I'm a s-l-o-w reader. As I gradually sink into Vikram Seth's picturesque novel 'An Equal Music', I get more and more curious about the fictitious characters so vividly brought into life and strewn across the plot.
What makes the novel all the more delectable is its thematic revolution around music. Michael, the protagonist, is a violinist. Seth's flow of words is brilliant as it takes us deep into the lives of Michael and the peripheral characters. Since the novel is loosely strung around music, I thought of building up the right ambiance today by listening to some classical music myself while I read the book.
Brahms's 2nd symphony is the first to enter the scene. Though highly regarded by musicologists, I never found it appealing...not until now. The haunting 3rd movement, though, has been an exception in its mystical melody. The 3rd symphony, as usual, fails to impress me and I at once replace it with a Schumann CD for the solo piano. The final piece from Opus 16 is especially joyous as I picture a happy horse trotting in the countryside.
My room is shut from all sides to muffle the deafening traffic noise outside. Some bollywood music emanating from the next room seeps into and infiltrates mine, threatening to dismantle the carefully constructed image of London which Seth has so diligently painted. I turn up the volume. It partly helps. Since I'm not good at multitasking, I furiously toggle between Seth and Schumann.
I take a siesta a then continue with the book.
The strong woodwinds from Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony lend a voice too grave for my liking and are immediately swapped for a Mozart CD. Mozart's string-heavy symphonies are home-territory for me. As before, I switch between the written words and the played notes frequently.
The novel deepens. We come across a point that mentions Beethoven's opus 104, a string quintet. I'm as stumped as Michael is when he hears about it from Virginia. I had heard of string quartets and piano quintets. What's a string quintet? Michael's quest for this rarefied piece of work eventually leads him to a basement shop from where he procures a vintage vinyl record that he loses on his way back...and then finds again.
The book also portrays an argument between the members of the Maggiore Quartet regarding chronologically playing Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven at a concert. I get lucky here 'coz I know some history about music and can easily place the more prominent composers according to their period of existence. So it's child's play to relate to this part of the technicality.
The novel mentions how some of the characters look down upon Schubert's Trout Quintet, including the protagonist. This is shocker I'm not prepared for. The Trout is perhaps the only meaningful and successful marriage between the piano and the strings. I remember listening to a Brahms composition for a piano and violin when I was in Pune. It sounded yuck. I've heard such duets time and again and each time I've despised it.
'An Equal Music' missed out on being shortlisted for the Booker simply on account of its being too technically inclined towards music, a reason publicly acknowledged my the committee. Though I partly vindicate their stand, it shouldn't deter laymen from trying it for its intricate and intimate insight into the life of an ordinary musician. There's something extraordinary about the ordinary that escapes us all...all expect Vikram Seth. This book is a classic case in point. You don't need to be a chef to know a good meal when you have one.