poignant: an astounding achievement and a wonderful read.
I stumbled upon this book in the early 1990s, at a book warehouse sale, where everything was priced at £1. Having read the blurb on the back and noted that it was published by faber and faber, I decided to make this minor investment. Very thankful am I to that fateful discovery for what quickly became one of my very favourite books.
It induced in me that most common response having just finished a book I adore: grab people and tell them they must read it too. Whilst eulogising to one particular friend about The Golden Gate, and explaining that it was a whole novel written entirely in sonnet form verse, her reaction was, "Oh, why?!" If this is your reaction to that fact, perhaps this book is not for you. If, however, your response is "Oh, WOW!", get ye a copy and prepare to be blown away.
Seth is best known for his prose, especially An Equal Music and, most of all, A Suitable Boy. But he is also an accomplished poet, who is just a wonderful writer, whatever the genre (travel writing, short stories, biography). The sonnet is a long way from the sweeping epic narrative of A Suitable Boy - deemed too long to win the Booker. My first reading of The Golden Gate happened to coincide with the first year of my A' level courses, and in English Literature, we were studying Keats, and the sonnet in general. In an attempt to get us better to appreciate the skill involved in composing a sonnet, we were made to write one ourselves - or, at least, to attempt to so do. If it were not already clear, it soon became apparent that it's a complex form, requiring great talent to make it work.
The Golden Gate is set, obviously, in California, and concerns itself with the lives of a group of twenty-somethings as they look for love and purpose in their lives. Some of the verses are gentle and moving:
"When fear grows too intense to handle.
We shrink into a private smile,
Surpursie when here and there a candle
Drives back the dark a little while,
A little space, before it gutters;
Or in the madness a voice utters
Words full of calm that to us seem
To bear the dry light of a dream
And stain our waking with more sorrow.
The night of hate that covers earth,
The generous country of our birth,
The single land from which we borrow
All that is ours - air, insight, tears,
Our fragile lives - for a few years,"
Others are more playful; fizzing as they move the plot along:
"Liz burst into astonished laughter.
Phil watched her with uncertain eyes.
She wiped her streaming tears, and after
A sneeze or two asked, "Is that wise?"
"Wise?" "Sure, Phil - we don't love each other!
To borrow wisdom from my mother,
It's love that makes the world go round!"
"That's bullshit!" grunted Phil. "I've found
That love's a pretty poor forecaster.
I loved a woman - and was dropped.
I loved a man - and that too flopped.
Passion's a prelude to disaster.
It's something else that makes me sure.
Our bond can last five decades more."
At times one forgets one is reading verse, and just enjoys what is a delightful story, at others one is startled by the poetical beauty. Combined, the power of these two elements, make Seth's first novel a real achievement, and more importantly, a joy and a delight to read.
on 5 December 2011
"The Golden Gate" is that rare beast in late 20th century literature, a novel in verse. And not just any sort of verse. Vikram Seth's novel is written in the "Onegin stanza" used by Pushkin in his "Eugene Onegin" but rarely imitated in English except by Pushkin translators. This verse-form consists of fourteen-line stanzas in iambic tetrameter with a fixed, and complex, rhyme-scheme involving the alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes. Seth uses this stanza not only for the story itself, but also for his dedication, acknowledgements, contents page and biographical note.
As the title implies, the story is set in the San Francisco area of California. The book was written in 1986, and the main characters are all what at the time would have been referred to by the (now rather outdated) slang term "yuppies", that is to say Young Urban Professionals. Several of them have similarities with Pushkin's characters. The central character, John Brown, is not only the same age as Onegin (26) but also shares something of his world-weary cynicism and a preoccupation with ageing unusual in one so young. John's girlfriend Liz Dorati equates to Tatyana, and his idealistic best friend Phil Weiss to Vladimir Lensky. I wondered who the Olga-figure would turn out to be; at first I assumed it would be Liz's younger sister Sue, but in fact it turns out to be her younger brother Ed, with whom Phil, a divorcee with a young son, has a brief gay affair. Another character who plays an important role, especially towards the end of the novel, is John's ex-girlfriend Janet Hayakawa, a Japanese-American sculptor. Like Pushkin, Seth occasionally becomes a character in his own work and addresses the reader directly; in one of these passages he admits that Charles Johnston's translation of the Russian classic was his inspiration.
The novel follows the progress of the relationships between John and Liz and Phil and Ed. Both affairs end unhappily, although for different reasons. John and Liz hold radically different political views; he is a scientist working in the defence industry, whereas she has become involved with the anti-nuclear movement. (His unfounded jealousy also plays a part). The relationship between Phil and Ed is doomed by Ed's devout Catholic faith and his conviction that homosexuality is sinful.
As a poem, the novel is technically very good. There are, admittedly, some occasional lines which fail to scan and some horribly contrived rhymes. ("Homestead" stressed on the second syllable to provide a rhyme for "red", for example). Certain intellectual topics, such as Catholic teaching on sexual morality or the pros and cons of unilateral nuclear disarmament, do not readily lend themselves to versification. For the most part, however, Seth is able to keep up with the demands of his exacting verse form remarkably well, especially when one considers that "The Golden Gate" is considerably longer than "Eugene Onegin" itself.
Seth said of "Eugene Onegin" that he loved "the ability that Pushkin had to run through a wide range of emotions, from absolute flippancy to real sorrow and passages that would make you think, during and after reading it," and he himself is able to use the Onegin stanza to similar effect. At times, he can be very flippant, sarcastic or satirical, yet there are also passages of genuine emotional depth, especially during the tragic, downbeat final chapters.
From my reading of the work, I would suspect that Seth himself leans politically to the left and that his sympathies would lie with the liberal Phil and Liz rather than with the more conservative John and Ed. Yet, artistically as opposed to politically, "The Golden Gate" is a very conservative work indeed. Most major twentieth-century poets writing in English did not make much use of rhyming verse, and even those that did, such as Betjeman, rarely attempted anything as structurally complex as this. Seth's decision, however, to tell a modern story in a traditional style is amply justified by the results he obtains. The plot is a relatively slight one, and I suspect that if this were a prose novel it would not be a particularly interesting one. As a novel in verse, it is an elegant and stylish piece of writing. This is one work where form is at least as important as content.
on 26 December 1998
A snapshot of twentysomething John's search for love in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, this book is an account with a difference, as it is delivered in sparkling verse throughout. John enlists the help of his old friend Janet to place an advert in the lonely hearts columns, thereby meeting Liz, a successful lawyer. They weave their way through the other characters (John's old friend Phil, Liz's brother Ed and the rest of her family, amongst others), but it seems that perhaps John's personality will never allow him to be happy. If this account of the book seems a little two-dimensional, then this is because the twists and turns the story takes should, of course, not be told to the first time reader. Suffice to say that you will laugh out loud, and you will also, unless you have a heart of stone, cry quietly. The style of writing is dazzling (remember, it's in verse throughout - even the dedication and chapter headings!), and it's no exaggeration to say that this is one of the very few books to yield more, much more, at every reading. My battered copy, now eleven years old, has survived thunderstorms, coffee and page-loss intact, but it still remains at the top of the literary tree. Buy it for an adventurous friend, and show them what Vikram Seth achieved before 'A Suitable Boy'.
on 2 May 2011
I originally picked this book up from a library on a whim, thinking that it might be an interesting experiment. I then pretty much read it from cover-to-cover without stopping! Such is the fluidity of the verse and the beauty of the language that you cannot help but be carried away by the rhythm.
Not many books have the power to make you smile, think, laugh and cry but I defy anyone not to shed a tear as the final chapter begins.
I've now bought six copies of this owing to the fact that I keep telling people they should read it and then have to combat their scepticism by lending them my copy which I never see again.
This book really is a thing of beauty and should be essential reading not just for Seth fans but for anyone who enjoys the written word.
on 11 May 1999
Surprisingly, a very good read indeed! Stiff verses - not here! The ease and intelligence with which Seth composes his verses, into a classic novel, is highly readable and extremely enjoyable!
on 18 October 2001
I have read this book out loud to myself and to friends (and relatives!) about five times. I have given about eight copies away. It is a total, unparalleled pleasure to wallow in the seductive cadences of Seth's poetic novel, and to marvel at the no-doubt obsessive and somewhat twisted brain which has come up with the words, rhymes, and humor in this book.
In the style of long, long ago, this book is the only one that I have ever read which brings poetry totally and absolutely to life. It's poetry which details AND-gates, talks about punk rock bands, and watches love come and go.
This is a great book and a great experience. Enjoy.