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 incomeassecond 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 much...it 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."