May 26, 2012

I recently read Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, a novel narrated by the second fiddle in the Maggiore String Quartet, Michael Holme. Michael is looking back at his dreary life and relating how he twice lost the love of his life, both times due to his own narcissistic impulses. Ten years before he was a student of an internationally known violin soloist in Vienna, but he hated his teacher, and in a weak moment he fled the city after abruptly telling his girlfriend Julia, a piano student, that he just had to get back to England. He did not write her, though, and eventually he joined the Maggiore Quartet, where he has been playing for the past five or six years when the story opens. The strongest part of the novel is its depiction of the notoriously close relationship between members of a small music ensemble, where success in performance demands uncanny precision of feeling and tempo and interplay.

Then Michael learns that Julia has returned to England, has married an American banking official, and has a child. She comes up to congratulate him after a quartet concert, he invites her to drop by for a chat, and they enjoy a rerun of their earlier love life — unknown, of course, to her family. But the narrator is not satisfied with this. He wants Julia to choose him over her family. This leads to a series of uncomfortable meetings and liaisons, until Julia decides she must break it off to avoid hurting her husband and son. Michael turns poisonous, goes into a funk, leaves the quartet, broods.

Near the end of the novel this mood changes for the better, but at various points in the narrative I wanted to kick Michael in the ass and tell him he was being a brooding, narcissistic asshole. It is a testimony to the writing that I stuck with the narrative to the end.

Stated baldly as above, the novel seems to have little plot, but in fact there are crosscurrents that make this story interesting. Michael is the son of a butcher. A wealthy neighbor lady took an interest in him and took him to music concerts. She had been a violinist herself, and she eventually loaned Michael her wonderful violin. We learn a lot about violins in the narrative, partly because a musician and his musical instrument are partners. Just as Michael loses Julia a second time, he learns that his patroness has died and the heirs want the violin back to sell.

Another interesting plot line concerns Julia, who after achieving a career as a piano soloist, learns she is going deaf. This introduces a number of interesting plot developments that insert Michael’s intense infatuation with Julia between him and the other members of his own family, the string quartet.

The overall tone of the novel is somber, and even when things are going well for Michael, he seems a bit manic. This does not, apparently, affect him as a performer, but it wreaks havoc on his own peace of mind and that of his friends and lovers. It may be that the project discussed throughout the novel of recording Bach’s Art of the Fugue relates to this in a metaphorical way. Just as Bach’s piece does not indicate what instrument it was written for, and just as the piece demands the highest level of musicianship to interpret and perform, so Michael’s fugal state of mind throughout makes demands on everyone around him, as well as on himself as a musician and a person. It appears at the end that he may be coming out of his funk, but few would bet that he will eventually find satisfaction and a measure of happiness.

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