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Vikram Seth: An Equal Music

I am not sure how Vikram Seth gets away with it. He writes a novel in verse, then a massive soap opera and here a mawkish love story set to music. We should be looking down on them on all but we do not because Seth has such control over his writing that the soppy bits seem essential rather than offputting and we are carried along by his sustained and strong writing.

This story is a fairly conventional love story (boy gets girl, boy loses girls, boy tries to get girl back but the situation has changed). Michael Holme is a butcher’s son from Rochdale who, despite his poor background, manages to become a professional violinist, not least because his local music teacher makes him a long-term loan of a Tononi violin. As part of his studies he has been to Vienna to study under a well-known tough teacher. While there he meets an English piano student, Julia. They fall in love. However, Michael has a breakdown, in part because of the pressure from his teacher and hurriedly leaves Vienna, effectively abandoning Julia. After recovering, he tries to contact her again but is ignored by her and rebuffed by her parents and their mutual friend, Maria. At the start of the novel he is living in London (in a flat overlooking Hyde Park), teaching music, having an affair with one of his (French) students and playing in the Maggiore Quartet, a mildly but not wildly successful string quartet.

Things start to happen. He sees Julia on a bus and, though he cannot reach her, they do re-establish contact. The only problem is is that she is now married with a young son. She is also going deaf. Most of the book concerns their on-again, off-again relationship – she accompanies the Quartet to Vienna and Venice as well as the travails of the Quartet. The Quartet not only performs in Vienna and Venice but is offered a recording contract for, of all things, the Art of the Fugue. There are the inevitable tensions within the group, particularly regarding Michael’s role as second violinist.

Things start to go wrong. The owner of the violin is getting old and tells Michael that she is planning to leave her violin to her unmusical nephew, who will sell it. Julia refuses to see him. He suddenly gets fainting fits. And he is concerned about his role in the Quartet. Seth does not come to a satisfactory neat and tidy conclusion, rather as Bach does not in the Art of the Fugue but nor does he cop out. But what makes this book is not the story, which is nothing special, but Seth’s great gift of making the characters and their interrelationships so convincing, yet leaving room for the unexpected. He cleverly intertwines the music into the story, in the same way that Proust does in his masterpiece. There is even a CD of the book, selected by Seth, featuring the leitmotif, Beethoven’s String Quintet in C minor op. 104. For once I can say Read the Book! Listen to the Music!

Publishing history

First published in 1999 by Phoenix House