Book Reviews

If Music be The Food of Love…

An Equal Music’ by Vikram Seth is a classic in every sense of the word. An exceptional novel is often woven out of the lives of exceptional people. It is a novel of passionate individuals who are dedicated to music. Music has been presented in this novel as a noble addiction. Michael and Julia are musicians. They love playing violin and piano. The joys of creativity are for the reader to see and feel. 
A kind of charm is woven out of words where the reader feels to be a part of a great musical performance. Seth writes, "At times I cease to breathe. It is unlike anything we as a quartet have ever played before." The players' individuality dissolves in the music that is produced by a joint effort. Built around the shared experiences of some performing musicians; especially Julia and Michael the novel dwells on the psyche of Michael, a second violinist in a London based string quartet, his different moods, longings and doubts.
Seth's command over words is complete. His choice of words and phrases goes well with his mild, almost seeping style of writing. The real meaning of the whole drama slowly soaks through the reader's mind.
Apparently a poignant love story, ‘An Equal Music’ with its load of sensitivity, leaves a permanent impression on the reader's mind. Reading the book reminds one of the happy memories of a Dickens or Jane Austin read in our adolescent days. Reading the novel we realize the true definition of delicacy of human emotions. Only a genuine book-lover or music-lover can fully grasp the pages where Michael frantically searches a music album by Beethoven. He runs from shop to shop, from one library to the other, and finally unearths a record which no one believed existed. During this search he also spots Julia, his lost love, on a moving bus. He wildly chases her, but in the end, loses both the record as well as Julia. He cries-"Sweating, diesel-gassed, unable to see clearly through my most inconvenient tears, I run and gasp and run." I found this 'my most inconvenient tears' to be one of the most touching phrases of the novel. The phrase has something Keatsian about it.
‘An Equal Music’ depicts human nature precisely. It is a slice of real life. Seth's insight into human nature and behavior is keen. Right from the financial tightness of struggling artists to the dynamics of their working together in music bands, each scene is appealingly painted. There are compromises involved in working together. Players have "separate spirits but are compelled to embody together." One member of the group proposes to play a particular piece. The other out rightly rejects it. Then one of them is mollified and so on. All this functioning is minutely observed by the novelist. Similarly, the thirst of the artists for appreciation is also described. Michael complains, "No one ever reviews us."
It is these small and fine details of life which form the spirit of the novel. Attachment to a city, communication gap, or natural nostalgia for the past, are some of the innumerable nuances depicted in the novel. There are no inserted or out-of-place scenes. There is no attempt at sensationalism. There are no controversial remarks to seek attention. The beauty of life, the pain of it, love and the pathos of everyday existence, which is nothing if not noticed, and is everything if thought about that; lies at the core of the novel.
One thing that I did feel while reading ‘An Equal Music’, is how rough, thick-skinned and harsh the experiences of life make us. The novel draws the tender side of life. Love for a pet cat, its death and then the sense of loss-are all too well written, without any tinge of exaggerating things.
We also get a peep into the world of the deaf. How the deaf feel and manage things? How is it that the deaf have been among the best musicians in the world? Probably they are more innovative and are less bound by traditions. Seth hints at the extra effort the deaf put into playing in a group. Psychological considerations as the claustrophobia of Michael and one of two dream sequences add an irresistible charm to the novel. Dreams are important from the point of view of analysis. Claustrophobia also tells a lot about Michael and his behavior.
A general wave of insecurity and uncertainty prevails over the atmosphere in the novel. Life comes and goes in jerks. Michael leaves Vienna for no substantial reason. He loses Julia...All of sudden he finds Julia. He loses his precious record. He gets it back most miraculously. One day he finds that Julia is already married. Another day he comes to know that Julia is getting deaf. All this happens in quick and deft strokes.
Seth is a master at capturing the mind of the reader. Once one starts reading ‘An Equal Music’, one is totally involved in the intriguing lives of Michael and Julia.
The plot of the novel is short and simple. Michael and Julia are students of Music at Vienna. They have an animated and reciprocating relationship. But due to vague and obscure reasons, Michael finds himself compelled to leave Vienna as well as Julia. He intensely regrets his decision later, and tries to make amends but in vain. He starts playing violin in a music band. About a decade later, he meets Julia in London. But by this time, she is married and has a son. She is also getting deaf. Their relationship is revived, but is not heading anywhere. At last Julia decides in favor of her family and leaves Michael. At the end of the novel, Michael is left alone in a wretched state of mind.
But it is not this bare sketch that can do justice to the beauty and elegance of this classic. It is the various intricacies of the plot that create the major grip of the novel. Michael's reminiscences of his childhood go a long way in defining his personality. He was born for music. He is drawn to music by a childless lady Mrs. Formby who lives in the neighborhood. Once, while playing hide and seek, he hides in the huge fridge. Once inside he realizes that it can be opened only from outside. Locked in that cold cell he desperately shouts from inside. The fridge is opened and he is brought out:
"When I was brought out, I was in a state of
suffocated terror, screaming still but almost
incapable of speech. For months afterwards I
had nightmares about the incident and would
wake up in a sweat inarticulate with
claustrophobia and panic."
Later on, in the novel again and again he suffers from attacks of claustrophobia. His personality stands 'exposed' throughout the novel.
What may strike a student of literature most is Vikram Seth's ability to enliven the locale of the novel. It is all the more remarkable that this novel has come after ‘A Suitable Boy’ which was firmly rooted in India. Mrs. Mehra and her daughters, the marriage proposals and rituals in India and Indian social structures formed the bulk of ‘A Suitable Boy’. In this novel we have Vienna, Venice and London as its background. There is not even the slightest hint that the novel is from an Indian's pen. Seth's versatility is amazing. The cities breathe in the pages of this novel. Vienna has a mysterious, artistic and alluring charm, while London is depicted more as rootless, inhospitable and unwelcoming. Somehow bliss is associated with Vienna and Venice; and pain with London.
One may call it an 'intuitive style' of writing. Slowly the meaning soaks through the reader's mind.
The characters do not take a decision. They realize afterwards, why they had taken such and such as step. We can say that the novel is written on a slightly higher psychological plain. For example, Michael gets a letter from his disciplinarian teacher Carl Kall. He reads it. He does other things. After some time he concludes, "Carl Kall is dying." Similarly, he feels restless and diagnoses his anxiety. He comes to realize that he has not phoned his father for quite some time. Then he calls his father. The novel moves like this. Various inexplicable moves and moods slowly unravel their causes.
It is the extraordinary description of the creative urge that has drawn me to the novel. The force of creativity is the protagonist of the novel. As a child Michael gets a chance to listen to live presentation of music. His heart jumps out and he wants to be a musician.
"He (the performer) brings down a stick and a huge and lovely noise fills the world. More than anything else I want to be part of such a noise."
The urge to create is so deep-rooted that hunger, food, love, romance, city, people, and Nature-all fade back into the background. The breaths of the artists are controlled by the rhythm of creativity. ‘An Equal Music’ is more to be felt than to be merely read. 

It is exhilarating that in present times, with information technology touching an all time high, the craze for the written word has not diminished. Literature in the form of books has been popular. The age in which we live has been significant for literature lovers. The twentieth century's passion for democratic values found recognition when Gunter Grass received Nobel Prize for ‘The Tin Drum’. Written in 1959, the novel is all about the Nazi havoc. The irrepressible Salman Rushdie has come out with path-breaking and very bold novels. Amitav Ghosh has been writing at his own pace.  Anita Desai and Kiran Desai have produced soul-searching novels. Orhan Pamuk, Paolo Coelho, Garcia- the list of powerful, impressive, effective and at the same time very popular writers goes on.  The might of the word has been proven time and again.
Readers like me place ‘An Equal Music’ by Vikram Seth as one of the finest achievements of the last few decades in the field of fiction. It is a soothing and relaxing novel. It is a novel that has an elevating effect on our sensibilities. It gives an emotionally satisfying pleasure. The world, in fact, is suffering from too many isms these days. Someone is harping on political correctness. The other is getting frantic about the ozone layer. And the remaining have locked horns over gender dominance. The world definitely needs some moderation in attitudes. It needs to be freed from extreme positions. It needs more of Vikram Seth and the like. There is not even one line in ‘An Equal Music’ that hurts the sentiments of any community, group or gender. Away from the latest attention seeking and shocking brand of literature, here is a novel that dwells in the emotions of its characters. 

The novel begins in the middle of the narration when Michael and Julia, two passionate lovers have parted. Both are instrumental musicians- Michael a violinist and Julia a pianist. Michael is haunted by the past bliss. Thus the reader has the glimpse of their earlier life together. At the same time, the novel keeps on progressing at the level of present flowing towards future as life does. 

Michael's reminiscences plunge the reader temporarily into the past. Michael is the narrator. The novel is definitely his point of view. Michael and Julia were students in a Music College in Vienna. They shared very intense and intimate moments together. But after some time due to his own mental compulsions and also due to the overawing and suffocating presence of a teacher Carl Kall, Michael leaves Vienna and Julia. Coming to London, he realizes that Julia has actually become a part of his personality. Leaving Julia was an irrevocable mistake of Michael. He desperately tries to contact her but all in vain. Julia is lost and so is lost the light of Michael's life. He leads a mechanical life devoid of any warmth. Seth very keenly describes that Michael has even lost his sense of self-identity. With Julia he loses the anchor of his personality. He is disoriented. A decade passes but the pain of losing Julia does not pass. Then one fine day he spots Julia on a moving bus in London only to discover that she is married and has a son. Nevertheless their broken ties are renewed. This sunny period in Michael's life is coupled with the jealousy with her husband and the agony of sharing her. But fate has even worse things in store. Before long, Michael discovers another brutal fact that Julia is slowly but surely getting deaf. Anybody who wishes to know what music means to the deaf should read this novel. How they feel the music, their lip reading, finger-reading and their style of interpreting the body language-everything has been dealt by the author in detail. Some of the greatest musicians of all times have been deaf. The deaf are more innovative when it comes to forming new combinations in music. They are less bound by traditions.

The climax of the story comes when Michael and Julia go to Venice together. Michael's group is performing there in a concert. The author gives an insight into the functioning of the music bands. The place of a city in an individual's life has also been highlighted at this juncture of the novel. Michael and Julia have returned to a place to which they have been deeply attached in the past. Had it not been for Vienna, their lives would have been different. The whole episode has been very delicately dealt by the author. 

The whole novel, it appears, moves in a predestined direction. The veil of sorrow and the fear of parting never quite get off in every page of the novel. In the end Julia seals her fate in favor of her family and leaves Michael. Michael's condition in these last pages is heart-rending. After losing Julia he loses everything- his sense of identity, his sense of purpose in life, his place in the world and his connecting chord with the world. Going through painful isolation, hallucinations and nightmares, Michael is a torn figure. Michael's childhood experiences, his relations with his parents, his obsessive attachment to his violin, his childhood mentor Mrs. For by etc. are the other major concerns of the novel. Whatever subject Seth touches, he deals with it competently. He deals with the dynamics of a situation delineating its discerning details artistically. His mastery over the subject he is dealing is apparent in every word that he writes. One feels as though the novel has been written by a scholar of Western music, a psychoanalyst and great writer at the same time.

Seth's rise from regional anchors is to be applauded. Except for the name of the author; there is hardly anything Indian about this novel.  The pages of the novel breathe an acute sense of culture and tradition. And yet this culture is curiously global where Bach's Fugues and Dhrupad Aalap come equally naturally. Jyotirmaya Sharma writes, "Seth's triumph lies in his ability to create and sustain a central character who has no direct relation to the author's cultural context. It, hopefully, marks the beginning of the end of the expat Indian writer's perpetual search for roots and endless discourses about the impossibility of home coming. 

This novel heralds the ascent of the self-processed Indian who rises above the parochialism generated by the modern nation-state, yet is deeply immersed in a classical culture." Seth is a world citizen in his vision. The way he has freed himself from regional cultures is astonishing. Some even feel uneasy about it.  Paven Varma says, "I'm sometimes surprised at his ability to write books which have nothing to do with India. I'm uncomfortable with this degree of cultural autonorny." A Suitable Boy’ revolves around the concept of a suitable boy for marriage in India. Mrs. Mehra and her clan bring Indian culture to life as never before. It is difficult to believe that these two novels are from the same pen. Full marks to Vikram Seth for his ability to see things from all possible points of view! 

The role of the locale in this novel reminds one of Thomas Hardy. The role of cities is subtly crucial in this novel. The pace of the city is its pulse. "London unsettles me" Michael says. He is referring to the fast life of the city. Vienna and Venice are ancient cities loaded with cultural significance and old architectural beauty. But somehow Vienna is also associated with discipline, lack of warmth and puzzling patterns of behavior. For example, no justification is offered for Michael's abandoning of Vienna as well as Julia. He says. "What happened to me so many years ago? Love or no love, I could not continue in that city. I stumbled, my mind jammed, I felt the pressure of every breath. I told her I was going and went." 

Similarly the character of the teacher Carl Kall is also a symbol of Vienna. In Michael's mind Vienna is inseparably linked with Carl Kall. We should call him a shadow of a character as he does not come directly in the novel. It is through Michael's memories and through a letter; Carl Kall is presented to the reader. He is deep-rooted in the orthodox tradition of music. Somebody has correctly said that genius is the enemy of genius by over influencing. So it is here. He wants unique solo performances from Michael while Michael himself prefers playing in a group. The teacher unnerves Michael by his acidic behavior and criticizing attitude. Carl Kall is definitely a symbol of Vienna, of ancient culture, orthodox beliefs and disciplinarian teaching style. London, in comparison, is presented as modern, happy and responsive. While the couple separated in Vienna, they reunited in London. The cities in this novel have their own personalities which overshadow the atmosphere, mood and tone of the novel. Seth gives us the clue as to how he is able to achieve this kind of city portrayal, "I usually like to live in the city I am writing about".

John Carey writes about the beauty and appeal of ‘An Equal Music’, "Seth writes in a cut-down style and brief numbered sections, quite unlike ‘A Suitable Boy's opulence. But it is astonishing how much feeling he can pack into the sparse dialogues, and how luminously landscapes emerge from a few scattered phrases. Ordinary events gather somber symbolic weight: Michael weeping beneath the statue of Eros in Piccadilly, the steel door of the lift in his Bays water Flat sliding shut across the glass panel through which he can see Julia's troubled smile." 

The book is soaked in passion. It is all about the life of the heart. The delicacy of expression is the supreme attribute of this novel. The bitterness of a broken heart, the element of jealousy in romantic relationships and the pain and pathos of a hopeless situation are overwhelming. Michael is unconsciously competing with Julia's husband, James. But he cannot be successful in separating her from her family simply because she also has a child. Just three sentences drive the message home," I feel a sudden surge of resentment against this poor baby. How can I ever compete with him? How could I ever think of drawing them apart?" If words could be made to weep at the loneliness of the person they are describing, it could only be done by Vikram Seth. Isolation strikes Michael from all corners. Things in his room that once belonged to Julia, wrong phone calls, and his first love music - all remind him of the emptiness in his life. Seth writes," A message from Helen on the phone. I don't answer it. A card from Virginie, traveling with friends. A letter from Carl Kall.  I leave it sealed. Why should I come to terms with the whole world?"

The novel is picturesque. The cities, their architectural attraction, rivers, lakes, markets, fields and underground stores add to the visual feast in the novel. John Carey says, "With its Venetian location, its instrumental performances, its characterization, ‘An Equal Music’ will make a fabulous film." Carey's observation is perfectly true. The functioning of the mind has been intricately woven with the landscapes and scenes. Visual glory certainly makes this novel an ideal text for a successful film. 

The supreme attribute of the novel which puts it in a class of its own is its psychologically penetrating portrayal of characters and situations. There are definite vital undercurrents in this novel that give it psychological validity. Michael's claustrophobia is a major psychoanalytical consideration. Michael gets nervous, sick and dizzy when in a closed and congested place. Seth does not leave the matter with a description of the disease only. He gives us a clue from his childhood for our understanding of the ailment. Such denotative incidents tell us the genre of Michael's personality. Overall he is a vulnerable person. Prone to hurts and insults, this sad soul is facing the blows of fate all by himself. His wounds stand exposed. Another reason which could explain this general defenselessness in Michael is his weak bond with his parents; mother in particular. His parents never wanted him to be a violin player. But he is irresistibly drawn to music. The pulse of creativity grips him most decisively Mrs. Formby's love for music sharpens Michael's own longing for music. There is no escape for him. Music and creativity become his life.

The way certain other characters have been described also shows the psychological insight of the author. With limited words, Seth puts a character in the appropriate frame and category. One member of the music group in which Michael works is Billy. About Billy, the author writes, "Billy is far too fat and always will be. He will always be distracted by families and money worries, car insurance and composition. For all our frustration and rebuke, he will never be on time." These lines at once decide the character of Billy and at the same time tell a lot about the common thinking of common people. Always worried by worldly worries, Billy considers composition a part of his life and not his whole life. Similarly, what Seth writes about Helen, the organizer of group is absolutely true not only for Helen but for the majority of the people, "Helen, for instance, usually says the first thing that comes into her head. Sometimes her thoughts run ahead of her words; sometime it's the other way round.” These are amusing lines which underline the fact how carelessly people usually speak. The novel is full of such psychologically sound observations. 

By the end of the novel, a nightmare of Michael is described by Seth. It has significant indications. Just one dream tells us all about the deep-rooted fear in the mental structure of Michael. Above all, it establishes his loneliness. His fear of losing his near and dear ones and his violin comes to light. His situation is such that he neither weeps nor laughs. He is always expectant of finding Julia but he knows that he has lost her. His dream is located in an underground station. Many people pass him. Seth writes, 'But as the couples passed, sometimes with many strangers in between, I grew more anxious. I was tracked between hope and dread, because I thought I might see Julia herself and I did not know who would be standing with her. Yet among the many tedious people from my past who floated down, cousins, Maths teachers and orchestral colleagues, she did not appear and my heart sank." If we believe the Freudian view that dreams are expressions of the unconscious and that they are channel into which the suppressed thoughts of waking life are routed, then his dreams underline all the hidden fears of Michael's conscious life. The anchor-less-ness of his life is portrayed with an extraordinary style and force. There are other psychological issues like the role of intuition or the urge of creativity that have been expressed by the novelist in a very refined and sophisticated way.

It is quite an experience to read ‘An Equal Music’. It is an intense emotional journey. The experience of reading Seth is similar to that of reading a Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens. With Jane Austen's subtle humor Seth imbibes Dickens' intensity in his work. The memory of reading his novel lingers with the reader. With Seth, his style of putting things is supreme. The bare story is simply a tragic love story but the amount of energy, depth and vitality that the author has added makes the novel a classic. Small gestures acquire huge importance. The routine of life and the simple pleasures of living have been given alluring charm by the author. The tenderness of human life has been dealt beautifully by Vikram Seth. As John Carey writes, "Seth's novel, ‘An Equal Music’ is a wonder work: irresistible, tense and deeply moving."


Vikram Seth, An Equal Music (New Delhi : Viking Penguin, 1994)
Jyotirmaya Sharma, 'The Twain Never Meet', The Times of India, New Delhi (26 April,99)
Pavan Varma,'Voices', The Times of India, New Delhi (26 April, 99)
Seth in an interview to Anupam Srivastava. The Times of India, New Delhi (26 April, 99)
John Carey, Vikram Seth's Music For The Mind', The Times of India, New Delhi(2 April, 99)   


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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