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.
Vikram Seth divides his time between India and London.
Delhi, India; and Salisbury, England
Date of Birth:
June 20, 1952
Place of Birth:
Calcutta, West Bengal, India
B.A., Oxford University, 1975; M.A., Stanford University, MA 1978; Nanjing University Diploma, 1982
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?
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)
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Vikram Seth's An Equal Music.
1. The epigraph Seth has chosenalso the source of the book's titleis taken from one of John Donne's sermons and is a description of life after death. How does it relate to the story as a whole? How does it relate particularly to the love between Michael and Julia?
2. At the beginning of the novel, Michael says of his time in Vienna, "What I lost there I have never come near to retrieving" [p. 5]. What does the rest of his story tell us about the desire, or belief, that the past can be reclaimed or lived again, with different choices made, mistakes corrected, happiness attained? Is it possible to remap the path of one's life?
3. Beethoven's String Trio in C Minor, op. 1, no. 3, a piece that Michael had performed with Julia and Maria in Vienna, plays an important role in the novel. When Michael discovers that the piece exists in a version for quintet, he wants to play it with the Maggiore, and it's important to him that he play the part of the first violin [p. 54]. Why? What is he hoping to experience? When the group plays the piece for the first time [pp. 78-80], does it matter that he must play second violin instead?
4. How does the novel make you aware of the particular difficulties and rewards of playing chamber music? What do you find most effective about the ways that Seth describes the life of a professional musician? Michael refers to his string quartet as "an odd quadripartite marriage with six relationships, any of which, at any given time, could be cordial or neutral or strained" [p. 14]. Would you say that, despite the fact that Carl Käll assumed that he'd want a solo career, being an ensemble player is better suited to Michael's temperament? Why?
5. Vikram Seth has quoted someone as saying, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," Christian Science Monitor, 10 June 1999, p. 16]. How does Seth manage to communicate through language the experience of music? Try listening to any of the pieces of music that plays a part in the storyRalph Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending [see page 70], or the Beethoven trio mentioned above, for instance. How does the act of listening to the music change or deepen your experience of the novel?
6. How relevant to the story is the fact that Michael comes from a working class background? Why is he so bitter about what has become of Rochdale, his home town? What do the Rochdale scenes, and particularly his relationship with Mrs. Formby, tell us about Michael's character?
7. Julia is the daughter of an Oxford professor of history and, unlike Michael, she grew up surrounded by music, literature, and art. Michael says, "she had in many ways been the making of me" [p. 82]. What does he mean by this, and to what degree would you consider this the reason for his undying love for her?
8. At their second meeting, Julia tells Michael she is married. When he asks why she doesn't wear a wedding ring, she answers, "I don't know. It distracts me. It distracts me when I play the piano. I look at it and I can't concentrate on the music" [p. 107]. How do you interpret this remark?
9. Just before Michael and Julia go to bed together for the first time in ten years, she says, "Making music and making loveit's a bit too easy an equation" [p. 136]. What does she mean by this? What is different about the love between musicians who play music together? Why has Julia chosen a husband who is not a musician? Does music provide a channel for intimacy between musicians that isn't available to other people?
10. Why doesn't Julia tell Michael about her hearing loss when she first meets him? Later, she and Michael keep her problem a secret even when she is rehearsing with the Maggiore for the concert in Vienna. Is it wrong of her not to reveal her secret to the other members of the quartet, since she is going to be performing with them? Is Michael right to feel that he's betrayed Julia in telling Piers about it? Are the other members of the quartet cruel in doubting Julia's ability to pull it off, or are they justified in wanting to protect their careers and the reputation of the quartet?
11. Why does Julia invite Michael to lunch to meet her husband? Is Michael correct in assuming that she wants to punish him for revealing her secret?
12. Should Julia leave her husband to be with Michael? Are the loves she has for Michael and for her husband equally real, equally deep, equally compelling? Which should take precedence over the other? Does the fact that she has a child make a difference?
13. What is the reason for the breakdown Michael has during the interval of the performance in Vienna? Is his mind coming unhinged? How much sympathy do you have for him after Julia decides not to see him any more, and after he loses his violin to Mrs. Formby's nephew? Why does his leave the quartet for a life which seems so much less fulfilling?
14. Near the end of the novel, Michael finds that Mrs. Formby has returned his violin to him in a codicil to her will. Is this resolution a happy ending of sorts? Is Michael's relationship with his violin ultimately the most satisfying and intimate one left him? What is the significance of his music teacher's bequest to him?
15. The novel ends with Julia's solo performance of Bach's "Art of Fugue." In the audience, Michael thinks, "It is a beauty beyond imaginingclear, lovely, inexorable, phrase across phrase...it is an equal music" [p. 380]. After the concert, he reflects, "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 musicnot too much, or the soul could not sustain itfrom time to time" [p. 381]. How do you respond to this final reflection upon the novel's conflicts, and upon the difficulties and rewards of life?
16. If An Equal Music is a story of unending love, it is also a story of wrenching loss. What do you find most painful about the novel? If you have read other novels in which the lovers find it impossible to be togetherMichael Ondaatje's The English Patient or Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, for instancewould you say that there is something ultimately satisfying in reading about such intense emotion, even if the story ends tragically?
An Equal Music 4 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
I read and enjoyed both The Golden Gate and A Suitable Boy, two past works of fiction by Vikram Seth. His latest novel, An Equal Music, resembles The Golden Gate in its sometimes wistful tone and focus on detail. I think the description of chamber music rehearsals and concerts would be particularly enjoyable for people who are trained in classical music, and I certainly learned a great deal in this respect. The story itself is enjoyable to read--not an unusual situation at first, in that a close relationship between two students is struck up again later in their lives. However, the twists and turns the story takes are sometimes surprising, are emotional, and described with crafted writing by Seth. For those looking for a substantial book to read and think about for a while, this is a good one. It is not best appreciated in a casual read--although that will be sufficient to follow the dramatic aspects of the story. For me, the writing and characters most resembled those in The Golden Gate, although that was written entirely in verse. This is not a casual airplane read--read it over a couple of days to enjoy it.
More than 1 year ago
A nostalgic lament by a love struck, middle aged violinist coping with the remorse of his abandonment of the woman he left ten years earlier. Vikram Seth did a wonderful job creating a character with whom you are both able to sympathize and learn from his plight. I felt sorry for Michael and frequently thought to myself, 'get on with your life!' I really enjoyed reading the tale of how differently the two main characters dealt with the situation they faced years earlier and how disparately it continued to shape their lives in the present. A book worth reading.
More than 1 year ago
The only warning I'd give on this truly beautiful novel is that even someone who thinks he or she is familiar with chamber music might find it difficult to relate to some of the works discussed. I finally relinquished all pretension to understanding the works involved and merely accepted the narrator's points of view or comments so I could stop worrying about unfamiliar details. I found the book breathtaking in its scope and understanding of a musical life, the neuroses and frailties, and the often desperate attempts to try and make sense of the details in a career that deeply involves visceral response as well as a fundamental talent and involvement in practice. The commitment to individual response both in career and emotion is sometimes almost impossible to accept let alone admire, but I came away truly astonished by this man's work. I felt much the same way about his earlier 'A Suitable Boy,' but this work is as removed from that novel's context as possible. The man is a unique storyteller and his talent is quite breathtaking.
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