See Book Reviews on January Magazine.
Seven years ago, Vikram Seth broke the wrists of the world's readers with his monumental love story set in India, A Suitable Boy. With an epic set of characters, Seth recreated the whole strange world of the subcontinent. Bruce Chatwin remarked that "(India) will never have its War and Peace." Seth proved him wrong.
In his new novel, An Equal Music, Seth has written an exquisite miniature. A first person narrative about the life of a string quartet and the resurrection of a long dead obsessive love. The narrator, Michael, is slightly unstable and somewhat disassociated from the day to day. He sees Julia, his great love from music school, on a passing bus and we're off.
While Seth was on tour for his new book, we were lucky to snatch a few minutes over lunch with him. He is tiny, fragile and he was exhausted. But as he spoke his eyes began to sparkle. He revived.
Jay Currie and Michèle Denis: An Equal Music is a complete departure from A Suitable Boy. Was this a conscious decision?
Vikram Seth: Not really. I don't try to do something new each time, it's just that I don't flee from it if it happens to be new. In this particular case the idea seized me. It was the opposite of something I would have decided for myself. I didn't want to write about music. I didn't want to write in the first person, especially about a character I feel somewhat ambivalent about.
The only way I could write about music in the first place was to talk from inside his thoughts, otherwise it would just sound like program notes or something. Having decided that, then I had to talk about everything -- love, obsession, the other characters -- through Michael rather than through what I'm used to, which is the omniscient or semi-omniscient narrator.
In creating Michael you created a man who was flawed and his flaw was a mental one that manifests itself in his fingers and in his almost social isolation.
Yes, and in a kind of attitude towards authority or what he sees as authoritarianism and perhaps also a lack of comprehension of himself and those people of whom he's particularly fond or who he loves, whom he's obsessing about. He can describe Helen, I think, better than Julia. He etherealizes Julia.
I had to tell myself all the time Michael is not a novelist. By describing some characters realistically you're destroying the verisimilitude of the voice. It was odd to create Michael. He's not a nasty character. In many ways he's honorable. He's liked by plenty of nice people and they don't seem to give up on him.
When you sat down to write this novel, obviously you were more than a little interested in music. When you write about another art rather than writing, how do you manage to capture that? Did you swot up music? Did you play? Did you hang out with quartets?
Well, the last. Swotting up does a certain amount of good, but the fact is, if it sounds like a dissertation then it's pointless. You might as well write your points down as a sort of analytical description of the music. I couldn't do it that way.
I had no familiarity with the actual workings of a string quartet, either musically or psychologically. Now, of course, psychologically they're all different but at least by sitting in on rehearsals and interviewing some of them I was able to get some sense of how this curious menage works. They spend more time with each other really than, say, Billy, who has a family, does with his family.
They travel together, they love and loathe each other and at different times do both. Of course, each quartet is different. I think in the Quartet Italiano someone told me that the woman married each of the men in series. But, in other quartets, including some quite famous ones, they just can't bear to be with each other offstage.
You had one of your characters say, "All we ever do is talk about music."
Yes, quite a lot of that.
Was that your experience?
Many of my closest friends are musicians. In fact, I probably know more musicians in London than writers, considerably more. There's a lot of that in the musical world. Musicians marrying musicians, having affairs with other musicians, talking about music on and offstage. Not all musicians are like that, but at least my ones are.
The other remark that's made is about another musician who marries out, rather as you would a Jew marrying a non-Jew.
Did I say that?
You did, as a matter of fact. A paradox...
Amongst your friends do you find that happens frequently?
Well, some do marry out, but a remarkable number marry in.
Now, I saw Michael not as having a mental deficiency so much as having spiritual pain.
You're right. Mental and spiritual, though different can, I suppose, be contemplated together in a way. I thought that was the burden of your question, in other words the difference between his and Julia's deficiency. That was how I understood it.
The idea of a character who's a musician but is also deaf.
This is a tricky thing. I'm not sure I want to talk too much about it, because one of the shocks that a reader might get is not -- well, I made sure it didn't exist on the blurb and so on. I can imagine that being a composer and being deaf is not such a deficiency, because at least you can write the notes, but to perform without actually having the aural feedback...
What is most remarkable is, I know a viola player who is deaf. Now, with the piano at least you get the pitch, but with the viola or any strings instrument where there are no frets, where you actually have to sense it through instinct and vibration... and she's with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Do you play an instrument?
I used to play the Indian flute and the tabla a bit, at a very elementary level. I took lessons in Indian classical singing.
Are you as passionate about music as Michael is?
I don't really know. I am completely passionate about music. I prefer it to words if I were forced to choose, but I'm not a practicing musician so I don't see how I can reach that level.
This novel is set mainly in England, except when it goes to Vienna and Venice. It's entirely about a chap who grew up in a small northern English town and it's a complete departure from the subcontinent. As I was reading it, I'm thinking this must be an interesting thing to have to sit down and write completely away from roots.
Well, not really. The fact is I don't feel a complete stranger in either, say, California where I lived for nine years -- or England, where I was very young and went to university as an undergraduate. I was two years in China.
My first novel was set in California, The Golden Gate, so in a sense this could be seen as a departure. I don't feel I should lay my ethnicity on it in a situation which doesn't warrant it. My sensibility as an Indian and as an Indian writer probably comes out in various ways that I can't see, both in The Golden Gate and in this book.
When you are looking around at possible books to write, is there a sense that you want a book that will turn out in a certain way? Or is it more that you want a character that you can follow?
The impulse could be a character like, in this case, someone looking rather darkly at the Thames. Or it could be a shred of conversation like, "You will marry who I choose." Or it could be a wonderful literary work like Eugene Onegin. So, the impulse could come from all sorts of directions, but it isn't as if I'm saying, "Now what sort of book shall I write next?"
I know that an idea will occur to me. I'm not sure from what direction it will be and if it's of sufficient force, then I'll at least begin writing it.
London is the background of this novel. Some of the things that occur could only happen in London, such as swimming in the Serpentine.
Sure. It's like having someone jog around Central Park, but, right, that particular thing.
But, also a sense of the remarkable, almost grayness that comes out.
I couldn't cite a specific instance of it, but there was just an overwhelming sense of London as a gray city. Whereas when you get to Venice and soft light, it changes the whole nature of the emotional underpinning of the book. Everything becomes a little bit more vivid and things change a lot.
Did you conceive of it as a love story?
Yes. Originally I didn't know his nationality or his profession, but as they developed it became clear to me that he was thinking not about work or anything but just about his past life. It was conceived as a love story, but in a sense all of my books in one way or another are love stories.
One person tries to get love through a personal ad. One has her mother foist several people on her.
Traveling up and down the railways of India.
Here it's love that took place in the past and might be revisited.
I was actually surprised at how quickly and easily it was once they reconnected.
I speculated about that myself, but again that would lead us into the question of Julia's deafness and I'm not quite sure I want to go into that.
Do you like doing the promotion?
I'd rather that the book sold itself. I find it quite exhausting and also I'm no good for writing for a while after this. Sometimes I find I have little enough time with my friends and my family, so if the book sold itself that would be the best situation. But, books don't sell themselves and I know that. People need to know the book is out there and then it's up to them if they want to buy it or not.
Since I don't have a patron or a matron I have to make sure that I sell books for the next, who knows -- until my next book. The thing is that once I'm on tour I've been lucky enough to see friends I would not see if it were not for the tour.
It's not what I imagined a writer's life would be, which was that you write your books and then it's out in the world and whether or not it's a success or failure will emerge over the course of time, maybe some years and then meanwhile you're writing other books. Rather naive, but also the fact that people want to send you on tour is somewhat a mark of the success of the book.
The fact is you got me when I'm exhausted and it would ring false to say that I love it. | June 1999