Tuesday, January 3, 2012

To Hendon from India and Berlin: the triumph of Two Lives

Two Lives: A MemoirTwo Lives: A Memoir by Vikram Seth

The Two Lives are those of the author's great uncle Shanti and great aunt Henny, who lived in Hendon when he knew them, but had met in Berlin before the Second World War. She was a Jewish native of Berlin. He was an Indian student of dentistry with connections in Britain.

Seth describes his dealings with the couple as he became friends with them as their lodger when he was studying in England. But the book is principally an account of their own relationship, which Seth learns about through a series of interviews with his uncle and through the fortuitous discovery, late in the process of writing the book, of a suitcase of his aunt's correspondence with her circle of friends in Berlin during and after the war.

While Seth concludes, meditatively, that great drama can be found behind the quiet facades of any suburban house, in fact, his aunt and uncle's lives were both, in different ways, dramatic and unusual.

Her sister and mother died in concentration camps during the war. Seth's piecing together of that story is moving and powerful, as he is able to quote from the understated letters in which his aunt received heart-breaking fragments of news about her family's last days.

His uncle served as a dentist in the British army, where he lost an arm in Italy. His struggle and eventual success in resuming his profession with only one arm is as heroic as any military exploit.

I haven't read the book: instead I listened to the six CDs of the audio version, read by Seth himself, with a small cast of excellent actors playing the parts of his relations. Seth's own voice gives a unique depth to his story. Its melodies combine with his precise and restrained language to build a picture that is utterly engrossing.

The book is open about its own creation: how Seth was persuaded to write it; how he felt about his relations at all stages of his life and their's; how his judgements were revised in the light of comments from his earliest readers; and how his admiration of his uncle was challenged by a decision he made about his will in the last months of his life.

For me, the most fascinating part of the book was the detailed account of how his aunt picked up relations with her circle of German friends after the war. For each of them, a judgement had to be made: had they properly and full-heartedly opposed the Nazi regime, or had they simply made 'exceptions' of their Jewish friends? Sorting through what had happened and coming to a conclusion about who was a true friend and who would have to be dropped because of the events of the intervening years was a complex and difficult process.

Seth gives a masterful summary of German culture and Germany's contribution to history - both positive and negative -, but admits that his study of the horrors of Nazism for the book poisoned his appreciation of the German language for years afterwards.

Two Lives is more of a project than a book, though it is expertly written up. Its story is both personal and universal. I have listened to it twice because I found so much to admire, enjoy and learn. Nobody could hear it without being moved. I almost feel that I have acquired, in Seth, a much-loved family member.

Memories of Hendon from Two Lives:

18 Queens Road was a large semidetached house about five minutes walk from the Hendon Central underground station on the Northern Line, a couple of stations after it emerged from its tunnel into the daylight. Apart from two small attics, the house was spread over two floors. Each floor had four main rooms.

Downstairs, the sunniest room, with a large south-facing window, was Uncle's surgery. He spent more than eight hours there each day, and needed the light. The surgery faced the front garden with its roses and gleaming professional plaque, and, beyond the busy road, the green expanse of Hendon Park and the hills of Hampstead to the south.

And here it is, thanks to Google Streetview. The front garden had already been paved over when Seth returned to look at it after his relatives had died:

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