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This review is taken from PN Review 57, Volume 14 Number 1, September - October 1987.

THE CALIFORNIA CANTOS Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate (Faber) £9.95, £3.95 pb.

'It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all': most verse novels recall Dr Johnson's verdict on a woman preaching and a dog walking on its hind legs. Perhaps it is the long odds against that tempt writers to try to marry the virtues of the traditional novel in prose - steady narrative build-up, ebb and flow of relationships, rhythmical treatment of themes - to the more immediate rewards of verse - intensity, precision and intimacy of language. The problem is to find a form for this catamaran of a novel. For his Pantaloon, Philip Toynbee chose free verse, and disappeared under a heavy freight of influences into the Bermuda Triangle that awaits the verse-novelist. Vikram Seth, an Indian poet, was inspired by Eugene Onegin - 'Pushkin's masterpiece / In Johnston's luminous translation' - and what drew him were the verve and athleticism of the translator's metres.

In a sonnet-sequence of thirteen chapters, or 'cantos', The Golden Gate is a comedy of love and survival amongst a group of middle-class Californians. Blacks, chicanos, the working classes, victims of the drug culture are largely absent voices, as is the day-by-day violence of their worlds. Trapped in self-analysis and attitudinising, Seth's characters perform a stock West Coast dance around themes of heterosexual and homosexual love, anti-nuclear protest, cancer fears, women's lib, religious quest, physical improvement, single parenting, and the rural life. John, a Silicon Valley workaholic whose fate takes up most of the ...

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