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A few years later, I finally got round to reading Vikram Seth’s stupendous epic, A Suitable Boy, so I was concerned that this return to his later, very different novel, would be a disappointment. I am pleased to say that it was not. An Equal Music is not on a par with A Suitable Boy, it has a level of its own, which is just as challenging and enjoyable. Also, the fact that both novels were written by the same author shows his abilities and versatility as a writer.
The plot concerns the life of a string quartet, based in a fairly exclusive part of London and among people who earn their living and base their lives around playing, teaching and performing classical music. Those who do not understand music at this level may wonder if the novel’s somewhat rarified backdrop would put it out of their reach. I am a musical ignoramus, but I didn’t find my lack of knowledge to be a problem. Once the reader gets into the rhythm, the technical details become less important than the heady brew of politics and emotion that goes with them. For example, the exact make-up of the quartet’s repertoire matters to Billy Cutler, one of the quartet’s cellists. We don’t need to know exactly why, just that consistency and flow are important to him in a way that they aren’t to his colleagues.
The novel’s concentration on an elite circle of musicians, playing elite music for people like themselves might be deemed pretentious but for several important factors. For one there is Michael, Seth’s first person narrator and the quartet’s second violinist. Michael is to some extent an outsider. He is not a Londoner by birth, nor is he of a musical background. He grew up in Rochdale, the son of a small businessman and has had to work against his parents’ prejudice as well as that of the more privileged people he encounters in musical circles. His confidence in himself and his abilities is always undercut by his sense that he doesn’t quite belong, as well as his knowledge that nor does he fit in back in Rochdale either. This sense of displacement echoes back to the themes Seth explored in A Suitable Boy, albeit in a very different way.
The fragility of Michael’s situation is symbolised by two very important figures. One of them is his Tononi violin, which is owned, ironically enough, by a Rochdale connection, the wonderful Mrs Formby. The other is Julia McNicoll, who Michael abandoned when they were both music students in Vienna. Much of the narrative is concerned with Michael’s perception of these two relationships and the parallel’s between them. It soon becomes apparent that Michael’s feelings of tenderness and his fear of loss are bound up with both Julia and the Tononi. In addition, Julia is not merely a cipher for Michael’s frustrated passion, but a character in her own right, with a secret that threatens to throw her and everyone around her completely off their axis.
Another factor which keeps the narrative grounded is the presence of humour. Much of this concerns Piers, the quartet’s brilliant, very intense first violinist. Piers has the habit of getting into very deep relationships with unsuitable men. His romances throw the dynamics of the quartet completely off-balance and make him impossible to live or work with. He is also, amusingly, protective of certain works, for example Schubert’s Trout Quintet. Those who are not fond of the Trout (as I am not) will find Pier’s fixation with it even funnier than his poor taste in men.
The novel derives considerable warmth and personality from its sense of place. Rochdale has been mentioned and there are scenes there that draw a powerful contrast with London’s musical circles. There are also beautiful interludes in Vienna and Venice, where Michael’s relationship with Julia is thrown into stark and complicated relief. However, An Equal Music is very much a London novel, with scenes in the West End, the area in and around Kensington and Hyde Park and at the Wigmore Hall.
As a portrait of character, An Equal Music works beautifully. It is a depiction of character, informed by two apparently different passions, neither of which could exist without the other. A first reading suggests it; a second confirms it.
Phoenix. 1999. ISBN: 0-753-807734. 496pp.