Seth's 'Music': love -- madly, deeply

May 16, 1999|By Arthur Hirsch | By Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

"An Equal Music," by Vikram Seth. Phoenix House. 381 pages. $25.

The London violinist is a desperate man, scrambling to figure how he can afford to buy his beloved, albeit borrowed, 18th century Italian violin.

"Why," laments Michael Holme, "must this thing of wood undo me?"

The unkind response might be: "Doesn't everything?"

Because in Vikram Seth's beautifully written novel of music, romance and the endless search for transcendent passion, the main character spends much time being undone: by his doomed romantic pursuit, the demands of a willful music instructor, the memories of what was and the consciousness of what cannot be.

Seth, who in interviews has willingly acknowledged his own compulsive tendencies, has written his third novel from the point of view of a 37-year-old man in thrall to visions of perfection. Naturally, the terribly sensitive Holme is destined to suffer.

Fortunately, Holme is smart, utterly devoted to his work and shows flashes of sharp wit. Without these qualities he might be hard to take for 381 pages. Holme would be more sympathetic were he not quite so self-absorbed, so taken with the drama of his own agonies that he is sometimes oblivious to the suffering of the women with whom he is truly, madly, deeply in love.

Julia McNicholl and Holme were music students together 10 years before the action of the novel begins. This was in Vienna, where Holme eventually found the pressure from a particularly influential music professor overwhelming. Holme left school and returned to London. So emotionally paralyzed was he that he could not communicate with his beloved Julia. For months he was silent. Thereafter, his attempts to contact Julia failed. His letters went unanswered.

Ten years later he thinks of her constantly as he goes about his days as a violin teacher and member of a professional string quartet: "There are so many beings here, occupied, pre-occupied. Let me believe that she breathes, that she exists, somewhere on this chance sphere."

She exists, all right. The gifted pianist turns up living in London, a short distance from Holme's apartment. A few things have changed, however. She's married, she has a son and she has lost virtually all her hearing.

The book is a page-turner even if some of the coincidences seem a bit forced. I wasn't quite convinced about Julia's willingness to begin an affair with Michael or travel with him for concerts in Vienna and Venice. There's a certain melodrama in the recurrence of Holme's panic attack in Vienna as he falls victim to the ghost of his old music teacher.

Yet, the book is a joy to read, all the more so if you have a keen interest in music. Seth has done his research, but he never goes so far into musical technicalities as to subordinate story or characters. The musical detail amplifies character.

Fans of literary fiction will relish a writer whose gift for poetry shows. The language swept me up in its rhythms, conveying the cadence of loss and recovery beating at the heart of this novel. In style and substance, the book works as a meditation on one emotionally scarred artist's pursuit of the heavenly vision described by John Donne in the passage from which the book title is taken: "...no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor silence, but one equal music..."

Arthur Hirsch is a staff writer in The Sun features department. Before that he worked for the Cape Cod Times, the Standard-Times in Massachusetts and the Union Leader in New Hampshire.

Pub Date: 05/16/99

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