Thursday 13 August 2020

An Equal Music

I've been reading Vikram Seth's An Equal Music, the novel he published in 1999, six years after A Suitable Boy. It has been described as 'the finest novel about music ever written in English', and it might well be: there's probably no more convincing account in fiction of the life of a professional musician, nor any more informed, lucid and passionate writing about music. As the music the novel revolves around is by the likes of Bach, Schubert and Vivaldi, I greatly enjoyed this aspect of the book, and I kept turning the pages happily, led on by Seth's skilful pacing and ordering of the narrative. It's a first-person story, the action seen entirely through the eyes (and heard through the ears) of violinist Michael, owner of a borrowed Tononi and member of the mildly successful Maggiore quartet. We are stuck with Michael, his emotions and attitudes, his musical loves and hates, and, above all, the ruling obsession of his life: his love for fellow musician Julia, whom he abandoned, for reasons never entirely clear, in Vienna more than a decade before the narrative begins. When, by chance, she crosses his path again, in London (where most of the action is set, with Vienna again later on, then a climactic sojourn in Venice), Michael is fired to renew his pursuit of her, despite the fact that she is married – to all appearances happily – and has a son. And there's something else about her he doesn't know...
  No plot spoilers here: suffice to say that, as Michael's obsessive pursuit of Julia proceeds, he becomes less and less agreeable company. As he himself admits near the end of the book, 'I'm a selfish, self-centred man.' He is indeed, as his behaviour towards Julia increasingly reveals – also self-absorbed, self-lacerating, self-indulgent, self-serving and the rest. This wouldn't matter (think of Lolita) if the great love affair between him and Julia was anywhere near as convincing as the music-related elements of the book, or if the character of Julia came alive as effectively as the other members of the Maggiore quartet, all of whom are deftly brought to life. Julia remains the Love Object and little more; it is hard to see what all the fuss is about, or why Michael is punishing himself – and, far more cruelly, her – in the cause of this rather thin and unconvincing love affair. For all its virtues – and there are wonderful passages in this book (nearly all of them music-related) – the weakness of this core element of the novel makes An Equal Music a noble failure.
  It's still worth reading for the music, though – and I've just discovered that you can buy a 2-CD album of the pieces featured in the book, including (in addition to the three composers mentioned above) music by Haydn, Mozart and Vaughan Williams, and the world premiere recording of Beethoven's obscure String Quintet in C Minor, Op.104. I've just ordered it.

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