Tuesday, January 25, 2005

50 Book Challenge #4: An Equal Music

I very much enjoyed my last sojourn into the writing of Vikram Seth, his massive historical romance A Suitable Boy. His poetry is not always my cup of tea, but it also has some delightful bits. But there's always a problem with having read the greatest work of an author first - expectations are so high, and one's opinion of the author can only decrease with greater exposure to his weaker efforts.

So with An Equal Music. Vikram Seth's second prose novel is a story of one artist's tiny madnesses: his obsession with the lost love, Julia, his looming fear of having to give up his borrowed violin, his sleepwalking through life. Emotional walls are thrown up willy-nilly. Michael, our hero, cannot bring himself to confront or forgive his old teacher, a tyrant of expectations who drove him to a nervous breakdown that made him flee his studies in Vienna and thus abandon Julia. His partners in the string quartet have a long list of topics that may not be brought up (mostly relating to past members of the quartet). And Michael cannot bring himself to ask his elderly benefactress to give him the valuable violin she has lent him for most of his life, leaving him always on the edge of losing his livelihood.

The narrative takes us through Michael's re-introduction to his first and only love, their guilt-ridden and bittersweet affair, and his eventual estrangement. Michael has spells of disconnectedness and panic attacks that would send the average person to a psychiatrist, but here seem to act as mere devices to accent the poignance of certain scenes and his own artistic temperment.

If the characters had gone much of anywhere, I might have enjoyed this novel more. Seth's writing is lovely, and his grasp of psychology is acute. But the characters wallow in their own miseries without learning to deal with them, and despite their hopping from London to Vienna to Venice (all cities I love or shall love, and which Seth evokes skillfully), they come back to more or less the same positions at the story's end. By the last page I wanted to shake Michael and ask him what the good of all of it might have been. That's no way to feel at the end of a book.
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