- An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
Phoenix House, 381 pp, £16.99, April 1999, ISBN 1 86159 117 9
I met Vikram Seth by chance, he met me by mistake. He sat down next to me at an occasion he had never meant to attend. It was 6.45 p.m. on Thursday 25 March at the Royal Society of Literature in Bayswater. Seth had come to hear a friend of his read. I had come to hear the Minister for the Arts describe the Government’s support for literature. At 7 p.m., as the Minister began to speak, Seth looked nonplussed and started for the door. It was too late, he was trapped.
I knew it was Vikram Seth because I had studied his face on the jacket of An Equal Music. The night before, I had dreamt about him. He was on my mind. Vikram Seth did not know it was me. I wondered if I should tell him. He might find it interesting. This would depend on whether he’d had Nicholas Spice in mind when he invented Nicholas Spare, an odious music critic whom the nice characters in An Equal Music loathe. I decided to avoid the subject of Nicholas Spare. Instead we talked about poetry, and then about Vikram Seth and then about Haydn. How remarkable that Haydn had been a choirboy at the funeral of Vivaldi and yet had outlived Mozart, said Seth. Murmuring assent, I cast about for ways of developing this elegant theme, but the Minister had risen to speak, so I trailed off into silence and, with a polite smile at Seth, I retreated to my thoughts.
I felt sure that I had made Vikram Seth appear by thinking about him. Michael Holme, the narrator of An Equal Music, makes the love of his life appear by thinking about her. He’s sitting on a bus in Oxford Street when another bus draws alongside, and there she is: Julia McNicholl, or Julia Hansen as she now is, though Michael doesn’t know this yet. It’s taken Michael ten years to summon up Julia, so when the two buses move out of synch and he loses her again, he’s forgivably upset. His recourse to lame poetic pastiche – ‘Under the arrow of Eros I sit down and weep’ – is less forgivable.
The encounter furnishes Michael with a painfully apt image for his romantic predicament: ‘She was no further from me than the seats on the other side of the aisle, but she could have been in Vienna ... The two layers of glass between us, like a prison visit by a loved one after many years.’ When he meets her again, Michael will find that Julia is married to a decent, if rather boring American banker, and that she has a six-year-old child called Luke. Ten years before, when Michael and Julia were music students at the Vienna Hochschule, the layers of glass had been less substantial. Julia couldn’t see them, and Michael was never able satisfactorily to point them out. He is said to have abandoned Julia and fled back to London because of a breakdown in his relations with his violin teacher. But this doesn’t add up – his music teacher is nasty to him so he leaves his girlfriend? Nor is it clear why, when he realised his mistake, he didn’t get on the next train back to Vienna, instead of relying on despairing letters which Julia was too hurt to open.
Important links are missing in the emotional logic of Michael’s behaviour towards Julia and the novel takes little interest in supplying them. Julia is less complicated and more attractive than Michael. Though she is heartbroken when Michael deserts her, she doesn’t allow her grief to immobilise her, at any rate not for a decade. She develops her career as a pianist. Devotes herself to her child. Learns to love James, her not altogether thrilling husband. And when she discovers she is going deaf, she meets this intense misfortune with dignity and a proportionate distress. It’s at the point where her deafness is beginning seriously to disrupt her life that Julia meets Michael again and is drawn back into an affair with him. They respond quite differently to this new situation. Julia accepts the transient happiness it gives her, quickly sees the impossibility of what she is doing and brings her involvement with Michael to an end. Michael wants more, but offers no practical suggestions as to how they are to get it. On their last night together, frustrated and enraged by Julia’s determination to return to her husband, Michael bites her viciously on the neck. And that’s that. At the end of An Equal Music, Julia is back with her banker and deep in The Art of Fugue. Michael is back where he was at the beginning: nursing the pain of recapitulated loss, mooching about Bayswater.
I should like very much to talk to Seth about Michael and Julia, but we might just as well be sitting in two different buses at a traffic-light in Oxford Street. The Minister is in full swing. He is waxing smooth on the subject of library provision. He keeps calling local libraries ‘street corner universities’, as if this bit of whimsy will distract us from the fact that local libraries are being closed down all over the place. The Minister’s name is Alan Howarth. He has the manner of an experienced schoolmaster who likes to think of himself as gentle but firm. The lower register of his voice purrs with sincerity. Could this be the same Alan Howarth, I wonder, who gave me and my sisters two pet rabbits back in the summer of 1959? The rabbits were called Gin and Tonic, but we renamed them Albert and Victoria. Albert broke Victoria’s back, mating with her. Later he got colic and blew up like a football. In 1959, my Alan Howarth would have been about ten, which squares with the man on the platform. He’s fearfully good-looking and I fancy I see a resemblance between him and the rabbit boy’s brother David, once a very naughty schoolboy, but now, I believe, a historian of art patronage in the 17th century at Edinburgh University. I have come to put a question to the Minister about W.H. Smith and its dominance in the magazine market, but I would much rather ask him about the rabbits.
Did Vikram Seth keep rabbits as a boy? I enjoy the sense that I alone hold the strings that link the three of us in this random conjunction. While the Minister’s mind is focused on his performance as a politician, I see him in shorts holding a rabbit in a sunlit garden on a particularly hot summer’s day 40 years ago. While the novelist sits next to me, twisting his fingers into a knot in irritation at being in the wrong place at the right time, I, who may just possibly be the model for his least important character, have assimilated his most important character to myself. Michael Holme hovers between us, made up of bits of Vikram Seth and bits of me. There are fortuitous factual parallels between me and Michael: a childhood in the North of England, an early fixation on classical music, time spent studying music at an Austrian academy. Michael shares none of this with Seth, though Seth has deliberately linked him to himself: made him live in Bayswater, take a swim every morning in the Serpentine, have a habit of singing Schubert songs to himself. If in some ways I am like Michael, and Michael is in some ways like Seth, does that make me in any way like Seth?
Pondering this question, I decide that Michael Holme is least like himself when he is most like Vikram Seth (which might entail Vikram Seth being least like himself when he is most like ‘Vikram Seth’). The self-portrait of Michael as a lonely man, blocked in his development by his attachment to his own depressive states, is the main imaginative achievement of An Equal Music. The best writing in the novel is devoted to articulating Michael’s solitary perceptions of the world:
At a quarter to one, umbrella’d, capped and padded against the weather, I step out into the dark day. The old leaves, long since fallen, are whirled up and around. The rain cuts across and soaks my trousers below the knee. The umbrella with its weak spokes becomes a crazy black sail. The park is almost completely empty, for who would take a stroll in this weather?
On each of the larger boughs of a plane tree sit about a dozen pigeons, including a few brown ones, facing the wind, ruffled and uncooing, like fat fruit. A crow struts around beneath, calm, cawing, proprietorial. A couple of miserable joggers pass by.
There is nothing overtly ‘written’ in these observations, which therefore seem legitimately to belong to Michael. But his voice has a higher-toned register, a self-conscious poetic vein, which is too writerly and, in view of who Michael is, inherently implausible. As the second violinist of a string quartet, and someone who has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about his lack of a broader education, his tendency to speak blank verse when he gets worked up is tiresome and incongruous:
From my high lair I view the world. I will say yes, of course; and try to feign, as best I can, the calm I do not feel. Those whom she loves must not be hurt. But I know I am no good at this ... Can I not be ill? But not to see her then? – to smell that light scent she wears, or dredge the memory of that darker musk. She says she misses me. It must be true. I walk along the white-housed squares and streets that lead me to her home.
There’s much too much of this kind of writing in the second half of An Equal Music, and, sad to say, no obvious signals that we are to take it ironically. It appears that Seth not only endorses Michael’s rhetoric but speaks it himself. The last words of An Equal Music modulate seamlessly into the first words of the Author’s Note tacked onto the novel as a miniature coda. Michael has just heard Julia play the first part of The Art of Fugue at a concert in the Wigmore Hall:
I push through the crowded lobby into the rain. I walk a long while, through the streets, the darkness of the park. Once more I stand by the Serpentine. The rain has washed my earlier tears away.
Music, such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music – not too much, or the soul could not sustain it – from time to time.
The Author’s Note begins: ‘Music to me is dearer even than speech. When I realised that I would be writing about it I was gripped with anxiety. Only slowly did I reconcile myself to the thought of it.’ I feel a touch of the Nicholas Spares coming on. A small capsule of mockery bursts in my brain. I wait for it to disperse. What chiefly provokes me is the fragrance of piety wafting from Seth’s words. He speaks of the creative task as a vocation, a mantle that falls unbidden on his (temporarily) unworthy shoulders. Enjoined to write about music by inscrutable (perhaps Scrutonian) powers, he is filled with religious dread. ‘Music to me is dearer even than speech.’ Why this choice of words? Why this word order? Why the Wordsworthian cadence? Why not a sentence which at least makes sense?
Literal sense is not Seth’s purpose here. He wants an emotive meaning to come through. Something to the effect perhaps that music recalls us to our lost ‘unspoken selves’ (Adam Phillips’s phrase), or that the beauty of great music is beyond the power of words to describe, or that the meanings of music make the meanings of speech redundant, or that music is our hotline to the divine. An Equal Music is prefaced by a quotation from one of Donne’s sermons in which heaven is pictured as that place ‘where there shall be no cloud nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor silence, but one equal music’. The notion that the music of the First Vienna School and J.S. Bach (which effectively wraps up music as far as this novel is concerned) should sing the music of the spheres makes a travesty of what Donne is saying. His heavenly music, the equal music that has smoothed out the imperfections of nature (no Pythagorean comma), is precisely not to be heard here on earth, and to talk about it as though it were is to make light of religion and to trivialise the travails of this mortal life.
It is also to imprison music in a sentimental idealism – ahistorical, anti-intellectual and fundamentally uncreative. By opposing music to speech, Seth closes down conversation about music. More than that, he closes down conversation about anything. For if we must give up speech to keep hold of music, we must also give up freedom of speech. ‘Music to me is dearer even than speech’ is a profoundly reactionary creed.
There are no politics in An Equal Music, there is not much social reality and there is precious little music. There is a love affair, often delicately and touchingly portrayed, and there is a sustained evocation of personal loneliness. In the film that will probably be made of this novel, music will intensify the feelings of love and loneliness, and Julia’s deafness will turn up the level of poignancy a treat. In the process, the best things in the novel will be vulgarised and the worst things passably redeemed. In the novel, meanwhile, music remains an irrelevance, since it cannot be heard and it is not to be intelligently spoken of. In the place of the detail that could have given a deep background to Michael and Julia’s love, had they been cast as teachers or accountants, there are painstaking and stilted stagings of rehearsals and concerts, scenes that lack point without the music that is being played. In any case, music and love is like Sachertorte mit Schlag (as Julia says, ‘making music and making love – it’s a bit too easy an equation’). The music inspissates the love story, clogging it with vague imaginings and borrowed feeling. The love story drags music out of its proper realm into the world of common emotion and reduces it to the status of a sound-track, and a notional one at that.
It may be that, loving Schubert’s Lieder with a passion, Vikram Seth has attempted to elaborate a sort of prose poem, placing the Sehnsucht of early German Romanticism in a contemporary setting. If this is so, the project was misconceived. Prose is essentially a monophonic medium (you can’t read two sentences at once). In fiction, the relationship of author to narrator offers an opportunity to develop two-part semantic polyphony. But Seth is resolute for simplicity. He likes to tell his stories straight. In contrast, the beauty of Schubert’s songs lies in their enigmatic concision. A Schubert song speaks with many different voices: the voice of the lyric ‘I’, the voice of the poet who writes the poem, the voice of the singer, the voices of the piano and the voice of Schubert who composes the music. The protagonist of Winterreise doesn’t know that he is singing. He is not a musician. He is not cosy in the Wigmore Hall but trudging along a country road in the snow. And he can’t listen to Schubert’s Winterreise on CD to cheer himself up.
There are many refreshing ways of talking about music without trying to talk about the aspect of it that is beyond words. But An Equal Music has set its face against all forms of analysis, theory, detailed description or debate: in short, against any exploratory attitude to music – what one might call the composer’s attitude. Composition plays no part in the book. The only references to contemporary music make it out to be ridiculous and pernicious and the only characters who put in a good word for it are Billy, the cellist of the Maggiore String Quartet, and the infamous Nicholas Spare. The fact that Billy composes and attempts to speculate a bit about the music which the Quartet plays attracts no more than fond indulgence from the other members of the group, for whom music seems to be mainly an opportunity for feel-good experiences. Billy is reduced to the stature of Herbert the Hedgehog: ‘absent-minded, short-sighted, lovable but true’.
As for Nicholas Spare, he is a pantomime figure, an irritating old queen who teases the leader of the quartet by calling the ‘Trout’ Quintet ‘kitsch’, a word that it might have been wiser to keep out of this novel. In the context of An Equal Music, with its bullying simple-mindedness about music, Spare’s facetiousness sounds positively intellectual. For his pains he gets a glass of warm punch poured over his head.
Back at the Royal Society of Literature it’s time, I think, to declare my hand and take up the cudgels against Seth for my namesake. The proceedings have moved towards their conclusion. The bearded poets and the grey-haired lady biographers have stamped their furry feet at the Minister for Rabbits, who has handled them firmly with his velveteen gloves. The genial Dickensian chairman is winding up the session in tones that tell us it’s all just a game but please do stay and join the Minister for a drink and a nibble. Could this be my chance to take my revenge? Shall I empty a glass of warm Chardonnay over the novelist’s head? Seth, sensing perhaps that he is about to be collared by one of his own characters and eager to get back to the life he was meant to be leading this Thursday evening, rises hastily, makes his excuses with a nod and slips quietly away into the March night.