Where new writing finds its voice

The Golden Gate

Rebecca Stonehill

Vikram Seth
Faber and Faber, 1986

I must confess that the first time I opened Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, I almost closed it again. Yet several years later, it remains high amongst my favourites; one of the few books that I revisit time and again to find something that makes me laugh out loud and something that inspires me. The reason for this? Vikram Seth’s ingenious first ‘novel’ is in verse. That’s right – verse. Seth has filled over three hundred pages with rhyming tetrameter sonnets, down to the acknowledgements, contents and note about the author. I can’t deny that upon first glance I found this unnerving, if not rather pretentious. As Seth himself digresses midway through the book:

Professor, publisher and critic
Each voiced his doubts. I felt misplaced.
A writer is a mere arthritic
Among these muscular Gods of Taste 
As for that sad blancmange, a poet – 
The world is hard; he ought to know it.
Drivelling in rhyme’s all very well;
The question is, does spittle sell?

It may not have received the acclaim of A Suitable Boy, but spittle it is not. Gore Vidal described it as ‘The Great Californian Novel’ but I would extend this to ‘The Great Human Novel’ for it explores human emotions candidly and intimately. 

Set in 1980s San Francisco, The Golden Gate charts the course of a group of twentysomethings in search of happiness, the meaning of life and, that most elusive ingredient, love. I’ve pondered over how Seth captures my imagination so successfully considering the unremarkable plot. Had he written The Golden Gate in normal prose, I suspect I wouldn’t have persevered with it. Yet through his use of masterful rhyming verses the story flows so beautifully that you forget you’re reading a novel with four verses to a page in place of the usual chapters. And as he discreetly shifts his lens from one character to the next, the manner in which he focuses on their lives is so wryly observed, that, like or loathe them, you start to share in their joys and disappointments. 

From stubborn and proud John, whose solitary existence leads him to place an ad in a lonely hearts column; to intense, confused Ed, who battles with his faith and his conflicting lifestyle; to Jan, the sculptor who craves artistic recognition. As the fates of the characters intertwine with one another’s, we follow them from work to play, from time spent with their families to contemplative moments alone:

How beautiful it is, when waking,
To find one’s lover at one’s side,
The delicate slow light is breaking
Irresolutely through the wide
Bay windows of their bedroom, falling
On Liz’s hair, and John’s recalling
How last night she untied it, how
It flowed between his hands, but now
She lies asleep, unswiftly breathing;
Her thoughts are not with him, her dreams
Traverse the solitary streams
Of inward lands, yet her hair, wreathing
The pillow in a mesh of light
Returns to him the fugitive night.

Seth must have spent much time living in San Francisco, for many of his verses are devoted to wonderful descriptions of the city and the surrounding bay area. The setting provides the perfect backdrop for the characters to play out their individual and collective dramas, pitted against the beautifully penned changing of the seasons.

The poignant climax of the novel leaves the reader pensive yet fulfilled. Even if you are not into poetry, or especially if you are not into poetry, I urge you to give The Golden Gate a try. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.