Summary and Analysis
An Equal Music may be read in three different ways. First, it is a novel about music, and in this respect it succeeds. Second, it is about the daily lives of musicians, and here it flounders at times. Third, it is a love story, and in this respect it falters all too often.
The narrator, Michael Holme, has through sheer perseverance and a certain amount of talent found a place as a violinist in England’s competitive music world, playing second violin in a reasonably prestigious string quartet, the Maggiore. This he has accomplished in spite of his working-class background and his roots in a decaying industrial town north of London, a place that serves as a joke for sophisticated Londoners. As well, his hard-won achievement has come about despite his feelings of inferiority, his lack of regard for others, his rudeness, and his self-obsession. Whether Vikram Seth intended the central character to be an unpleasant sort remains questionable, but Michael does not emerge as a particularly likable or sympathetic person. Perhaps Seth, not a musician himself but a dedicated lover of music, imagines that musicians are all inflicted with angst. In fact, one of Michael’s fellow musicians delivers a damning description of the profession:
Negative, negative, negative, everyone’s so negative today. . . . This morning when I was making coffee I suddenly realised how boring musicians are. All our friends are musicians and we aren’t interested in anything except music. We’re stunted. Totally stunted. Like athletes.
In spite of the squabbling and pettiness among the members of the Maggiore, they make beautiful music together, and at times the text captures the very rhythms and sounds and excitement of what they are playing. In these moments, the four ordinary humans set aside their differences, their personal problems, and their selves, and unite as artists. For the mere printed page to evolve magically into exquisite sound is an admirable feat, and this quality may be the novel’s triumph. In addition, the reader is treated to an inside look at the musical world: the business side with agents and recording studios, the purchase of instruments—a pursuit hampered by financial limitations—the doings backstage before and after concerts, tuning, critics, rehearsals, selection of programs, and so forth. In a note at the end of the book, Seth admits that he depended on string players and those who disseminate music (such as agents, sellers and repairers of instruments, and critics) for background material, and notes that “Many people talked to me about the world of these characters; a few about the characters themselves.”
That statement unintentionally describes the problem with An Equal Music in its second function as a book about musicians. Even as the novel painstakingly and fully creates the world in which the characters live and perform, “the characters themselves” appear one-dimensional. While Michael represents the intense, brooding artist, the other three members of the quartet are rendered in clichéd terms. Helen is a rather silly woman, oblivious to the world around her except when she is playing the viola. Piers is a bitter and offensive homosexual who has lost his lover and whose characterization borders on the homophobic. Billy is a gentle but boring and pedantic man. Michael’s reclaimed lover Julia is depicted as beautiful, elegant, and refined, and she is a gifted pianist, a devoted mother, and an unfaithful wife; yet these attributes and capacities remain unconvincing. Because the focus stays on the musicians, those who surround them are little more than undeveloped walk-ons, each one fashioned in predictable terms.
To a degree the novel employs its first two elements, the realm of music and the life of musicians, as a backdrop for its third and possibly primary role as a love story. While most of the music that the Maggiore quartet plays comes from earlier times, so does the pattern for the predicament of the lovers. The classic German novel of unrequited love by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), comes immediately to mind. In the telling of Werther’s passion for a married woman and the consequences of such an infatuation, Goethe has been credited with inventing the Romantic hero. Although this character has been banned from...
(The entire section is 1781 words.)