Collected Works: Literature
The Golden Gate
by Vikram Seth
Novel in verse
The Golden Gate reimagines the affluent twenty-somethings of Eugene Onegin as eighties Californian yuppies: attractive, well-read, wealthy frequenters of the ballet and the cinema. Adopting the ‘dusty bread molds’ of the Onegin stanza, Vikram Seth pokes fun at voguish critics, expecting them to denounce his work as a ‘passé extravaganza’. Despite using an old poetic form, he kneads Pushkin’s favoured themes of life, love, ennui, youth, heartbreak, and death into a thoroughly contemporary tragedy.
Though the characters do not always encourage our empathy, the lives set before us hold our attention for close to six hundred verses. The novel begins and ends with John, who is looking for love but remains defiantly dismissive of his ex-girlfriend’s advice: ‘You are the DJ of your fate’. His stubbornness and sense of entitlement are repellent, as are his flashes of misogyny and homophobia. Only when he endures loss and heartbreak is he unmasked, redeemed by his humanity.
The pull of the pastoral idyll acts as an ongoing counterpoint to urban life. Simple, sensuous pleasure is taken in the manual labour of olive-pickling and vine-pruning, or in weekend retreats and indulgent al fresco lunches. But The Golden Gate is ultimately a hymn of praise to ‘the hieroglyphic / Of San Francisco, still and square / And sun-bleached in the ocean air’. The city is a ‘co-sufferer’, more sympathetic to human sorrows than nature, with its indifferent seasons tumbling ever on.
Yet, however distant from the protagonists we may be, we recognise their yearnings for something more, be it passion, happiness, or salvation. We too are familiar with the treadmill of life, captured so clearly by the onward-marching beat of Seth’s verse. For all its criticism of hedonism, the novel underlines the importance of declaring love when it is present, and never allowing one’s spirit to flicker. It may draw inspiration from the writerly recipes of the past, but The Golden Gate is far from stale.
Words by Emma McKinlay †
More to discover
You can read an excerpt of the novel here. Dilip Bobb & Vincent Digirolamo have interviewed Vikram Seth for India Today, as have Ameena Meer for BOMB Magazine, Jeremy Gavron for The Guardian, Akash Kapur for The Atlantic, Rahul Jacob for the Financial Times, Tim Adams for The Observer (UK), and Samrita Chakraborty for The Telegraph (India).