September 27, 2012 by Reader's Connection
Vikram Seth’s novel The Golden Gate is made up of sonnets. Why can’t there be more books like this? The table of contents is in the form of a sonnet, as are the acknowledgements, dedication, and author bio. The loves and careers and olive-picking and anti-bomb protesting of our story’s Californians are narrated in 590 sonnets.
Between the novel’s dazzling first chapters and the lovely closing sections, the middle might have bogged down for me if it had been written in prose. A couple of the characters–the guy whose religion functions only as a block against the sexual attraction he feels for other men, and the guy whose differences with his lady love’s cat outlive their social comedy potential–might have persuaded me to set the book aside. But the sonnets kept coming, and the question How is Seth going to pull this off? was often on my mind. He’s ingenious. (And the characters who annoyed me are eventually allowed some sort of redemption.)
A few months ago, I contacted the book’s publisher, Random House, asking permission to reprint two sonnets. They have graciously assented, but in the meantime I have acquired a new great-niece, and am somewhat embarrassed by my choice of poems.
Welcome to the world, Natalie, and pay no attention to what this poet says:
Why all this madness over babies?
–And how come even Mrs. Weiss,
Who spurned Liz as if she had rabies,
Agrees abruptly to be nice;
What’s more, consents to come and visit!
Is it their helplessness? What is it?
These idiots with insistent ids
Who yowl when their unbridled bids
For love or milk go unregarded
For seven seconds–or who bawl
For no substantial cause at all–
Why are these egotists bombarded
With kisses, hugs, and smiles to spare?
Others, I think, deserve a share.
How ugly babies are! How heedless
Of all else than their bulging selves–
Like sumo wrestlers, plush with needless
Kneadable flesh–like mutant elves,
Plump and vindictively nocturnal,
With lungs determined and infernal
(A pity that the blubbering blobs
Come unequipped with volume knobs),
And so intrinsically conservative,
A change of breast will make them squall
With no restraint or qualm at all.
Some think them cuddly, cute and curvative.
Keep them, I say. Good luck to you;
No doubt you used to be one too.
In the book’s fifth chapter, Seth lets us know that his inspiration for The Golden Gate was Alexander Pushkin’s novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin, as translated from the Russian by Charles Johnston. That book, too, can be checked out from the library.