It has been almost a month now since I turned the last page of Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate. Written entirely in verse and being Seth’s debut novel, it establishes his prowess as a poet but more so, as a masterful storyteller. The most important thing here is to realize that a novel in verse or a ‘verse novel’ should have all prose-like elements while never ceding to tell its story with each line. It must also follow a fixed rhyme scheme so that the reader can set his or her own reading pace and style. Verse novels have been in a society like ours since the times of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Epics such as the one of Gilgamesh, the Iliad or the Odyssey also fall in this category.
However, in today’s time, it’s refreshing to see authors break convention and jump back and forth in time, quickly shift from character to character without necessarily finishing an entire segment and finally, neatly tie all loose ends in the end. Writers such as Vikram Seth pay attention to every little detail and even share quite a lot of life’s lessons through funny, witty verse. The characters too seem of a lilting nature when written in this way – they all have a buoyant rhythm of their own, one that can help in drawing conclusions about their intrinsic natures. There were many instances in the book where I found myself thinking “Ah! So typical of Ed!” or “Trust John to say something like this!”
During my month-long relationship with The Golden Gate, I found out that Seth was inspired to write this book after reading Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Pushkin, the founder of modern Russian literature as he is known today, wrote this novel about 26-year-old Eugene Onegin, a self-conscious cynic. After the release of this book, many were introduced to a comparatively newer style of rhyming. In a world where free verse or iambic pentameter was more well-known due to works of poets such as John Keats, Pushkin brought in the iambic tetrameter to life – a verse with a newer, fixed rhyme scheme. This was then called as the Pushkin sonnet or the Onegin stanza. This stanza follows the unique rhyme scheme of AbAbCCddEffEgg. You can see a few examples here.
While The Golden Gate is the first verse novel that I have read, there are many other books which use verse to take their story forward. One of the world’s most beloved authors, Roald Dahl, uses verse extensively in The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, a book wherein the protagonist Billy re-opens a closed sweet shop to make it the best in the world. The trio also cleans windows using the giraffe’s long neck as a ladder – readers of this book will remember how they “use water and soap, plus some kindness and hope” to further their ‘ladderless’ business. Another example is Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust. Written in free verse, this book is about a boy and his family during the time of the Dust Bowl. With innovation in line breaks, punctuation and more, verse novels are proof of how storytelling is not defined to type or form. Speaking through verse is difficult but when done with finesse, it brings with itself an air, a distinct quality of its own. This is why verse novels are a classic example of poetry from the heart – one that doesn’t rhyme just for the sake of rhyming.