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Unequal Books 

Vikram Seth’s fate

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Art by Michael Kupperman

AN EQUAL MUSIC | By VIKRAM SETH | Broadway Books | 336 pages | $25 hardcover

A reader could be forgiven for thinking of Vikram Seth less as an author than as a kind of literary sprite, blowing words like bubbles through a reed rather than pounding them out on a keyboard like ordinary mortals. His first novel, The Golden Gate, was written entirely in sonnet form, each one rhymed with a colloquial ease and mastery that even James Merrill might have envied. (Seth, by the way, rhymes with gate.) His second novel, A Suitable Boy, weighed in at 1,349 pages, making it the longest single-volume work of fiction in the English language. ("Buy me before good sense insists/You’ll strain your purse and sprain your wrists," begged Seth in "a word of thanks" to the reader.) And now comes An Equal Music, which is neither in sonnet form nor, at 336 pages, particularly long. It is, as one would expect, however, something unusual. A love story about two classical musicians, it has been hailed by one reviewer as "the finest novel about music ever written in English."

Narrated in the present tense by Michael Holme, a troubled but talented English violinist, the first half of An Equal Music is magical, not least for its melancholy evocations of London’s Hyde Park, and its descriptions of bracing Saturday-morning swims in the filthy, freezing water of the Serpentine. Above all, for the non-musician, there is the sense of what it would be like to be a person for whom music is as necessary as air.

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It is only in its account of Michael’s tortured love for Julia McNicholl, a fellow musician who reappears in his life after a 10-year absence, that the novel finally falters. Nonetheless, even here there are wonderful scenes, particularly an unforgettable one when, riding on the top of a double-decker bus on Oxford Street, Michael catches sight of Julia at the window of another bus going in the opposite direction and frantically chases after her. A story of love lost, found, and then lost again, the novel ends with an impassioned invocation of music’s — not time’s — power to heal all wounds — or at least to make them bearable.

I managed to reach Seth at his home in London.

L.A.Weekly: Your first novel, The Golden Gate, was written in the form of interlinked sonnets and sold 150,000 copies. Your second novel, A Suitable Boy, was absurdly long and nonetheless sold a million copies. Your new novel looks set to be very successful also. What is it about your writing, do you think, that has attracted such a large public — and is a large readership important to you?

Vikram Seth: A large readership is important. I never expected to get it. I didn’t write any of the books with that in mind. I don’t know what I attribute the popularity to. I suppose I’d have to say, going by the letters I get from readers, it’s the characters in the story. I don’t have a patron or independent means, so it does matter that the books sell. On the other hand, I wouldn’t change a comma in order to get extra readership. The fact is, none of the books have been predictable sellers, and in addition to those books, I’ve written books of poetry and translation which certainly wouldn’t enable me to earn my keep.

You not only wrote a whole novel in sonnet form, you also wrote introductory sonnets for both A Suitable Boy and An Equal Music. What is it about the form you find so hospitable?

The particular sonnet form I used is a very interesting one. For a start, it’s a tetrameter rather than pentameter form, the rhyme scheme is quite complex, and certain rhymes have feminine endings in fixed places. The result of all this is that it kept me pretty interested as a form. I didn’t get bored with it. And since I owe that particular form to Pushkin, I thought that I’d continue the homage in the next two novels I wrote, at least in the form of an acknowledgment or dedicatory poem at the beginning. Because other than those little poetic commonalities between the three novels, there isn’t very much that links them.

Is it true, as I read, that while working on A Suitable Boy you wrote as many as 12,000 words a day in longhand?

Maybe it was true for a day or two. But there were weeks when I didn’t write a word. The first time I’ve written any of these novels, I’ve just had a straight first draft without looking back or polishing. Normally I don’t show it to anyone while I’m writing the first draft, then I send it out to friends to gauge their opinion on what works and what doesn’t, which characters make sense, and so on. Then I mull over what they’ve said and read the book myself. And then I leave it for a few months because I don’t want to revise by committee, so I leave it until I think I’m ready.

Salman Rushdie’s new novel takes rock & roll as one of its themes. Were you at all worried that, by setting your story in the rarefied world of classical music, you might exclude the kind of readers who listen only to popular music?

I didn’t even know he was writing [The Ground Beneath Her Feet] until we were both in the course of publication. I can’t speak for him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t know either. So there was no way one could avoid it. Anyway, how could he write about classical music unless he was impelled to? And how could I write about rock unless it came from within me? And you know [laughs], I assure you the idea of our divvying up the field is pretty absurd. Love is a huge subject, music is a huge subject, and the fact that two writers from the same part of the world happen to be writing about it at the same time isn’t surprising. If we were both Icelandic poets writing verse sagas about the cravat, or the cummerbund, then one might suspect something was going on!

An Equal Music has got mostly terrific reviews, but it’s also been criticized for, among other things, having overly conservative views about classical music and for being a novella stretched out into a novel. Do you read your reviews?

I do read my reviews. I know the review you’re referring to. It was written by a novelist who, of all people, should know that a first-person narrative incorporates the tastes and dislikes of the so-called narrator, not of the novelist. I mean, it’s like saying if someone writes an autobiography of a cat, they must have a tail!

That’s very funny.

That’s rather good, isn’t it? I must keep that. So, I mean, here I am, I’ve written a libretto for a modern composer — not Michael, I, Vikram — written and composed for a modern composer (Alec Roth, a wonderful composer), and I don’t have any inbuilt prejudice against modern music. It depends on what it is, really. I go by individual pieces and individual composers, and some I like and some I don’t.

As far as being a novella stretched out, you could say A Suitable Boy was a short story stretched out, or even a haiku. The only thing is, does it work? That’s eventually how one judges a work of art. It’s a very private communication between the writer and reader. If it doesn’t work, the author can excuse himself as much as he likes, it’s completely irrelevant. And if it does work, the critic can carp as much as he likes. It’s equally irrelevant.

Did you visit L.A. much when you lived in San Francisco?

I did. I have a very good friend in L.A., Timothy Steele, who I think is one of the great American poets. In fact, I dedicated The Golden Gate to him. Perhaps you remember the poem at the beginning of the book. "If anything in this should grate/Ascribe it to its natal state;/If anything in this engages/By verse, veracity, or vim/You know whom I must credit, Tim."

Are there any contemporary novelists you feel a kinship with?

I don’t read very many novels. I don’t really believe in long books. They take a long time to read, if you think of it.

That’s a rather remarkable statement coming from the author of A Suitable Boy.

Yes, I think I’d better end this interview — I’m going to condemn myself out of my own mouth!

(And, rather hurriedly, Mr. Seth said goodnight and hung up the phone.)

Vikram Seth will read from An Equal Music at Vroman’s in Pasadena on Tuesday, May 11, at 7 p.m., and at Dutton’s Brentwood on Wednesday, May 12, at 7 p.m.

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