It took me an inordinately long time to get through this book. In fact I have to confess that between page 25 and page 275 I devoured at least eight other novels, possibly nine or ten or eleven, each polished off with the bravado that only a reader avoiding another, more labyrinthine work can muster.
It wasn't that An Equal Music was a difficult read. It was actually fairly engrossing in its detailing of music and music-making and obsessive love. I'm a musician, albeit not a member of a string quartet, so much of the stuff of the life of Michael Holme, the second violinist of Vikram Seth's fictional Maggiore Quartet, carried that perfect, balanced savor of familiarity and novelty.
Rather, it's that the novel shares the structure of a dense Classical chamber work, unspinning itself slowly, and often repetitively, over a protracted span of time. Michael plays music; he pursues his lost love; he plays more music. Not a lot happens, but what does happen makes noise.
An Equal Music is a double romance. Michael loves music; Michael loves Julia, the Musician Who Got Away. The novel's chief device is to conflate these two loves; Michael, and the other musicians in the novel, struggle to disentangling the musical from the human:
Michael on Julia: "To say that there was a naturalness to her playing does not say very much: after all, everyone plays according to their nature." (p. 32)
Yet, "Billy is far too fat, and always will be. He will always be distracted by family and money worries, car insurance and composition. For all our frustration and rebuke, he will never be on time. But the moment his bow comes down on the strings he is transfigured. He is a wonderful cellist, light and profound: the base of our harmony, the rock on which we rest." (p.10)
And, "When I play this I release myself into the spirit of the quartet. I become the music of the scale. I mute my will, I free my self." (p. 10).
Helen, another member of the quartet, dates an early music nerd almost entirely because he skillfully restrung her viola. And Julia, in the book's midsection, is revealed to be keeping a secret that strikes at the heart of her musicianship and thus at her sense of self.
What is me and what is not? It seems like a stupid question, but in fact the ultimate power of music is to confound one's sense of self. Because music is backdoor communication, springing from a place unpolluted by words, it's very tricky to integrate into one's (mostly verbal) consciousness.
This is perhaps why, in the novel, both Michael and Julia display the fabulously annoying tendency to interpret events and random environmental fluctuations as personally significant, a symbol of their relational or emotional states. It is tricky to delimit yourself when your job is to blur the boundaries between you and sound.
Another confession: Over time, I came to hate Michael and Julia. They were petty, self-absorbed, and far, far, far, far too serious. Nevertheless, An Equal Music rose above them. It's a luminous novel, a sustaining novel, a novel of profound grace. Just as music subsumes its players, so the novel subsumed its characters: a hymn, at last, to the power of art.