Sept/Oct 1999 Book Reviews

An Equal Music

Vikram Seth
Orion, 1996 381pp
ISBN: 1 861591 17 9

reviewed by Ann Skea

"Music to me is dearer even than speech." --Author's Note

This is a love story. It is not a romantic saga, like A Suitable Boy, but a deeper, more serious story of a man for whom music and a young woman, Julia, are an essential and inseparable part of his life.

It is also a story which reveals the strange, precarious, obsessive, joyous and difficult life lead by a professional musician: in this case, Michael, who plays second violin in the Maggiore Quartet.

Vikram Seth's passion for music, his empathy with it and with the people who create and perform it, glows through this book, making it totally different to anything else he has written. Michael is a complex, sometimes prickly young man whose birthplace, Rochdale, in the North of England, was once rich in orchestral and choral music. And, although music was never part of his own parents' lives, Michael, at the age of nine, was taken by a neighbour to a performance of Handel's Messiah. "More than anything else", he recalls, "I wanted to be a part of that noise". So, he immerses himself in music and with borrowed instruments, a scholarship to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, an invitation to join a masterclass at the Musikhochschule in Vienna, and against great opposition from his parents, he becomes a professional violinist.

We learn Michael's story gradually as he goes about his daily routines of teaching, solitary practice and rehearsal, until he glimpses, on a passing bus, Julia--who he had once loved and left in Vienna and has been unable to find again since.

The search for Julia, their meeting and its consequences, are woven into other larger themes. Music especially, which dominates both their lives, provides a counterpoint for every mood and action. And Seth explores the strange dependence, and independence, of the individuals involved in the Maggiore Quartet; the terrible dilemma of a musician who suffers almost total loss of hearing; and the plight of musicians whose precarious income prevents them from ever owning the best and most beautiful instruments and who, like Michael, may lose a much loved but borrowed instrument at any time.

The action moves between London, Vienna and Venice but the real life of the novel is the music.

"When I realised I would be writing about it", says Seth in his Author's Note, "I was gripped with anxiety".

But he has written well, and expressed the soul of music well. Only very occasionally, as with Michael's strange anxiety-produced collapses, did I get the feeling that something did not ring quite true. Michael's mental "riffs", however, which swing between madness, fractured echoes of poetry and pure poetic prose, are quite wonderful. Sometimes, they come as near to conveying the shifting moods of love and of music as is possible in words.

This is a fine book. Those who are looking for a sequel to A Suitable Boy will be disappointed, because this is very different and far more challenging, but it shows Seth to be an exceptionally versatile, thoughtful and accomplished writer.


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