||Grieving In Orpheus’ Shadow
by Keith Garebian
Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music is quite unlike anything else he’s written. It forgoes the sweeping social vision of his epical A Suitable Boy and the spirited satire of his verse-novel, The Golden Gate, preferring instead to immerse itself in matters of artistic sensibility. The novel, an impassioned, romantic tale of two unequally gifted musicians, strains after the shimmer of consciousness, collecting discrete sensory impressions and informing them with the narrator’s sensibility.
The novel opens in London, a decade after Michael has loved and left the brilliant Anglo-Austrian pianist, Julia McNicholl. Part One crystallizes the problems with this novel. The first scene, near Hyde Park, is a mood-piece in its use of colour (a “milky violet” sky, the “black water” of the Serpentine, the “white noise” of traffic) and in its overwhelming melancholy. Michael has a vague sense of being pursued, a feeling rooted in his aborted love affair with the mesmerizing Julia, whom he met in Vienna when they were both music students. The suspense, however, is contrived to the point where the reader realizes that there is actually little real suspense: the chief plot interest is finding out from Michael what happened before the book started.
Michael has an indisputable gift for mimicry: he reproduces the voices and tones of Julia, his old dad and aunt in Rochdale, and the often disputatious members of the Maggiore Quartet to which he belongs. But the mimicry is fleeting, for Michael is obviously more interested in his own tensions than in those of the larger world—a preoccupation that dilutes the story’s social dimension and characterization.
In a classic essay entitled “Characters in Fiction”, Mary McCarthy set out the traits and limitations of the novel of sensibility, pointing out that the “world of twentieth-century sensibility” is a world “in slow motion”, for it is “a world of paralyzed grief”. In such a novel, “nothing happens; as people complain, there is no plot.” Her observations are applicable to Seth’s novel, which concerns itself with the narrator’s flights into retrospection and self-transfiguration. Even when Michael reflects on his childhood, his nostalgia takes the form of self-conscious impressionism once he goes beyond the mother who scolds him for abandoning his North country accent, and the butcher-dad who calls a violin a “fiddle”. He recalls bicycle rides and walks in the moors, where the silence would be pierced by the “rising song of a lark”. He also remembers strolling with Julia in the woods where a nightingale was singing frantically: “‘Very flash,’ I said. ‘The Donizetti of the bird world.’” This line breathes poetry, but it is a self-conscious poetry by one who cannot continue his tale without drawing ever-insistent analogies with music, who cannot create an effective portrait of his beloved or his anguish without the accompanying vibrations of an internal musical soundtrack.
And the music is lovely: Beethoven, Bach, Haydn, Schubert. Its sensations and nuances are scrupulously described, along with techniques of rehearsal, intricacies of modulation and interpretation, and subtleties of pitch and tone. These details thicken the fetishism of fact, often pedantically; but they merely circle character without dramatizing it: “I could as little describe the beauty of her playing as to explain what I felt when I first met her.” Because there is little obvious plot, Seth falls back on sensation to do the work of imagination: “I had almost arrived at the studio when the cab-driver suddenly decided to tune in to Radio 3. It was the end of a prelude and the start of a fugue: strangely enough, in C minor. This is Julia, I said to myself. This is Julia. Everything spoke of her.”
But who is the real Julia? She doesn’t grow in anyone’s but the narrator’s mind, and she is evoked primarily through musical associations. The excitement of Michael’s accidental sighting of her on a London bus yields a scene of desperate black comedy. Symbolism is archly worked into the narrative, with Michael’s bus halting near the statue of the Angel of Selfridges, Julia’s eluding his pursuit, and then his weeping under a statue of Eros. The sentimentality fails to heighten or deepen the material because the emotion is a form of self-pity, even self-love.
The novel never recovers from its opening, even after Michael’s discovery that his now married beloved is slowly going deaf. Further suspense is contrived when Julia attempts a performance of the “Trout Quintet” (will she succeed or not?) and when she is forced to choose between her marriage and Michael (will she favour risky romance over domestic comfort?). Throughout, the hero grieves in the shadows of Orpheus and Eurydice, but his fugal torment is diluted by abstract loftiness regarding music and love, or kitschy emotion about Julia’s affliction and unattainability. •
Keith Garebian’s most recent book is The Making of “Cabaret”.