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I first read An Equal Music about ten years ago and loved it.
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.
I had the opposite experience with An Equal Music. I greatly enjoyed it on my first read many years ago but re-read it last year and was disappointed. I thought the plot seemed contrived and Michael came off as a jerk. Luckily, I anticipate loving A Suitable Boy again when I finally re-read it.
Loved this book, not sure that Seth can do any wrong in my eyes. Have you still got ‘The Golden Gate’ ahead of you?
Brilliant review. Thank my lucky star stumbled upon your great blog. Your review implore that I should pick up Seth’s books one day!
Thank you, Sharon, for a wonderful review of one of my most-loved novels. I adored it from the first, and still do. Always had a bit of a problem with Michael, so maybe that has protected from later disappointment! Always thought he was a deeply flawed hero. And it was his love affair with his violin that moved me most.
But I loved the insight into the world of the musician – and I hugged to myself the fact that the protagonist is a second violin. Not the violist – too obvious as the quartet’s underpinning; not the first violin – too starry. Such a clever choice of Seth’s. I don’t quite know what I’m wittering on about here – I just know it’s something I love about the book.
Yes – The Golden Gate – what a wonder of the world that is, too!
I’ve read Seth’s memoir of his family last year & parts of it still haunt me, but I’ve not read any of his novels, something I must remedy in 2010. I like the idea of this one & am glad you reassured us about the musical technicalities, which would go right over my head. I want to see what happens with Julia & Michael, too. You explained the plot very well, along with piqueing our curiosity, nicely done!
I absolutely love An Equal Music. To me it is one of the seminal English novels about music and the way it lingers in the heart, drifting through life like a Venetian canal, imperceptibly enriching our existence. It is a novel about love and loss, noise and silence, desire, and those disquieting murmurs in the pit of your stomach you feel when in the presence of true beauty.
It is one of the few books I have read in which I craved a happy ending, and this was probably spurred on by the certainty that there wouldn’t be one.
For classical music novices you can by a CD with all the music from this book on to listen along with – it provides a wonderful and enticing counterpoint to the music being of the book.
I haven’t read any other Seth yet, but have been meaning to read Suitable Boy for ages. Its just the length which has put me off, but given I’ve just told everyone else to read a 1200 page book I suspect my time for reading it may have just come.
Love the book, love the review.
Great review, Sharon! I read An Equal Music in the summer between my first and second year of college because it was part of my reading. In all honesty, had I not been told to read it I probably wouldn’t have picked it up in the library or bookshop. But I loved it! I’m not at all musical, it’s all meaningless to me. I just can’t pick it up, but that didn’t alienate me from the book as I thought it would. I vaguely remember finding it very accessible. I keep hearing it here and there, so I think I’ll have to give it a re-read since I last read it when I was 17. I’ve been put off A Suitable Boy by the praise I’ve heard, but I think I’ll risk it!
If you are a musical ignoramus then how can you assume listening to Trout is a sign of the less developed music lovers?
Grateful if you could explain further this rather ungracious yet completely incomprehensible comment, Anvesha. Where does the review state that listening to The Trout quintet is a sign of a less developed music lover? It states that Piers’s fixation with it is a source of humour, that is all, which I agree with, and believe to have been the author’s intention (and while I do not love, I do appreciate The Trout).
The meaning was implied! His fixation to the Trout was even funnier than his poor taste in men? And why is my comment ungracious? Just because I noticed a technical error? I loved this book. And your review was good. I did not mean to hurt your sentiments! I do not care two hoots about Trout. Its your statement of being completely ignorant about music that got my goat.
The comment you responded to came from Hilary not me.
I am a musical ignoramus, because I don’t know much about music in its technical aspects and because I use it so much as aural wallpaper, rather than listening to it properly. That doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions about what I like and don’t like. The Trout has never been a favourite piece of mine and that’s what I reflected in my review, nothing more or less. I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with the taste of those who love it; many of them after all, have forgotten more about music than I’ll ever know.
Nope – still not seeing your logic, but thanks for coming back with some more explanation, Anvesha. Do you think that Seth finding in Piers’s fixation on The Trout a source of humour to be somehow disrespectful of a great piece? That’s the meaning I get, so please correct me if I’m wrong. Myself, I think that the two things (The Trout being a great piece, and Seth using it as a source of humour (and two readers enjoying the humour)) can co-exist quite comfortably.
Sharon have you reviewed A suitable boy? I would love to read your views about the book. And Hilary our discussion is getting moot!
Hi Anvesha – I haven’t reviewed A Suitable Boy, mainly because it would be such a monumental task. That’s probably what’s deterred other people as well – it sold extremely well, and was widely read and very much loved, but it’s a doorstop. Having said that, Vikram Seth is apparently going to publish a sequel – A Suitable Girl – in about 2013, so perhaps someone might read and review A Suitable Boy before then. It would be a lovely way to celebrate a big literary event.