My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When violinist Michael Holme's past lover reenters his life unexpectedly in Vikram Seth's An Equal Music, he suddenly finds himself dealing with both the struggles of quartet life and the unrest of his own broken heart. Julia, now a married mother, is not the woman she was before, and Michael cannot—despite how hard he tries—bring back the music of their past. Yet music permeates the entire novel. At the bass line of the story's main melody, which follows the adulterous duet between the two protagonists, the tensions within the quartet, and Michael's lonely solo life, is music.
Seth clearly knows what he is talking about, musically. The classical music speak throughout the novel is the best thing about it, and makes it a delight to read for music lovers. There are passages in the novel that nail how I feel about Beethoven's Piano Trio in C minor, Op.1 No.3, playing the second violin part, and even my own violin:
"I agree with whoever said it should more properly be called "the other violinist". Its role is different, not lesser: more interesting, because more versatile. Sometimes, like the viola, it is at the textural heart of the quartet; at others it sings with a lyricism equal to that of the first violin, but in a darker and more difficult register."
"I love it and it loves me. We have grown to know each other. How can a stranger hold and sound what has been in my hands so long? We have been together for twelve years. Its sound is my sound. I can't bear to part with it."At the same time, there were times when I felt I was being lied to—Seth would foreshadow disaster in a concert, only to later reveal that the performance went wonderfully. Towards the end of the novel, as Michael grows sentimental, his narrative voice also becomes poetic and erudite in a way that does not seem to befit his character at all:
"A walk at the end of the world, the earthquake plate, alone; the mudflats of subsidence and flood, and the hermitage of the one who found the true cross. . . . If we had four hands, would Bach's mind have further branched? Let our thumbs be opposable at the opposite edge. Let our teeth be pulled, let us have baleen like whales, that our plankton love might grow, that we might ungnashing plash and play."This shift in tone, combined with Seth's use of an apostrophe ("the little dog ... knows that what is, is, and, O harder knowledge, that what is not is not"), points towards what Seth wants us to realize: Michael is an unreliable narrator. Indeed, moments in the book make us detest him. "You're a bully, Michael," Julia tells him when he insists that they play in the church. His imperative tone ("make that a promise") and relentless pursuit of her don't help us empathize with him.
But ultimately, his love of music and his love for his violin are what matters. That is the love that, unlike his relationship with Julia, is at the heart of the novel.
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