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Two Lives Hardcover – Sep 8 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Although listeners miss seeing the dozens of photographs in the print book that allow a person to visually study the principals of this wonderful double biography, audiobook fans are in for a rare but satisfying treat of their own: an author who can read his own work in a compelling and palpable manner. Seth is an excellent reader and his supporting cast of four, who read the numerous letters written to and by the main characters, Seth's great aunt and uncle, do a phenomenal job of bringing the written page alive. The entire package (except for the missing photos; how hard would it be to include a little booklet of them?) is of the highest caliber. Even the music that introduces the sections is fine enough that the composer is credited at the end of the book. Another bonus is a short interview with the author (although it does not provide much more insight than a listener has already gathered). The one complaint is that the four other readers are not appropriately credited for their individual roles, rather than receiving the blanket credit "letters read by."
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From School Library Journal
Adult/High School–At 17, the Indian-born author left his homeland to study at Oxford. He lived with his aunt and uncle, a middle-class English couple in every way except one–his Uncle Shanti was Indian and his Aunt Henny was a German Jew. Through interviews with his uncle and a trunk of correspondence from his aunt, he is able to tell their story. Readers learn that Shanti, a dentist, lost an arm, and that Henny lost all of her family during World War II. They learn the details of these losses and about the couples romance. Shantis story is told first and is in some ways very similar to the narrators. Hennys story takes up the majority of the book and consists largely of correspondence from before the war until several years after. Hers is mostly a Holocaust story that tells as much about the culture of the time as the woman herself. Finally, they marry, more out of convenience than love, but they stay contentedly together for more than 30 years. The final chapter, a discussion of their estate, seems somewhat rushed and tacked on after the slowly paced narrative that came before. Photographs are scattered throughout. The book is lengthy, but each fact shared is an important building block in telling the tale of this couple in the context of their era. A richly rewarding story.–Jamie Watson, Harford County Public Library, MD
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Readers of Vikram Seth will immediately recognize the clear, balanced, always kind attitude in the writing. Seth takes the interesting approach of telling his own connection with the characters first, so you meet his uncle Shanti and aunt Henny as middle-aged and old people -- and follow them to their deaths before you learn very much about what brought them together or how they wound up in London as husband and wife. It's amazing that this works as well as it does -- instead of being less interested in them, you find yourself anxious to know how Shanti lost his arm, how Henny escaped from Germany on the eve of Word War II, and how they fell in love and came together.
Each story is told in turn -- Shanti's first, then Henny's, and it is another amazing feat of writing that this doesn't become repetitive or confusing. You are carried from India to Berlin to Edinburgh to Italy to London with Shanti, incidentally learning a lot about dentistry along the way (readers of A SUITABLE BOY will smile and settle in, remembering the long discourse on shoemaking in that novel!). Then you are carried, less directly, from Berlin to England with Henny, but the real force of her story (she died before Seth began the writing project, so he never interviewed her directly in the way he did his uncle) comes in letters from her old Berlin "set" after the war. This is an intriguing story, and makes me wonder why we haven't had a flood of novels and memoirs on the topic before (perhaps we have, and I'm just ignorant of them). Henny, whose sister and mother were unable to leave Germany and perished in the death camps, slowly gets into contact with old Christian and Jewish friends still in Germany and learns piecemeal from them how they managed in the war -- who risked life to visit and bring supplies to her sister and mother in the final days before deportation, who disappeared into the cloud of Nazism, dropping old friends, who straddled the awkward line between assimilation and rebellion. We learn of the compromises everyone made, the choices they regretted and the risks they wished they had and hadn't taken. It's a fascinating glimpse into the minds of ordinary Germans after the war -- all couched in the terms of everyday life, from despair over a stolen cachet of clothing to embarrassment at the gratitude of elderly beggars when they are given just a crust of bread to cold toes in old shoes -- the stuff of life in those terrible years. Henny, safe in England, is filled with sadness and fury, and feels she must "cut" those friends whom she learns were not as kind as they should have been during the war, no matter their friendliness afterwards. She also reconnects with the fiance who buried the Jewish half of his ancestry and married a Christian girl while Henny presumably waited for him abroad.
I've already given away too much, but this is the kind of book you yearn to sit down and dissect with good friends. It's rich in detail (you will never forget the account of the Birkenau gas chamber), good-hearted, and important, not only for its wealth of historical and biographical information but for a glimpse into the lives of people who traveled continents, making friends and connections along the way, appreciating the differences among religions, cultures, literature, and music without championing any above the others, and living full and well-considered lives. I highly, highly recommend it.
There have been so many moving accounts written of those who perished or survived during the painful years of World War Two. I was skeptical that another, even if it was written by an author I admire greatly, would add significantly to that oeuvre. That question wasn't answered clearly for me because it was the wrong one to ask. This book doesn't reveal shocking new truths about the Holocaust, although it describes how many of Henny's friends and family were deported to concentration camps, or managed to emigrate, as did she, with great difficulty. This book doesn't rival the best writing about the pluck of young men sent to war, some to die, some to return ravaged or inalterably changed, although it describes how, as a medical officer in Monte Cassino, Shanti has an arm blown off. It does not shock; indeed, it doesn't even touch deep emotional chords in the reader very often, which may be its biggest flaw. What it does do is bring the reader to a place of quiet recognition.
We live in a global society in which people from all cultures are thrown together. We can choose to trust each other, appreciate each other, even love each other, or we can seek the differences between us and use them as wedges. Two Lives is about two people who found common ground. At first, unconsciously, as Seth points out, they defaulted to the surprising similarities between the values of the Indian Hindu and German Jewish cultures, and later added to them a proper dollop of middle class English quotidian. Seth's Shanti Uncle and Aunty Henny built a Wahlverwandten (German for "chosen family") around them, and as it is for most families, it was far-flung, confounded by secrets, replete with fond memories, rife with misunderstandings, and as rich in what wasn't done and said as in what was.
For all of the particularity of Henny and Shanti's lives, they were extraordinarily ordinary, and that is perhaps what makes this book reverberate on such a deep level for all of us. In Two Lives we see in sharp relief how two people never compromised their true temperaments, whatever the circumstances, and as a result built a positive, connected life. If that meant accommodation, generosity, unexpressed anguish, devotion, hard work, so be it. This is certainly not Seth's most lyrical effort; he knows it cannot be if he's to integrate the vast detail of geography, culture, language, and time shifts that span nearly 80 years in a straightforward way. Seth's own raw pain at his uncle's anomalous behavior in his confused old age is just one more example of the book's humanity, of the complicated, unexpected twists that characterize every fully-lived life.
Neither Henny nor Shanti ever forgot their pasts, but move forward they did, and they did it together. What more could we readers ask of ourselves?
Henny must part from her family and make her escape to London. Throughout 1940s she bears the news of one killing after the other, as under Hitler, Germans seek out the Jews and exterminate them. Henny corresponds with Shanti who is fighting in the War, and corresponds with friends left in Germany. The stash of letters that Vikram Seth uses and copies in this memoir is a telling tale of what millions of Jews suffered through in the 1940s and thereafter. Henny meanwhile works her daytime job, and in beginning of 1950s marries her lifetime friend and companion Shanti.
Henny and Shanti are two lives in focus here. The lives are inspirational, while their times full of war, misery, deaths, separations, and treachery. Through their life stories one comes face to face some of the greatest horrors from previous century. The World War II and action against Jews feature as the backdrop in which the valor of the protagonists and the depth and sincerity of friendships they had with people is tested. Historical perspective provided by Vikram is well researched. The story puts you face to face with not only the pre-1950 horrors, but also raises some important questions about present day world, say Israel-Palenstine conflict and US-Middle East divide.
In some places, the book is almost auto-biographical. In the beginning of the story, a teenager, great-nephew Vikram Seth arrives at the house of Shanti and Henny. He sets up his personal association with the two lives in his characteristic witty, simple but effective writing. Vikram Seth is one of my favorite living poets and writers. Having read all his novels, and nearly all his poems, I loved the beginning for it describes the writers own struggles and coming of age as well as how and when his various works were written. While the main story is of Shanti and Henny, Vikram's own story is an interesting third element that makes this memoir worth picking.
Yet maybe because the theme is so complex, maybe becuase it is a memoir, maybe becuase it speaks of such turbulent times and for Heeny's life progresses through her own correspondences, Vikram Seth's Two Lives is not as easy and straightforward reading as his previous novels. The story of Henny during 1940s has too many characters, and these come in and go rather quickly. Perhaps the idea there was to emphasize the events, rather than personalities (quite unlike in Suitable boy), and the letters, the narrative weaves a heart-wrenching description of Berlin through racial hatred, through bombing, and through division after the war.
Vikram Seth strives to provide a lifelike potrait of both Henny and Shanti. Hence, he strives to outline aspects from their daily routine that he witnesses himself, his other family members perceive by themselves and what he gathers from his conversations with Shanti and from letters of Henny. He is telling the tale of real people, related to him. Only an author of his calibre can create such a rich, likable, must read memoir using these tid-bits of information and working with and against his own personal relationships. Vikram doesn't make Shanti or Henny into just heroic survivors of various tragedies and catastropies. Neither does he magnify their life sagas or characteristics. He provides snapshots of their successes and failings, of their quirks and habits, of the complexity of relationship and marriage, and of their painful approach to death.
Two Lives is overall a great memoir that one ought to read to feel inspired by the protagonists, to become aware of horrors that our grandfathers faced, to understand our present world and to appreciate how well a writer like Vikram Seth can weave a saga from such varied elements. People like me who have read other books by Vikram Seth might be surprised by presence of some obscure parts in the book, but the story itself requires a degree of uncertainity, of vagueness, of incompleteness. If it were fiction, one could have reproached Seth for spending too much time on deaths of protagonists and on their life after 1960s. Especially some of the family disputes could have been pruned. Here in the biography, he needs to pull all elements of their life together, and like he must, he describes events in 1930s and 1940s in greatest detail.
The narration of events in Germany from 1930s and 1940s, the copies of Henny's correspondence during that time and Shanti's personal reminisces about the second world war and dentistry with left hand are transformed into a must read biography by one of the greatest living writers of our times. Go, read it.
After Henny's death in 1989, Vikram took up the idea of writing the biography of Shanti. He interviewed the then 85 year old for this purpose in eleven lengthy sessions during 1994. Henny had never wanted to talk about the past - even to Shanti she never referred to the deaths of her mother and sister in Nazi camps - , and Vikram knew never to ask her about it; but in 1995 there was found, tucked away in a corner of Shanti's attic, a cabin trunk which Henny had brought with her when she left Germany in 1939. It contained a mass of papers and photographs from which Vikram was able to reconstruct her earlier life and her first few years in England in as much detail as he he had gleaned in the interviews with Shanti about his early years; and that enabled him to expand his book into a dual biography. Even Shanti did not know of the trunk or of much that it revealed of his wife's earlier life and thoughts.
Financed by an elder brother from India, Shanti had come to Europe in 1931 to study dentistry. These studies were too expensive in London, so he had gone to Berlin, having at that time no German at all. One of his landladies there was Ella Caro, Henny's mother. He qualified with distinction in 1936, but then found that as a foreigner he was not allowed to practise as a dentist in Nazi Germany. (He does not otherwise seem to have felt much affected by the atmosphere there since 1933). So he left for Edinburgh, where he had to re-qualify. After that he began to practise in London.
Back in Berlin, the Caro family was suffering all the discrimination that the Nazis unleashed against the Jews. A month before the outbreak of war, Henny was able to come to England, sponsored by the distinguished Arab scholar Arthur J. Arberry. She had to leave her mother, her sister and her half-Jewish fiancé behind.
When the war broke out, Shanti joined the Army Dental Corps. The correspondence between him and Henny is now very loving, especially on his side: his letters suggest that he may already have proposed to her, and that she had neither rejected or accepted him. She had already learnt that her fiancé had become engaged to a Christian girl.
In 1944 he found himself in Italy at Monte Cassino, where a shell hit him and he lost his right fore-arm. After the war, back in England, he was able, remarkably, to continue practising as a dentist.
Henny in the meantime had had to come to terms with the news she received after the war that her mother and sister had died (the mother in Theresienstadt, the sister in Auschwitz-Birkenau). Her former fiancé was trying to resume contact with her; but she had been told (probably falsely) that he had professed enthusiasm for Hitler. She brusquely rejected further correspondence, as she rejected similar efforts from other former friends who had behaved badly during the war. But she sent Care parcels to those of her now needy friends in devastated Germany of whose faithfulness she felt sure. Yet even in those cases, she had struggles with herself when she came to learn of compromising incidents of omission or commission: her very best friend, for instance, was married to a former member of the Nazi Party even if he may not have been, as one letter had told her, a Storm Trooper.
The correspondence between Henny (she kept carbon copies of many of her letters) and her friends in Germany is fascinating. It paints such vivid pictures of the moral dilemmas just described, both for Henny and for her friends, and also of the terrible conditions in the immediate post-war years in Germany, in the Western as well as in the Soviet-controlled Eastern Zones.
Shanti and Henny had been what we now call `an item' for a whole five years after Shanti had returned to England before he proposed to her, and another two years before they actually married in 1951, both aged 43. As a work of art, the book ought perhaps to have stopped there; and I found the last 130 pages or so something of an anti-climax. For after that time, there were no more dramatic or exotic aspects to their lives. They no longer interacted with world events or with different cultures. Though Vikram continues to explore their personalities and the nature of their relationship to each other, the account is less interesting than that of their earlier lives. Their declining years of ill health are then described in considerable detail and - Shanti's especially, which was accompanied with mental senility - at great length. Like some senile people, Shanti used the one power that was left to him to sow family discord with his Will - a rather sordid story told, in my opinion, at excessive length at practically the end of the book. A pity, that.
This book has much to be said in its favor. It is animated by Seth's essential love for humanity in all its forms and foibles and by his basic optimism, traits that incidentally may have made him less popular in literary circles than he should be by all rights. And it also evidences some of Seth's endearing, almost nerdy, quest for detail about how human beings live and have lived. (From this book, in describing the research labor needed to research A Suitable Boy, his 1300-page-plus masterpiece: "What exactly did one do if one visited a courtesan in 1951, and how would I find someone to tell me?" Priceless.) And I don't mind Seth's constant shifting from the story of his uncle Shanti to that of his aunt Henny, to his own life, to larger historical questions.
But this is a book that could have been successfully accomplished in at least 100 fewer pages. In a long middle section, Seth presents lengthy letters to and from his protagonists with little commentary. Much of this material adds little to the picture he is presenting. This is an instance in which Seth may have become so exhilarated about his success in finding the relevant material that he exaggerated its interest and importance. For that stretch of the book, he abdicates his authorial duties. This is especially regrettable since the era he is describing -- the daily life of Germans in the immediate post-Holocaust period -- is a fascinating and much-overlooked one.
Still, Seth's clear prose and deft understanding of human lives set against the backdrop of history is still present. This passage epitomizes Seth's wisdom:
"Shaken about the globe, we live out our fractured lives. Enticed or fleeting, we re-form ourselves, taking on partially the coloration of our new backgrounds. Even our tongues are alienated and rejoined -- a multiplicity that creates richness and confusion. Both Shanti and Henny were in the broader sense exiled; each found in their fellow exile a home."