By Vikram Seth
When words fail there is music, the universal language. This great mystery of human experience gives us the sense of some higher power or greater intelligence at work outside of the known world. Very few writers dare to describe music's connection to the divine and most of those who do fall short. Only a virtuosic writer, on a par with the world's greatest composers, should approach this task and even then, very carefully.
Having read and loved A Suitable Boy, I was prepared to like An Equal Music, by Vikram Seth. Instead, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the writing because I could hear the music and feel the passion so transcendently described in this novel. It is a story of love between a man and a woman, of love for music and musicians, between parents and children, husbands and wives, teachers and students, friends and rivals.
In a taxi in London, Michael Holme -- second violinist in the Maggiore Quartet -- hears the ghost of his great love playing piano in Beethoven's piece for string quintet in C minor, opus 104. He knows it is Julia on the piano but also knows it cannot be because she has disappeared completely from, his life, the classical music scene, and the world at large. And yet, there is something about the touch on the keys and phrasing that is as unique as her fragrance. Michael scours music libraries and record stores for scores and recordings of the music he has heard and finally, by chance, obtains an obscure eastern European LP. Coincidentally, on the bus going home with his prize Michael, heading in one direction, locks eyes with a woman who can only be Julia heading in the opposite direction. He jumps off the bus and catches a taxi, following Julia's bus only to discover that she is not on it. Worst of all, he has left his Beethoven record in the taxi and knows he will never find another copy. And then one day, the doorman at his apartment building hands it to him saying a strange woman has dropped it by.
Julia reenters Michael's life as abruptly as he had left hers, but resuming the romance of ten years past is more complicated than he understands it to be. When they parted ways in Vienna, Michael was in the throes of a psychological breakdown at the hands of his Svengali-like violin teacher Carl Käll who sees in Michael the musician he could never be. By the time Michael is well enough to face Julia again, she has disappeared and no one in her family will help him find her. When she suddenly reappears, following a concert given by the Maggiore Quartet, Michael is thunderstruck as if he has been given a chance to save his soul from eternal damnation.
Julia, however, has moved on. She is married and mother to a seven-year-old son. Rekindling her young love for Michael would be a betrayal of everyone and everything she holds dear. And yet, so much between them is unresolved. Only the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert comes close to expressing the depth and richness of what they had together. When Michael left, Julia was as devastated as he was ill but found a way rebuild her broken heart and life. Michael, for his part, limped along with his borrowed violin until the Maggiore Quartet had an opening for a second violin. The first violinist and viola player -- Piers and Helen, respectively -- are siblings and Billy, the cellist, might as well be given their often childish interactions. Michael, with his own emotional baggage, fits beautifully with the Maggiore and the four become a loving if somewhat dysfunctional pseudo family.
In an interview for Random House, Vikram Seth discusses his use of a string quartet as the framework for Michael's life:
Basically, a quartet is a very odd structure. There are four musicians: two violins (which adds a bit of complexity and competition), a viola player, and a cellist. The music they make has to be cooperative--you can't have a virtuoso sticking out. And yet, though there's cooperation on stage, there may be bitter rivalries, dislikes, intrigues, and conflicts among the four players. They spend more time with each other than with their families--very often on the road and very often under pressure on stage. It's a bit like a platoon under fire or a marriage of four people--with all the complications that a marriage of two people entails multiplied in more combinations than I can calculate. Using a quartet also allowed me to introduce other characters to enrich the background of the novel's main story, the love story between Michael and Julia.
Under pressure from Michael and after much deliberation, Julia agrees to perform with the Maggiore in Vienna and Venice, the cities where she and Michael had loved and lost each other ten years earlier. Their performances are a brilliant success and the five musicians decide to tackle Bach's "Art of the Fugue", a piece which spiritually bound Michael and Julia together as young musicians and lovers and which pushes the quartet to the breaking point. As deeply as she still loves him Julia refuses to leave her husband for Michael who suffers another breakdown and resigns from the quartet. Meanwhile, the owner of the violin Michael has played for his entire career, who was also his first music teacher, begins hinting that her son wants to inherit the violin so he can sell it to finance his children's education. Michael had always known that the violin might disappear from his life and accepts this coming loss as another devastating heartbreak. While he dearly wishes that Mrs. Formby would simply give him the violin, he understands that family comes first and does not hold this against her. He visits her as often as he can and frequently corresponds with her out of appreciation for her lifelong mentorship and genuine affection for her, his oldest friend.
An Equal Music could have gone in a very conventional direction, but Vikram Seth is not a conventional writer. He speaks a number of languages, has lived all over the world, and considers himself bisexual. He was born in Calcutta, India, was educated in England, and worked as an economist until writing began taking up too much of his working time. His best-selling A Suitable Boy, an epic novel of Indian family, cultural, and social life is a masterwork which took him ten years to write. After that, he had to take a long break before he could pick up a pen. It was a few years later, while walking and people-watching in a park in London, that the story of a heartsick musician took root.
Interviewers frequently ask Mr. Seth if he is a musician and the answer is not. In order to write An Equal Music he had to spend countless hours studying music and musicians in order to bring Michael to life and to describe the emotional experience of listening to the pieces played by the quartet. Most striking is how, even without knowing the pieces, one hears music playing throughout this beautiful story. It reminds me of how choreographer George Balanchine famously spoke of "seeing the music" and how composer Igor Stravinsky likewise "heard the dancing" in their collaborations. Only a great artist could express him or herself so perfectly.
Where composers paint pictures with music and great artists compose music with paint brushes, great writers capture beauty and spiritual experience with words. The title of this lovely book comes from "Our Last Awakening", a prayer by John Donne (1571-1631):
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity: in the habitations of thy majesty and glory, world without end. Amen.
After leaving him again and forever, Julia sends Michael a message through music that is an answer to this prayer.
Copyright 2013 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved