An Equal Music: A Novel
  • An Equal Music: A Novel
  • An Equal Music: A Novel

An Equal Music: A Novel

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by Vikram Seth

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The author of the international bestseller A Suitable Boy returns with a powerful and deeply romantic tale of two gifted musicians.  Michael Holme is a violinist, a member of the successful Maggiore Quartet.  He has long been haunted, though, by memories of the pianist he loved and left ten years earlier, Julia McNicholl.  Now

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The author of the international bestseller A Suitable Boy returns with a powerful and deeply romantic tale of two gifted musicians.  Michael Holme is a violinist, a member of the successful Maggiore Quartet.  He has long been haunted, though, by memories of the pianist he loved and left ten years earlier, Julia McNicholl.  Now Julia, married and the mother of a small child, unexpectedly reenters his life and the romance flares up once more.

Against the magical backdrop of Venice and Vienna, the two lovers confront the truth about themselves and their love, about the music that both unites and divides them, and about a devastating secret that Julia must finally reveal.  With poetic, evocative writing and a brilliant portrait of the international music scene, An Equal Music confirms Vikram Seth as one of the world's finest and most enticing writers.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A beautifully written novel of music, romance, and the endless search for transcendent passion....A joy to read."  -The Baltimore Sun

"Seth depicts, with Canaletto-like skill, the shimmering air and light of Venice at dawn, even as he neatly reproduces the loving tensions of the Maggiore [Quartet]."  -The Washington Post

"A gift for any reader and a must-read for music lovers and musicians."  -The Christian Science Monitor

Akash Kapur

Who is Vikram Seth? Even with a career that has spanned two decades and spawned nine books, Seth remains something of a mystery. No two books of his have been alike. He is a poet, a novelist, a travel writer and even the author of a libretto. Unlike most writers of Indian origin, whose works are obsessed with the subcontinent, Seth seems at home anywhere in the world. The Golden Gate, the novel in verse that first brought him renown, was a witty and inventive story of Californian yuppiedom; A Suitable Boy, one of the longest novels ever written in English, is a sprawling, multigenerational tale of family, tradition and politics in post-independence India.

Now, five years after that epic effort, Seth has returned with something completely different again. Set in the exalted world of the European classical music circuit, An Equal Music is a sensitive, meticulous novel that has something of the delicacy of a haiku. Gone is the grand sweep of A Suitable Boy — Seth's new book is an intimate and internalized story of love and music.

Michael Holme, the high-strung narrator, is a violinist in a London string quartet. He is in love with a ghost: It has been years since he has seen Julia McNicholl, a pianist with whom he fell in love while studying in Vienna. Then one day he sees her again, on a bus in London. She is married now, but their passion (for each other, and for each other's music) soon rekindles. Part of Seth's achievement lies in his weaving these dual passions into a complex and multifaceted relationship. There are many emotional twists and turns (which I won't ruin by giving away), and at its best the book is a gripping and profound meditation on love, music and the irrevocability of time ("the swift ellipses of the earth," in Seth's masterful formulation). Narrated in the present tense, in an insistent first person, this meditation is intensely personal; unlike anything Seth has previously written, the novel is distinguished by remarkable psychological portraiture.

The portraits, though, are not uniformly convincing. In the early pages and toward the end, the narrative sometimes falters on the very qualities that elsewhere distinguish it. The poetic language can seem oddly archaic ("What hath closed Helen's eyes?" Michael soliloquizes in one instance), and the intensity can descend into generic — even maudlin — expressions of romantic anguish. "My life had shelved towards desolation," Michael whines near the end of the book; "If I didn't love you, things would be quite a bit simpler," Julia says earlier.

But these are just the perils of writing about art and love. "Making music and making love — it's a bit too easy an equation," Julia says at one point. It is certainly true that Seth has undertaken no mean task in trying to distill something original from a subject that is almost by definition generic and sentimental. "I'd be bored unless I wrote a book that in some sense was a challenge," he recently told an interviewer. It is to his great credit that despite the occasional lapses, he answers the challenge with a convincing and often beautiful story of passion.

Caroline Moore
This is a novel about music and love, but it is also about claustrophobia and depression.... But because it is described from the inside, through the eyes of one first-person narrator, it leaves the reader also feeling trapped, frustrated, and uncertain of his or her sympathies.
Literary Review Magazine
Karl Miller
The good that it possesses more than one of the "classical" properties....structure, suspense, plausibility....and it could be considered richer in these properties than romances usually are.
The New Republic
Greg Marrs
Beginning with Ian McEwan's Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam and continuing through Richard Mason's highly touted debut, The Drowning People, and Salman Rushdie's heavily hyped The Ground Beneath Her Feet, several recent high-profile novels have extensively explored — with varying success — the rarefied world of music and musicians. The most recent of these books to be published in America — and to my mind, the finest of the lot — is Vikram Seth's deeply felt and keenly observed An Equal Music.

In his famous Norton Lectures, delivered at Harvard in 1973 (and transcribed in The Unanswered Question), composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein sought to establish parallels between the language of music and the syntax of spoken language. In An Equal Music, Vikram Seth — the author of four volumes of poetry, as well as the verse novel The Golden Gate and the massive international bestseller A Suitable Boy — attempts the only slightly more modest goal of making accessible and compelling to the lay reader the lifelong immersion in and maintenance of craft that is the foundation of all serious music making. It's a considerable challenge, as one character only half-jokingly admits: "This morning...I suddenly realised how boring musicians are. All our friends are musicians and we aren't interested in anything except music." But in Seth's capable hands this blinkered one-track-mindedness becomes the novel's unifying thread.

Narrator Michael Holme is a London-based musician who supplements his income as second violinist for the up-and-coming Maggiore Quartet by teaching a singularly unpromising group of private students and by playing in a number of struggling chamber ensembles. Years before, as a protégé of the demanding Swedish maestro Carl Käll at the Musikhochschule in Vienna, Michael suffered a panic attack that sent him reeling from Vienna, his mentor, and most importantly, the woman he loved — pianist Julia McNicholl. By the time he recovered his equilibrium, Julia, too, had disappeared — leaving his letters unanswered, his phone calls unreturned. Ten years later, the memory of this lost love continues to haunt every romantic relationship he attempts — including his current passionless affair with Virginie, a French music student whose princess-pink apartment decor and discombobulated English are recorded by Seth in hilarious detail. Virginie unwittingly hastens her own obsolescence when she casually mentions the existence of a little-known Beethoven quintet, Op. 104, a late-career reworking of the Trio in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3. It was this very trio that first brought Michael and Julia together in Vienna, this very trio that led to Michael's painful confrontation with Käll and subsequent breakdown. And it is Michael's quest for a score and a recording of this obscure quintet that will grant him a brief, tantalizing glimpse of Julia — reading a book on an adjacent bus, separated by two panes of glass and an unbridgeable gulf of less than five feet — before she disappears in the flow of London traffic.

If the knowledge that Julia is living maddeningly close sends Michael's hopes soaring like Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending, his agent — perhaps fearing an emotional relapse in the making — is more cautious. Michael's desperate optimism has an immediate effect on the intricate personal dynamics of his quartet as well.

Many musicians — whether players in orchestras or freelancers — consider quartet players to be an odd, obsessed, introspective, separatist breed, perpetually traveling to exotic destinations and garnering adulation as if by right. If they knew the costs of that too-uncertain adulation, they would not resent us quite so is our proximity to each other and only to each other which, more often than we recognise, constricts our priorities and makes us stranger than we are. Perhaps even our states of exaltation are akin to the dizziness that comes from lacking air.

So it is with the various members of the Maggiore. Piers, who "at the best of times, is never an easy person to be with," is a classic first violinist — abrasive, demanding, dismissive, and "used to getting his way." His sister, Helen, embodies the viola's supporting role, but where Piers is aloof, she uses her resolve to demand more involvement — better parts in music and in life. Billy, the group's cellist, is brilliant, selfless, eager to please, and expansive in gestures as well as in waistline. The quartet begins each rehearsal with a simple but effective ritual: the unison playing of a scale in the key of the piece to be rehearsed. It is no surprise then, that a group so musically attuned will also be ultrasensitive to variations in any member's emotional pitch.

Hard on the heels of their recent near miss, a second chance meeting at last brings Michael and Julia together following a Maggiore Quartet concert at London's Wigmore Hall. But dramatic as it is, their reunion plays second fiddle to Seth's lucid descriptions of the quartet's performance — particularly of the arresting encore, the first contrapunctus of Bach's Art of Fugue.

We play in an energised trance. These four-and-a-half minutes could be as many hours or seconds. In my mind's eye I see the little-used clefs of the original score, and the sinking and rising, swift and slow, parallel and contrary, of all our several voices — and in my mind's ear I hear what has sounded and is sounding and is yet to sound. I only have to realise on the strings what is already real to me; and so have Billy, and Helen, and Piers. Our synchronous visions merge, and we are one: with each other, with the world, and with the long-dispersed being whose force we receive through the shape of his annotated vision and the single swift-flowing syllable of his name. Married, with a nearly seven-year-old son, Julia nevertheless agrees to meet Michael again. And in the weeks to come, their rekindled passions take center stage in a flurry of furtive assignations, late-night faxes, letters, and curiously one-sided telephone messages. But their moments of happiness are dearly purchased. "I don't feel proud of these trysts," Julia confesses. "If someone else were doing what I am, I wouldn't know what to think of them." For his part, Michael can only wonder, "What's wrong with my conscience, that I can feel worried for her but not guilty?"

Michael has almost reconciled himself to this continued deception when circumstances force Julia to reveal a devastating secret: As the result of autoimmune disease of the inner ear, she is nearly deaf. Lip reading, speech therapy, and a concealed hearing aid all help her to perform while disguising her condition, but her hearing gradually continues to fail. Worse, while Michael is out of town with his trio, Julia's agent proposes that she accompany the Maggiore in a performance of Schubert's "Trout" Quintet in Vienna, and Piers, unaware of her condition, accepts. Now Michael must chose whether to betray Julia's secret and her trust, or to honor his allegiance to the quartet.

Vikram Seth writes in his author's note, "Music to me is dearer even than speech" — a profession of utter devotion that resonates throughout An Equal Music . A musical amateur in the truest sense of the word, Seth has not only a thorough command of his subject; he incorporates his insights in such a way that they become integral to the novel — not some indigestible hash of horsehair, gut, and rosin served up in the name of verisimilitude. For Seth, music itself is its own truth. In the novel's final pages, Michael, emotionally battered by heartache and loss, ultimately finds comfort in the knowledge that music, "...such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music — not too much, or the soul could not sustain it — from time to time."

Library Journal
Following the widely acclaimed A Suitable Boy (LJ 4/15/93), Seth's third novel is a beautifully written piece set around the world of classical music. In this story of one mans life, readers are taken on a passionate journey, as seen through the eyes of violinist Michael Holme. As Michael travels through Europe as a member of a quartet, he reminisces about his lost love, Julia McNicholl, a pianist. The former lovers are reunited, but the depth of their love and trust is put to the test when Michael discovers that not only is Julia married and the mother of a young son but that she is also going deaf. Seths writing is rich with emotion and imagery. His work contains strong characterizations, and his knowledge of and research into the realm of classical music is evident. Readers cannot help being drawn into the story, regardless of their level of familiarity with the world of music. Highly recommended for all fiction collections.
— Shirley N. Quan, Orange Cty. P. L., Stanton, CA
Nicholas Christopher
[Seth] was rightly praised for the fine detail, clear voice and witty style that marked The Golden Gate, and one only wishes he had infused An Equal Music with more of those same qualities.
The New York Times Book Review
Jay Nordlinger
He knows when to write thick, he knows when to write thin, he knows when to soar on, and he knows when to stop....As Schumann wrote of the young Chopin, "Hats off, gentlemen: a genius."
National Review
Margaret Boerner
...[I]t's...enough of a genuine novel to offer the novel reader's greatest pleasure: an opportunity to live for a few hours in another person's life....An Equal Music is a novel of growing up...a "comic epic in prose."
The Weekly Standard
Chicago Tribune
Masterful. . . . Vikram Seth combines fully drawn characters, gentle humor and a keen sense of place.
Los Angeles Times
There are a symphony's worth of fine elements to An Equal Music.
San Jose Mercury News
I know of no work of fiction in which the joy of music. . . [is] so intricately woven with the emotional and intellectual lives of its characters.
USA Today
A deeply suspenseful love story, complete with tragic secrets, long-lost lovers. . . and stolen moments on Viennese trains and Venetian waterways.
Arthur Golden
Vikram Seth's accomplishment in bringing not only these characters so fully to life, but the rich ambience of the music as well–so difficult to render in words–is something of a miracle.
—author of Memoirs of a Geisha
The Economist
Mr. Seth offers emotional sensitivity of the rarest order and a poignancy that invites an almost painful empathy.
The Times (London)
Seth succeeds in the rare and beatiful achievement of articulating musical experience.
San Francisco Chronicle
Breathtaking verbal ingenuity.
Michael Dirda
I cried at the end of the novel, just as I did at the final paragraphs of Nabakov's Lolita, A.S. Byatt's Possession, and James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime.
The Washington Post
Daily Telegraph (London)
The finest novel about music ever written in English.
The Sunday Times (London)
Tense, unforgettable, deeply moving.
Richmond Times-Dispatch
As mesmerizing as a well-performed symphony.
Evening Standard (London)
Seth follows the heart's changes as rigorously as if they were the interweaving lines of a Bach score, and, at its frequent best, his prose, as he intends, is as 'clear, lovely, inexorable' as a fugue.
The Times-Picayne
Swiftly and deftly plotted. . . . A remarkably fine book, beautiful not only in its ideas but in its structure.
Susan Jackson
For a nonmusician, Seth has turned out a very detailed account of what it's like to be in such an insular profession.
Time Out New York
Bob Hughes
Mr. Seth knows music and has soaked up the frenetic classical music scene, from the machinations of managers to the obsessions of performers to the prickly demands of audiences. But because his central character is so trying, and the love of his life hardly emerges as anything other than a name attached to a plot device, the situations do not resonate. We don't feel these characters' love or pain, just our own eyes glazing over.
Wall Street Journal
Kirkus Reviews
A highly readable if frustratingly uninvolving story of lost love set in the rarefied world of classical music performance, from the Indian-born British poet and author of the verse novel The Golden Gate (1991) and the Tolstoyan A Suitable Boy. (1993). Narrator Michael Holme is a late-30ish violinist living in London, teaching music to such unexceptional students as his pouty mistress Virginie, performing with the (semi-famous) Maggiore string quartet—and indulging bittersweet memories of Julia MacNicoll, the beautiful pianist he had loved, and impulsively abandoned, when they studied music together in Vienna. Seth sketches in pleasing pictures of Michael's agreeably busy life and generally satisfactory relationships: among them, with the quartet's other members (all sharply characterized, especially waspish Piers and tenderhearted Billy); with his widowed father, still living in humble Rochdale, where Michael grew up; and with Mrs Formby, Michael's wealthy mentor-benefactor. Then Julia is glimpsed on a bus, shows up at a Maggiore concert, keeps agreeing to secretly meet Michael though she doesn't understand why (nor do we)—and, despite her marriage, motherhood, and reluctance to lead "two lives," they become lovers once again. But while Julia still performs publicly, she's losing her hearing; her reunion with Michael is an idyll that can't last, and the story's downbeat ending looms inevitably. If its principals' fascination with each other were more distinctive, less moonily generic, this might have been a thoroughly convincing novel, rather than an uneven array of witty observation and keen writing (particularly about music, and the characters' love of it) unwiselymixed with soporific romance. Brief Encounter set to Beethoven and Schubert. Seth can do better—but don't be surprised if An Equal Music becomes very, very popular. ($150,000 ad/promo; author tour)

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.13(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.83(d)

Read an Excerpt

The branches are bare, the sky tonight a milky violet. It is not quiet here, but it is peaceful. The wind ruffles the black water towards me.

There is no one about. The birds are still. The traffic slashes through Hyde Park. It comes to my ears as white noise.

I test the bench but do not sit down. As yesterday, as the day before, I stand until I have lost my thoughts. I look at the water of the Serpentine.

Yesterday as I walked back across the park I paused at a fork in the footpath. I had the sense that someone had paused behind me. I walked on. The sound of footsteps followed along the gravel. They were unhurried; they appeared to keep pace with me. Then they suddenly made up their mind, speeded up, and overtook me. They belonged to a man in a thick black overcoat, quite tall - about my height - a young man from his gait and attitude, though I did not see his face. His sense of hurry was now evident. After a while, unwilling so soon to cross the blinding Bayswater Road, I paused again, this time by the bridle path.

Now I heard the faint sound of hooves. This time, however, they were not embodied. I looked to left, to right. There was nothing.

As I approach Archangel Court I am conscious of being watched. I enter the hallway. There are flowers here, a concoction of gerberas and general foliage. A camera surveys the hall. A watched building is a secure building, a secure building a happy one.

A few days ago I was told I was happy by the young woman behind the counter at Etienne's. I ordered seven croissants. As she gave me my change she said: "You are a happy man."

I stared at her with such incredulity that she looked down.

"You're always humming," she said in a much quieter voice, feeling perhaps that she had to explain.

"It's my work," I said, ashamed of my bitterness. Another customer entered the shop, and I left.

As I put my week's croissants - all except one - in the freezer, I noticed I was humming the same half-tuneless tune of one of Schubert's last songs:

I see a man who stares upwards
And wrings his hands from the force of his pain.
I shudder when I see his face.
The moon reveals myself to me.

I put the water on for coffee, and look out of the window. From the eighth floor I can see as far as St Paul's, Croydon, Highgate. I can look across the brown-branched park to spires and towers and chimneys beyond. London unsettles me - even from such a height there is no clear countryside to view.

But it is not Vienna. It is not Venice. It is not, for that matter, my hometown in the North, in clear reach of the moors.

It wasn't my work, though, that made me hum that song. I have not played Schubert for more than a month. My violin misses him more than I do. I tune it, and we enter my soundproof cell. No light, no sound comes in from the world. Electrons along copper, horsehair across acrylic create my impressions of sense.

I will play nothing of what we have played in our quartet, nothing that reminds me of my recent music-making with any human being. I will play his songs.

The Tononi seems to purr at the suggestion. Something happy, something happy, surely:

In a clear brook
With joyful haste
The whimsical trout
Shot past me like an arrow.

I play the line of the song, I play the leaps and plunges of the right hand of the piano, I am the trout, the angler, the brook, the observer. I sing the words, bobbing my constricted chin. The Tononi does not object; it resounds. I play it in B, in A, in E flat. Schubert does not object. I am not transposing his string quartets.

Where a piano note is too low for the violin, it leaps into a higher octave. As it is, it is playing the songline an octave above its script. Now, if it were a viola . . . but it has been years since I played the viola.

The last time was when I was a student in Vienna ten years ago. I return there again and again and think: was I in error? Was I unseeing? Where was the balance of pain between the two of us? What I lost there I have never come near to retrieving.

What happened to me so many years ago? Love or no love, I could not continue in that city. I stumbled, my mind jammed, I felt the pressure of every breath. I told her I was going, and went. For two months I could do nothing, not even write to her. I came to London. The smog dispersed but too late. Where are you now, Julia, and am I not forgiven?

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What People are saying about this

Arthur Golden
Vikram Seth's accomplishment in bringing not only these characters so fully to life, but the rich ambience of the music as well — so difficult to render in words — is something of a miracle.
— (Arthur Golden, Author of Memoirs of a Geisha)

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