Music can allow us to rediscover what is in deep inside of ourselves, free from the precision of language and the barrage of rhetoric, free from easy answers to impossible questions.
Aaron Jay Kernis
Everyone can relate to the person of talent who has to play second fiddle. Michael Holme, the protagonist of Vikram Seth's An Equal Music, does exactly that as a member of a string quartet in London. The spicy mix of personalities in his quartet represents just one aspect of the larger and even more complex world of performers, agents, critics, impresarios, patrons, concertgoers, and mentors in which Michael operates. Seth's novel convincingly portrays the musician's ongoing sense of wonder that out of this dynamic mass of elements—clashing egos, diverse priorities, and potential disasters at every turn—an alchemy takes place that permits transcendant music to be born.
Seth's greatest achievement in this novel is the way he enables the reader to hear the music. No one who has never tried it can imagine the impossibility of putting musical experience into words. If the writer tries to do it through a musician's jargon—the kind of shoptalk that depends on both parties already sharing a mental image of how, say, a 'Neapolitan' chord sounds—the description remains flat on the page for most readers. It conjures no sounds and the picture remains mute. If the writer uses metaphors there is the danger that the images will take on a life of their own and become conceits that leave the sound of the actual music behind. In finding the balance there remains the matter of versimilitiude. Readers want not only to hear the music but to hear the way real musicians talk to each other. An Equal Music finds Seth pulling off the highwire act on page after page with seemingly virtuosic ease. It's no mere flourish. The power of the novel depends on this: our experience of the way this story's memorable and vividly realized characters inhabit a world given meaning and energy by sound. The reader has to experience along with the characters how much it matters that an individual string is retuned, that a recital program is put in a particular order, and that a performer is able to buy the right instrument rather than an almost right one. That done, the reader is a better position to appreciate what it might mean to someone whose life is lived in this world if that person loses the ability to hear anything.
At the heart of this tale is a troubled love story involving Michael and Julia, a pianist. The two share a passion for beauty in all its forms that bonds them to each other despite their relationship's troubled beginning and compromised rebirth.
Musicians will find in this novel a convincing portrayal of the world they inhabit. Others will enjoy the authenticity of this look behind the curtains, courtesy of a writer of rare and sure perception.
Random House provides excerpts of the novel online together with an engaging interview with the author. The book can be ordered in paperback or hardcover from Amazon. And for those ready to hear the actual music there is, happily, an audio recording. Enjoy.