The story, divided into eight parts, is told through the eyes of Michael Holmes, a 30-something violinist, who plays the second fiddle in the quartet (and a second fiddle in his lover’s life we will soon see!). He teaches music on the side and had an affair with his student Virginie but he never forgets his first love, Julia. Ten years ago he left Julia in a lurch in Vienna and now he wonders how and where she is. Then, one day, stuck in a taxi in Oxford Street, he finds himself eye to eye with his long lost love, Julia, in a double decker bus going the opposite way.
So for the next 400 pages, Michael hunts Julia down and well, they get back together again. Not much of a spoiler, considering that the blurb at the back cover says: “An Equal Music is a book about love, about the love of a woman lost and found and lost again.” Ok I get it, Michael is doomed in love from the very beginning, now let’s hear how he is about to be disappointed again. Duh! And this is how I felt when I read the book, waiting for the final disappointment to happen. 🙂
Michael though do not only live in the world of Julia, in fact in his microorganism world of quartet he eats, lives and breathes music, and he spends most of his time practicising with the member of the quartet. There are Piers, Billy and Helen. Michael also has a father who lives up north in Rochdale and an Aunty Joan with Zsa-Zsa the cat. So with this small group of people what can possibly happen to spawn a 489-pages long book? Well everything conceivable that can happen to a musician: rehearsing, getting a recording deal, playing in a concert hall in Vienna, having cold feet in performance, scrupulous media hungry agents, tensions and rivalries between quartet members, who should plays first violin, how in love one could be for their musical instruments, auctions to pay exorbitant prices for a violin and of course most of all name drops of dead classical musicians (Beethoven, Bach, Hadyn and Mozart) and musical pieces, musical jargon, Fugue and Concerto, and smattering German sentences. Phew!
I wanted to read A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth but couldn’t muster enough courage to do it yet so I thought let’s start with a thinner book of his, which is this. I agree with many reviewers that this is probably the only few or one novels which write about the lives and emotions of a musician as tenderly as this. Artist and musicians are fuelled with emotions and sentiments and this book encapsulates the nuances of it very well. What else can explain why Michael left Julia in a lurch and his many dark broody moods and poetic yearning of his lost love?
Classical music is not a world that is different from mine. I have visited the graves of the musical greats in Zentralfriedhof in Vienna and felt a sense of overwhelming awe because Beethoven, Bach, Hadyn and Mozart were names that I grew up with. At least 10 years of my growing up years towards adolescence, I have spent many gruelling hours, not playing music, but practising my scales and arpeggios on my piano. I am able to tell the difference between a fugue and a sonata, and how you play the part where it says Allegro (lively and fast) or Adagio (Slowly). This went on until I attained Grade 8 and suddenly I stopped playing, for 1.5 decades.
Every rehearsal of the Maggiore Quartet begins with a very plain, very slow three-octave scale on all four instruments in unison. No matter how fraught our lives have been over the last couple of days, no matter how abrasive our disputes about people or politics, or how visceral our differences about what we are to play and how we are to play it, it reminds us that we are, when it comes to it, one. – page 12
The book also mentioned about the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) which use to be across the road from Manchester Business School where I was studying and I used to hop over to the college for a free admission of lunchtime concerto or Opera students performing for their exams.
I also like the part where Julia and Michael got back together. After that it does seems wrong that they should go on like this while Julia’s husband may or may not know about the affair and to add on that Michael became a little obsessive about it, to the point of stalking and that I can understand. This book brings back many good memories when I was making music but the book itself lend spots of brilliance in depicting Michael’s deepest emotions in a beautiful poetic ways and then fall on spots that lodge into musical terminologies discourse that bores even the musical-trained (or used to be) like me or annoyed by those fretful musical youth featured in the book.
Three weeks have passed since I met her. I am removing items one by one from the addresses in my mind. No, I have no use for this vision, I can dispense with this fact: rooms, books, meetings, the flecks in her irises the scent of her skin let them be hauled away on weekday mornings, let them float off in helium balloons. I too believe, at last that I can build on nothing, that there is nothing to build on. It has taken time, for hope has well-cased germs. As for myself, I think: if I left this darkness and this blankness, it would not make the universe sneeze. I would be free of dreams and thoughts and Be Your Own Maestro. My father, though, would grieve. – page 449
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 form day to day and to hear such music – not too much, or the soul could not sustain it – from time to time.
If you are cultured, if you love classical music, if you are sensitive and sentimental, and if you have lost a first love that you’d never ever forget, it is easy to rate this book as 5 stars. As I didn’t I wonder what it says about me? At least I agree with the last passage!
Recommended if you like to read something about the lives of a group of musicians and lost love.
Paperback. Length: 543 pages. Publisher: Phoenix 1999. Source: Reading Library. Setting: Contemporary London and Vienna. Finished reading at: 18th September 2011.
Kim@Reading Matters: An Equal Music was first published in 1999. It’s a hugely passionate novel about passion — passion for others, passion for music, but, most of all, passion for life.
Tony’s Reading List: Now, I wouldn’t know a Stradivarius from a cheap fiddle, but many other people have hailed this book as a magnificent portrayal of what life as a musician is really like – so believe them, if not me, when I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment 🙂
Ely for Language: The strength of the book is that it has moved me so much in spite of our differences. If you have ever studied music, you must read this book, but get your tissues ready.
An Unquiet Mind: I doubt if musically uninitiated readers would enjoy this book. If you’re not amused by likening three tall and one short persons in a group to Beethoven’s Fifth, you will miss the most enamoring aspect of the book: the profound love of music that permeates throughout. Seth lives and breathes music.
About the writer:
Vikram Seth was born on 20 June 1952 to Leila and Prem Seth in Calcutta (now Kolkata). His family lived in many cities including the Bata Shoe Company town of Batanagar, Danapur near Patna, and in London.
His father was an executive with the Bata India Limited shoe company who migrated to post-Partition India from West Punjab in Pakistan. His mother, Leila Seth was the first woman judge on the Delhi High Court as well as the first woman to become Chief Justice of a state High Court, at Simla.
He trained as an economist and has lived for several years each in England, California, China and India. I am amazed with the diverse form of writing he produced, travel writing, non-fictions, memoir, libretto, poetry not to mention his affinity to music and all things German.
A polyglot, Seth detailed in an interview (in the year 2005) in the Australian magazine Good Weekend that he has studied several languages, including Welsh, German and, later, French in addition to Mandarin, English (which he describes as “my instrument” in answer to Indians who query his not writing in his native Hindi), Urdu (which he reads and writes in Nasta’liq script), and Hindi, which he reads and writes in the Dēvanāgarī script. He plays the Indian flute and the cello and sings German lieder, especially Schubert.