EDITOR’S NOTE: This review by Jay Nordlinger appeared in the May 17, 1999, issue of National Review. (You can access NR’s archives anytime here.)
It was, as the flacks say, a “publishing event”: the appearance of A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth in 1993. The book was a huge, sprawling epic of India, one of the longest novels ever published. Some critics, without blushing, called it Tolstoyan. It was astounding not only in its tremendous sweep, but in its countless particulars, sentence by sentence. Here was a miniaturist–a poet, really–carrying off the formidably grand. Though at 1,350 pages it was nearly impossible to hold, the book skipped along like a sonnet. It sold a million copies.
Seth (whose name is pronounced “sate”) had already published five volumes of poetry, a travel memoir about China and Tibet, and a novel in verse, The Golden Gate, about California. A Suitable Boy was thus his first prose novel, but, by making one of his main characters a poet, he managed to stuff it with poetry, anyway. Born in Calcutta and educated at Oxford and Stanford (where he abandoned a doctorate in economics), Seth has lived in points far flung. He seems to have no proper home and no literary limitation. His second prose novel has been awaited these six years with wonder. It turns out to be probably the most inspired novel about music ever written–and not too shabby a novel about love, either.
In an afterword to An Equal Music, Seth writes, “Music to me is dearer even than speech.” Who knew? But then, one should have known, for his writing–whether in prose or in verse-has always swum with musicality. He has that literary ability that can only be sighed away as “ear.” He knows when to write thick, he knows when to write thin, he knows when to soar on, and he knows when to stop. Always, he is in balance. And in his new novel, he tackles a particularly murderous kind of writing: that about music. The critic Bernard Holland once wrote, with due modesty, “I am helpless to write about what music is; I can only record the aftershocks it leaves behind.” Music will always be uncapturable by human speech, but those who have been caught in the spell of music will note with widening eyes that Seth is able to call an extraordinary amount of that experience to the page.
His story concerns an English violinist, Michael Holme, a member of a string quartet in London. “Ours,” explains Michael as narrator, “is an odd quadripartite marriage with six relationships, any of which, at any given time, could be cordial or neutral or strained.” When the players lift their bows, however, they enter a separate realm: “We meet, the four voices, and enter a braid.”
Michael comes from a small town in the north, where a kindly neighbor lady introduced him to music. (Late in the novel, that same woman relieves the general grimness with a stunning act of love.) He remembers the day she took him to a performance of Handel’s Messiah conducted by Sir John Barbirolli: “He brings down a stick and a huge and lovely noise fills the world. More than anything else I want to be part of such a noise.” So, evidently, does Seth, who writes as though he would quit his prodigious scribbling in a second if only he could be, say, third bassoonist in the New Delhi Sinfonietta.
Michael went on to study in Vienna with an eminent teacher, whose instruction and expectations haunt him still. There he also met Julia, a pianist and the summation of all his heart’s hopes. But he suffered a crisis–a sort of breakdown over music–and fled the city, losing both his career (for a time) and, far worse, Julia.
For some ten years, Michael has sought to contact Julia, still in love with her, still eaten with regret over his leaving her, still, indeed, obsessed with her: “I see her with her eyes closed, playing Bach to herself: an English suite. Gently her fingers travel among the keys. Perhaps I move too suddenly. The beloved eyes turn towards me: There are so many beings here, occupied, pre-occupied. Let me believe that she breathes, that she still exists, somewhere on this chance sphere.”
She does. Michael spots her on a bus and hunts her down. She is married, with a child, and as unreleased from him as he is from her. She also has a terrible secret that she finds increasingly difficult to keep from the world: She is going deaf, forced to retreat into that interior aural asylum afforded by music. The two soon begin an affair (“Adultery and sin,” thinks Michael: “ludicrously, there are no gentler words”). Eventually, Michael breaks down again, afflicted with a delirium stemming from his intense attachment to both music and his deity, Julia. Portraits begin to talk to him. He drifts in and out of dreams. Something has to give–and, of course, does. Seth smoothly resolves his story into “an equal music,” a phrase plucked from an amazingly apt sermon of John Donne.
With this relatively simple tale, Seth roams the universes of music and love (and not solely of the flesh-tinged kind). His writing is a throwback, freely romantic, wondrously out of date, totally unhedged. His book attempts no cool, contains not a single pose. He can be playful with language, though not distractingly so: “I saw the letter come through the slot. I saw her slanting hand and tore it open. The lift. No. Stop it, recall him, undeliver this. Unpost, unwrite, unthink it.” The book is also stocked with humor, which appears when it is most needed, as the story grows almost suffocatingly sad. Toward the end, Seth lapses into prose-poetry, then gives way to explicit verse: He clearly cannot help himself.
It will be complained that, in many places, Seth goes too far. He himself seems to recognize this in Michael’s statement, “I make too much of much.” His descriptions of Venice, for example, are nearly interminable, as though he has paid a visit there and must record every sight he saw, every smell he smelled, and every thought he thought. He does so, however, with the confidence of one who believes he can get away with it–and few will deny that his excellence of style and fertility of imagination are justification enough.
Into music and music loving, his insights know practically no end. Every musician will gasp at what Seth has been able to discern and express. Near the center of the book stands Bach’s great, mysterious Art of the Fugue, composed for no one and no thing in particular, more like an offering up to music itself. When Michael and his fellows play it, “our synchronous visions merge, and we are one: with each other, with the world, and with that long-dispersed being whose force we receive through the shape of his annotated vision and the single swift-flowing syllable of his name.” Ridiculous! Absurdly hyperbolic! And yet-as anyone who knows . . . well, knows-true.
Seth has by now demonstrated that he has just about everything (save, it would seem, seriousness about religion, which he tends either to slight or to scorn). He is 52 years old, and it is impolite to hail greatness while it is still living, or at least that young. But why not respond to him as unhaltingly as he responds to music, to love, to the life that animates his pages? As Schumann wrote of the young Chopin, “Hats off, gentlemen: a genius.”
(Broadway, 400 pp., $ 25)