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 Musicis 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.
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 bothA Suitable Boy andAn 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 onA 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?