Vikram Seth, An Equal Music

What an extraordinary, intense, poignant book. The central love story is compelling as a romance but would be conventional, perhaps even trite, if it weren’t entangled with another story about a different kind of love–for music. Michael’s desire for Julia, which borders on the obsessive, is itself a musical passion, aroused by and motivated by her playing, or their playing together. But his desire for his violin comes to seem like a purer form of desire, for something that transcends the impurities of human relationships or even human characters, with their flaws and imbalances. People (alas!) cannot be tuned to accommodate different needs, to make new or different combinations, new beauties. How utopian chamber music comes to seem here, as the members of the quartet ease away from their messy lives through the simplicity of a scale played in unison, until they are ready and generous enough to take their turns, to share the work and the pleasure of the music. But though I felt it this way, the novel itself is never sentimental. In his “Author’s Note” Seth remarks that he felt “gripped with anxiety” at the thought of writing about music, to him “dearer even than speech.” Perhaps as a result, he uses a spare but high-pressure style, relentlessly paced, never indulgent; the moments of grace appear as just that, moments in a turbulent, complicated world, themselves achieved by hard work, constant rehearsal, trial and error. Even the risky conceit of Julia’s hearing loss is handled coolly; like Michael, we shy away from pity even as we wonder how and why she can continue to make music she can hear fully only in her head. Beethoven too, we know, of course made music even after he could not hear it himself. In Julia’s case (she’s a fictional character, after all) we might ask if there is a metaphorical or symbolic dimension. Characters lose their sight in order to gain insight; is music here also a state of mind or perception from which sensory experience is a distraction? “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter”? But in the end it does seem to be the “heard melodies” that matter here, outweighing and outlasting every other desire, met or unmet, every painful, joyful love:

Music, such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music–not too much, or the soul could not sustain it–from time to time.

Some love stories leave us longing (no doubt in vain) for that “happily ever after” ending, the miraculously harmonious human relationship. This one has left me longing for Bach and Schubert.

Follow-up: To my joy, it turns out there is a companion CD for this novel. I eagerly await its arrival and, eventually, a second reading of the novel complete with soundtrack.

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