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THE ARTS
MAY 24, 1999 VOL. 153 NO. 20


A Maestro at Work
Indian novelist Vikram Seth hits most of the notes in this melodic tale of love and music
By MEENAKSHI GANGULY


After the overly hyped A Suitable Boy, the lengthy four-family saga that some critics derided as a literary soap opera, Vikram Seth has come back strongly. His new novel, An Equal Music (Viking; 381 pages), is a highly readable tale about a pair of young lovers--a butcher's son and a professor's daughter--and their doomed romance. Such a tale of love and loss has been told many times before, but in modern writing, it is the style and not the substance that is gripping. And Seth has written a vibrant, passion-filled tale.

The hero, Michael, is born on the wrong side of town but manages to escape humble beginnings through his love of music. He finds a patron in an eccentric neighbor who lends him a cherished Tononi violin. He studies music in England and later in Vienna. After this intense training, he moves to London and eventually joins the Maggiore Quartet. But Michael is an emotional wreck, with music his only solace. While in Vienna, he falls deeply in love with the beautiful and gifted Julia, but walks out on her. For 10 years, until he finds her again, he is plagued by guilt and regret. Meanwhile, the precious Tononi is being coveted by the greedy heirs of Michael's benefactor. The climax is appropriately complex: Michael loses one of the two great loves of his life.

As a romance, An Equal Music occasionally falters. Seth's account of Michael's anguished outpouring verges on the tedious. "What is the difference between my life and my love?" the hero asks, and then provides his own answer: "One gets me low, the other lets me go." Yuck. But Seth's own passion for music--which his characters, including a deaf musician, portray so well--makes the story compelling. Even readers unfamiliar with Western classical arrangements can't help but be drawn into the excitement of the "headlong happiness" of Haydn or the missing "melodicity" of Brahms. The high point is the Maggiore's magical rendition of Bach's Art of Fugue, which the quartet masterfully performs, Seth writes, in "an energized trance."

One of Seth's strengths is that, unlike many writers of his generation, he doesn't constantly try to force readers to appreciate his command over the language. The 47-year-old writer is immensely prolific. The Golden Gate (1986), a full-length novel in verse, was a tour de force. All You Who Sleep Tonight (1990), a collection of poems, was received with indifference. But Beastly Tales from Here and There (1991) won much critical acclaim, as have his translations of Chinese poetry. And A Suitable Boy, despite its detractors, sold hundreds of thousands of copies around the world.

Among the charms of An Equal Music is that Seth, an Indian, is effectively colonizing the fictional space of the West. At a time when the international book bazaar is flooded with offerings from India by eager, first-time novelists on a mission to alter the impressions left by Kipling and Naipaul, Seth here makes no attempt to flaunt his Indian-ness. His characters are called Helen, Michael, Julia, Billy. They live in London and perform in Europe or the U.S. There is no mention of India, not even of a curry meal or a sitar concert. Seth takes on the book world as just another writer with a novel in English, demanding no indulgence for the exotic experience of being from a distant commonwealth. And he does it with great flair and feeling.



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