Book Review - An Equal Music

An Equal Music
Vikram Seth
Broadway, 1999 400 pages

I’ve not read much by this writer. Back in the 80s I read and greatly enjoyed The Golden Gate, a novel written in sonnets. I thought it worked, for the most part, and was impressed with the undertaking. The sonnet is an unforgiving form and to write a novel of modern manners and have it not end up totally contrived was, I thought, something of an achievement. I avoided his magnum opus, A Suitable Boy. I have a copy on my shelves but am saving it for a future date when I have the time to tackle its 1500 pages.
A couple of people had recommended An Equal Music, then one day I came upon it in a second-hand bookstore. It, too, sat on the shelf for a while but just this Fall I got it down.
Michael Holme, the main character, is a violinist. He plays in London with the Maggiore Quartet and is recovering (with some difficulty) from a breakdown he suffered in Vienna while studying under the tutelage of an overbearing mentor. He flees Vienna, leaving behind a possible career as a soloist and the love of his life, Julia, a pianist.
That’s the set-up and I’ll not go into too many details of the plot, which serves mostly as a starting point for ruminations on love, belonging, individuality, place in the world. It’s a rich book with much to say about a life lived in music and I heartily recommend it to working musicians, particularly classical musicians. It has some spectacularly good writing and most of the characters are richly limned. The only problem I had with it was that I disliked the two main characters and found it hard to sympathise with them. They seemed solipsistic, even narcissistic, and lacking real charm. Michael’s love affair with his violin was (to me) much more moving and understandable than the love affair at the center of the book. The fact that the book is written in a fairly relentless first-person singular doesn’t help. There is some redemption (the title of the book is a reference to that) and there is some self-understanding that comes about but -- to me -- it came a little too late for me to feel much sympathy with the main character.
Beethoven’s String Quintet in C minor, Op. 104 plays a cameo role in the book, being a reworking of a piano trio that Michael used to play with his then lover, Julia. When he discovers that Beethoven reworked it as a string quintet (with an extra viola) he becomes passionate about having the Maggiore peform it. As if an old reality could be recontextualized into a new reality. It’s quite a lovely piece -- I’ve added a link below to a performance of the Finale performed by the Fine Arts Quartet -

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