I hold my hands up, I know next to nothing about An Equal Music’s main subject matter - classical music. My only experience with instruments of any kind is playing Guitar Hero on the Xbox360, and although I can grind out most songs on expert, it’s not real music. I know that.
My lack of intellectual credibility towards classical music was made even more apparent when I read a piece of the narrative that stated a viola was bigger than a violin. I consulted the internet to check because, I swear when I was studying music in year eight, I was taught that the viola was the smallest of the string instruments. Maybe that’s why I didn’t take GSCE music. And why I can’t play guitar.
After my idiotic period, I took a little time to find out if Vikram Seth is a musician of some kind. He is not, so, for me, that makes An Equal Music an expertly researched and beautifully written novel. The amount of detail he goes into when describing the musical sections of novel show an in depth understanding of not only the mechanics of the instruments, but also the bonds formed between the musicians themselves.
The dialogue is brilliant throughout. In places, Seth has four characters talking at the same time without it getting confusing. There are also some really funny bits, especially near the end when Michael, the main character and narrative voice, gets a call from a wrong number.
Right, that’s the praise out of the way. Now for the problems, of which I had two and they are big ones. The narrative grated on me severely. In the middle section of the book, Michael and Julia and in Vienna and Venice. There is a lot, and I mean a lot, of self involved narrative about the scenery and Michael’s feelings. It seems like a cross between verse and prose and whereas it is good writing, it’s in the wrong place and totally destroys the pace of the novel. I felt I was wading through loads of unnecessary details to get to the good stuff.
My biggest issue, however, is with the relationship between Michael and Julia. I don’t think anything I’m about to say has anything to do with bad writing. He could have intended the following reaction.
Michael is a self-absorbed, selfish asshole. I accepted most of the issues he had throughout the story, his suffering over long lost love Julia, and I did feel sorry for him… Until I found out why he left Julia in the first place.
Michael fell out with his music tutor, Carl, in Vienna where he met, and fell ‘in love’ with Julia. He ups and leaves without even leaving a note for her. Ten years pass and he meets Julia again in London. She is now married, but they have an affair. Julia brings an end to the affair with a letter. Michael says, and I quote, ‘How could you say all that in a letter?’ Well Michael, let me take you back ten years when you left her without saying a word. And you’re calling her the cruel one? Fuckwit.
I’m not defending Julia though. She started the affair and only ends it because she thinks her husband finds out. The whole issue of love between the two characters is one I didn’t believe in. At times, it seemed that Michael only loved Julia’s music. This was hit home by his reaction to Julia saying she wasn’t going to play with other people again. Michael acted like she had torn his heart out.
Whether it was Seth’s intention to create this image of musical elitism with these two characters or not, I don’t know, but one thing is for certain: An Equal Music is quite obviously a brilliant novel. It worked me up so much, I think I need to have my blood pressure checked.
I would recommend this book to fans of classical music and avid readers alike. In fact I’ve already recommended it to a friend. At 484 pages, it’s a nice manageable length despite some of the unnecessary prose. (Vikram Seth is also the author of A Suitable Boy, the longest book written in the English language.)
An Equal Music by Vikram Seth was published Phoenix House in 1999 (Same year in a row. How random!) RRP £6.99 (Paperback)