Michael, a brilliant but temperamental violinist, finds that the love of his life happens to be living in the same city he calls home: London. Julia, a pianist, his first and only love, is someone he cannot forget, though they had parted on unfavorable terms ten years ago. He clings on to her memories, from their days in the conservatory in Vienna, the deep influence she has had on him. Initially aimless after the separation, Michael eventually finds some footing in life, joins a quartet, has a schedule of sorts and a decent livelihood, though her absence haunts him constantly. She has moved on, has married, and has a son. But when they meet again, she discovers that she still loves him. Michael, blinded in rekindled passion, refuses to acknowledge the futility of their tryst. Impetuous, the possessive lover begins to form an unbearable threat between Julia and her family. Deeply hurt, she tears herself away with steely resolve. Michael, heedless of his career as a musician, withers away. Yet, despite the irreconcilable separation, it is music that strangely binds him to life, and the cause of living.
An Equal Music is a love story. But not just so. Music, and the lives of musicians, is a parallel theme, which becomes inevitable, an outcome of the central character’s profession and the first person narration. Michael’s world, his friends, his activities and interests involve classical music at some level. Seth paints this world with authenticity – whether bringing up an arcane Beethoven Opus, discussing contrapuncts or fugues, or with musicians talking about the finer aspects of playing a piece – everything is very realistic. This is to such an effect that it could lead a reader who is only somewhat familiar with classical music, to delve deeper. Seth’s accomplishment is not merely in the depth of his writing about music, but also his success in keeping the work extremely engrossing at the same time. Divided in short, manageable chapters, the book is a page turner, in the restrained manner of his earlier novel – A Suitable Boy. Love, the central theme, comes in many forms. The illusory passion possessing Michael, his bonds with his father, and the altruistic love of true friends. Finally, there’s the love of music, which permeates, without intrusion, the entire course of the novel. The fact that Julia, like Beethoven, is deaf, and yet continues playing, which sustains her, as it does Michael, is Seth’s tribute to the redemptive powers of music. There is also subtle humor now and then that keeps one light hearted. The eccentric Piers, a member of the quartet that Michael belongs to, is probably the most memorable of the side characters, his tactlessness reminding me of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers.
It is not a dark and serious work like, for instance, Disgrace. With hope and humour, Seth counterbalances delusion and disjointedness. While this makes the work less depressing, it also takes some of the edge off.
The title of the book is from a John Donne verse, which appears before the beginning of the novel:
And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they
shall dwell, where there shall be no cloud nor sun, no
darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor
silence, but one equal music…
In the course of reading, it becomes apparent that this kind of writing would not be possible without the writer’s love and interest in music. At the end, in the Author’s note, Seth acknowledges that, saying: “Music to me is dearer even than speech.”
It his his love for music that enables such a virtuoso performance.