Re-reading Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate

Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate (1986, Vintage International 1991)

I don’t do very much re-reading, at least not of whole books. This one was an ambush.

The copious notes in John Tranter’s Vagabond Press chapbook Ten Sonnets quote Wikipedia’s entry on the Onegin stanza, so called because Pushkin used it in his novel Eugene Onegin:

The work was mostly written in verses of iambic tetrameter with the rhyme scheme “aBaBccDDeFFeGG”, where the lowercase letters represent feminine endings (i.e., with an additional unstressed syllable) and the uppercase representing masculine ending (i.e. stressed on the final syllable).

That sent me looking for Vikram Seth’s novel in Onegin stanzas. Though it was this book that had launched my own excursion into sonnet land, and I had written and blogged quite a number of sonnets (for which, by the way, I don’t claim any great distinction) of what I thought was the Onegin variety, I had missed the crucial bit about the ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ endings (the quote marks are in deference to the Art Student’s objection to the gendered terminology). I went to see if Seth observed the aBaBccDD etc rhyme scheme, and indeed he did: each stanza has three feminine rhymes and four masculine, the feminine coming first in each of three configurations. That might sound awfully technical, but once you notice it you realise it accounts for the wonderful flow of the verse narrative – the feminine endings send the reader’s mind forward the way serifs in a typeface send the eye to the next letter, and the masculine endings have a kind of exclamatory effect, not necessarily stopping the flow but hitting a strong beat.

It’s a wonderfully seductive rhythm, and it had me in its grip again. I read whole slabs out loud to the Art Student as she was cooking dinner, and she who claims not to like poetry said, ‘It sounds as if he had a good time writing that.’

The narrative deals with relationships among a group of 20-somethings in San Francisco in 1980–81, with something of the feel of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (written a decade earlier), but with significant differences. It’s the Reagan era: the threat of nuclear war forms a backdrop, which comes to the foreground in some heated arguments that threaten to destroy friendships, and at an anti-war rally where one of the speeches runs for close to 20 stanzas.  There’s a wonderful ill-tempered cat named Charlemagne, and some serio-comic conflict around religion and homosexuality (I don’t know how comic it was meant to be, but it made me laugh as well as rage). It’s not all froth and bubble by a long shot: there are birth and death, seasonal rhythms and harsh disruptions, silly spats and deeply wounding fights.

In one of the book’s few self-referential moments, Seth reflects on his chosen form, discusses both the use of feminine rhymes and the tetrameter (four beats to the line rather than the five beats used by Shakespeare). He then goes on:

Reader, enough of this apology;
But spare me if I think it best,
Before I tether my monology,
To take a stanza to suggest
You spend some unfilled day of leisure
By that original spring of pleasure:
Sweet-watered, fluent, clear, light, blithe
(This homage merely pays a tithe
Of what in joy and inspiration
It gave me once and does not cease
To give me) – Pushkin’s masterpiece
In Johnston’s luminous translation:
Eugene Onegin – like champagne
Its effervescence stirs my brain.

When I read The Golden Gate the first time I contemplated moving on to Les Murray’s verse novels, one of which is told in sonnets. I will read them one day, but they aren’t a natural successor to this novel. I have now downloaded an audio book of Eugene Onegin, in which Stephen Fry reads James E. Falen’s translation – not that of Sir Charles Johnston, which Vikram Seth so loved. It may be a while before I have ‘an unfilled day of leisure’ in which to listen to its 4 hours and 21 minutes, but I’m looking forward to it.

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