Home > 1980, 20th Century, Highly Recommended, Indian Literature, Novel, Poetry, Seth Vikram > In San Francisco’s snowless winter The gray weeks rinse themselves away.

In San Francisco’s snowless winter The gray weeks rinse themselves away.

September 20, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth (1986) French title: Golden Gate, translated by Claro. (It should be good)

 “…Don’t put things off till it’s too late.

You are the DJ of your fate.”

Seth_Golden_GateThe Golden Gate is a novel and it relates something quite banal, the lives of a group of friends in the San Francisco area. They are named John, Janet, Philip, Liz and Ed. They’re you and me. John, Janet and Phil were at the same university. At the beginning, they’re single and lonely. John works in an office, has a great job, is good at it but his life is empty. Janet decides to push him into dating by placing an ad in a paper. This is how he meets Liz and who later brings into their group her siblings Ed and Sue. Phil is now raising his six-year old son Paul by himself after his wife Claire fled to the other side of the country. He quit his job after Claire’s departure to take care of Paul and because he was working for a company designing weapons. Phil is an anti-nuclear war activist. Although things weren’t exactly perfect between them, he doesn’t understand why Claire left and more importantly how she could leave her son behind. He’s still recovering from his divorce. Janet is part-musician, part-sculptor and she tries to make a name on the art scene. She used to be John’s lover at university. She hides her fragility behind an apparent strength and a proclaimed autonomy. Ed is homosexual and a fervent Catholic, an explosive combination for his peace of mind. He doesn’t quite know what to do with himself.

Now, that seems quite banal and simple. Except the interwoven relationships between the characters aren’t conventional. Except that each character is troubled and flawed. That would be enough material to write a good novel. This novel is exceptional in its form and its style.

As the Appetizer showed you, The Golden Gate is a novel in verse, more precisely in tetrameters. It’s divided in 13 chapters, all composed of poems of 14 verses. (sonnets, right?) For example, the second chapter is made of 52 poems. I’m sure I missed part of the beauty of the text because my English isn’t good enough, especially my pronunciation. We French people never know where to put the stress on English words and I’ve just discovered in my English literature manual that it’s important for poetry and the construction of verses. (Plus in French, as far as I know, we only have syllabic verses) Well, I loved it anyway.

Vikram Seth achieves a tour de force. As the poet pulling the strings of the story and the pace of the narration, he’s present in his text as the bard, the man who tells the story and interacts with his readers. For example, he intervenes just after he’s described John and Liz’s young love. His description of John and Liz’s new relationship reminded me of the fantastic scene played by Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg in I’m not there and illustrating the song I want you. I was indeed thinking that the passage was heading towards corny when he disarmed all criticism with this:

Judged by these artless serfs of Cupid

Love is not blind but, rather, dumb.

Their babblings daily grow more stupid.

I am embarrassed for them. Come,

Let’s leave them here, the blessed yuppies,

As happy as a pair of puppies,

Or doves, who with their croodlings might

Make even Cuff and Link seem bright.

Let’s leave them to their fragile fictions—

Arcadia, Shangri-La, Cockaigne—

A land beyond the reach of pain—

Except for two slight contradictions,

To wit…but what transpires next

Is furnished later in this text.

Seth knows it’s time to move on and he does.

Self-deprecating humour and witty interactions with the reader are one of the highlights of the book. Then there’s the sound of his poetry, the way he depicts San Francisco and his incredible gift to put human feelings into words. The text is light, sad, deep, funny and witty. It is set in San Francisco and like the Golden Gate, the characters wander in life with their feet in the clear and their nose in the fog. Seth’s words drizzle in a lovely mist and envelop the events and the characters of the text in a special aura.

This group of friends has fairly common inner struggles: what’s my part in this world? Who would remember me if I died? How do I deal with death and grief? How do I recover from a broken relationship? How do I reconcile my job with my beliefs? While exploring his characters angst and making them move forward with their lives, he also discusses nuclear war, homosexuality, marriage, feminism, civil disobedience.

He shows John’s prejudice and inflexibility of mind, Ed’s struggles between his earthly love for a man and his faith, Phil’s honesty with himself and Liz’s internal conflict between her job and her convictions. For me John is the most troubled, the one who has the strongest mental barriers to isolate him from happiness. He lives his life with sadness sitting on his left shoulder and the weight of miscommunication on his right shoulder. He’s grounded in loneliness. With his poetry, Seth conveys the sensation of these toxic hands on John’s shoulders. You’d want to hug John to ease his pain. Phil is living in a cloud of loneliness but he’s better equipped to fight it and reach out for the companionship he craves.

It’s a lovely text, for its take on human experiences and its bright description of our world’s beauty:

It’s spring! Meticulous and fragrant

Pear blossoms bloom and blanch the trees,

While pink and ravishing and flagrant

Quince bursts in shameless colonies

On woody bushes, and the slender

Yellow oxalis, brief and tender,

Brilliant as mustard, sheets the ground,

And blue jays croak, and all around

Iris and daffodil are sprouting

With such assurance that the shy

Grape hyacinth escapes the eye,

And spathes of Easter lilies, flouting

Nomenclature, now effloresce

In white and lenten loveliness.

It’s difficult to write anything after that. In case you haven’t guessed yet, I really recommend this book. It’s 300 pages long but let yourself ride the tide of Seth’s poetry.

PS: Cuff and Link are cats. There’s another cat in the book, Charlemagne. He’s Liz’s pet and the description of his jealousy of John’s place in Liz’s life is absolutely hilarious.

  1. September 21, 2014 at 6:56 am

    I know this isn’t for me. I’d be tearing my hair out in within a dozen pages.


    • September 21, 2014 at 8:06 am

      I wasn’t sure it was for me but I loved it.
      That said, it’s not a book I’d pick for your humbook.


  2. September 21, 2014 at 8:32 am

    I wonder if I might like this. I’ve read a couple of verse novels, one I loved, and the other drove me round the bend!


    • September 21, 2014 at 8:39 am

      Scott gave it to me and it was a bit daunting. A novel in poetry is unusual these days and reading poetry in English, well I wasn’t sure I’d manage. Vishy had already recommended it too, it was a second great recommendation.

      The only was to know is to give it a try.


  3. September 21, 2014 at 9:45 am

    I loved A Suitable Boy by this author when I read it several years ago, and can recall his prose feeling quite lyrical (almost poetic) in style. Have you read that one? It’s a great book, but quite an undertaking at 1500 pages.

    The characters sound interesting here, as does the setting, but I fear the full verse style might drive me to distraction after a while…


    • September 21, 2014 at 9:38 pm

      This is my first Seth. I’d like to try A Suitable Boy I’m not sure I’m brave enough to read a 1500 pages book, even in French.

      You get used to the verse style just like you do when you read a play by Shakespeare or for me by Molière or Racine.


  4. September 21, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    Emma – I’m so glad you enjoyed this, that you bravely made it through the challenge of poetry in English, and that the book appears to still hold up well after a couple of decades despite some of it now seeming as dated as a cassette player. But it gets so many things just right about California. Plus, so many of the sonnets are wonderfully funny, clever, and beautifully crafted, and the whole I found surprisingly moving. I don’t think Gore Vidal was exaggerating when it called it “The Great California Novel.”


    • September 21, 2014 at 9:51 pm

      It’s not dated. The verses give the text some timelesness and he avoids precised details, except for the ones related to Reagan’s policy. I thought it was really moving too. He’s delicate with words and feelings. I think we’re “programed” to expect soul searching when reading poetry and our mental door is open wider to emotions when we read sonnets. (Do I make sense?)

      In total, I’ve only spent a week in San Francisco and I thought he captured the atmosphere of the city very well. But you know that better than me. I think Seth’s California is mostly the Bay Area and it’s very different from the one Didion shows in Run River that I’m currently reading. Do you think this represents the whole California?


      • September 21, 2014 at 9:59 pm

        Interesting point about our “mental door” being perhaps more open when reading poetry.

        You’re right – I should have been more specific. Seth is very focused on the Bay Area (and in some ways even more Silicon Valley than San Francisco itself). It’s certainly different from the delta region in which Run River takes place (of course, that’s a part of California that’s very different from anywhere else in the state, and is little known even to most people in the rest of the Bay Area). How are you liking Run River? And have you read Didion’s essays? “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem may be my favorite piece of writing about California.


        • September 21, 2014 at 10:04 pm

          So far, I think Run River is quite good. I understand it’s not her best novel, so I’m happy to hear there’s better to come.
          I’ve read a collection of her essays in French four years ago, before our trip to California. (Trust the Routard to give you high level reading recommendations before trips). It’s entitled L’Amérique and some essays were difficult because I didn’t know the people or the faits divers (what’s the English expression for that? I haven’t found it yet) she was referring to. Slouching Towards Bethlehem is in that book. I should re-read it, now that I’ve been to some of the places.


  5. September 21, 2014 at 8:17 pm

    Great commentary on this one Emma.

    I had heard about this book and have wanted to read it.

    The fact that it is written in verse is fascinating in its own right.

    I also find that the lives of ordinary people dealing with ordinary life events can be the stuff of great books in the hands of the right author.


    • September 21, 2014 at 9:59 pm

      It’s worth reading, Brian. I certainly didn’t catch all the beauty of his verses and I’d like to read a review by a reader who knows something about English poetry.

      Vishy has reviewed here but according to him, poetry is not his forte either.


  6. September 22, 2014 at 5:44 am

    English readers of French poetry make the opposite mistake, looking for or adding stressed syllables to the French lines. By “English readers” I mean me, I do that.

    The examples of Seth that you give are pleasantly light so that if you “read” them conversationally, you will “hear” the stress correctly without any extra attention. I see how this verse works well without much worry about technique. It is playful but natural. Very nice.


    • September 26, 2014 at 11:05 pm

      It seems natural for you to look for the stress in French poetry, that’s what you’re used to.
      I thought Seth’s verses were lovely.


  7. September 22, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    I would never have picked this book – normally – but your enthusiasm is quite infectious. I think I would probably like it. I’m certainyl glad you wrote about it.


    • September 26, 2014 at 11:05 pm

      I think you’d like it too. I’m glad if my billet encourages to to give it a try.


  8. September 24, 2014 at 4:39 am

    I’m not a big fan of poetry, but I like what you write about this novel. A Suitable Boy was among my BTR. This one is now too.


    • September 26, 2014 at 11:08 pm

      I’m not a big reader of poetry. I only know the most famous poets. Paul Eluard and Baudelaire are probably my favourites.

      Let me know what you thought about The Golden Gate if you read it.


  9. TBM
    September 26, 2014 at 11:12 am

    It sounds like a lovely book but I think the poetry would drive me bonkers and that’s because it goes over my head no matter how hard I try.


    • September 26, 2014 at 11:16 pm

      I’m not a big reader of poetry.
      It’s like reading Shakespeare or Racine in verses. After a while you get used to it and you get caught in the smoothness of the words.


  10. September 26, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    I had never heard of this, and would likely have ignored it if I had, but it sounds tremendous and very definitely me. It sounds fun, and beautiful, and clever and possibly even somewhat true whatever true might be. Definitely one for the TBR list.


    • September 26, 2014 at 11:14 pm

      It’s great, isn’t it? There’s this softness and peacefulness in his writing, it’s soothing. At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from showing pain, doubts that plague the characters.

      I almost sent you a tweet when I finished this one, just to draw your attention to it. I thought you’d like it.

      I hope you’ll read it and I’m looking forward to your review.


      • September 26, 2014 at 11:41 pm

        I had a quick look in Waterstones this evening, but was too tired to properly take it in. It’s a definite for me though, no question, I’m really pleased you wrote a billet on it.


  11. October 7, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    Beautiful review, Emma! I am sorry for the delay in commenting. I have been away from blogging for a while. So glad to know that you liked ‘The Golden Gate’ so much. It is one of my favourite books and though it might seem intimidating as it is a novel in verse, it is not at all that way, once one gets into it. When I read the verses you have quoted, it made me nostalgic and I feel inspired to read the book again. It was interesting to read your thoughts on the differneces between English and French poetry. I used to be intimidated by the stress that we have to give to English poems when we read them, which our English teacher used to focus on, but these days I just read poetry naturally. Sometimes I am able to catch the rhyme and rhythm and at other times I just enjoy the beautiful sentences, thoughts and words. I think the best poems are accessible to everyone without us having to worry about the technicalities behind them. I also think that modern poets who write in free verse may themselves not be aware of the rules and the metres.

    On a slightly different topic, have you read Stephen Fry’s ‘The Ode Less Travelled’? It is a beautiful book on how to write poetry and it discusses the metres (pentameter, tetrameter), the iamb, dactyl and stuff like that. It is quite fascinating and is written for the general reader.

    Thanks for this beautiful review.


    • October 9, 2014 at 10:04 pm

      Thanks Vishy and it’s nice to have you back.
      You get into The Golden Gate quite easily. Seth writes butterfly poetry, light and beautiful.

      I agree with you about poetry: the best poems are the ones that seem written without effort. I love Paul Eluard. He’s not respecting technique à la lettre and his poetry is full of powerful images.
      I haven’t read that book by Fry. Unfortunately I’m not good at reading non fiction.


  1. September 27, 2014 at 9:48 pm
  2. November 13, 2014 at 12:02 am
  3. December 30, 2014 at 10:35 pm

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