Books: All sweetness and light in the new `Brief Encounter'

Michael Arditti strikes a sceptical note amid the tugged heartstrings of a lush romance; An Equal Music by Vikram Seth Phoenix House, pounds 15.99, 382pp
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The Independent Culture
VIKRAM SETH'S A Suitable Boy was both praised and condemned for its old-fashioned narrative, style and concerns. The novel's ambition lay primarily in its scope: a vast panorama of life on the Indian subcontinent. It has enjoyed international success with readers who find reassurance in Seth's firm authorial grip on such a wide-ranging story.

An Equal Music will meet with an equal measure of bouquets and brickbats. It would take a far harder heart than mine not to respond to the doomed love of its principal characters, but it would take a far less critical mind not to decry the totally unchallenging nature of Seth's universe, in which there are no complex ideas or motives, and no malevolent forces. Character is fate and that character is essentially benign. With its lush romance in glamorous settings, this is a novel for those who loved the movie of The English Patient rather than the book.

Therein lies the problem: An Equal Music has Hollywood written all over it. Michael, a sensitive young violinist (one of the Fiennes brothers?) meets Julia, a beautiful half-Austrian pianist (Juliette Binoche?), in Vienna while studying under crusty Swedish genius Carl Kall (Max von Sydow?). Ignoring Carl's instruction that he pursue a solo career, he forms a trio with Julia and her friend, Maria. But he loses both lover and trio when, under pressure from Carl and an unexplained finger injury, he flees Vienna without a word to Julia, with whom he subsequently loses touch.

Ten years on, Michael, now 37, is second violinist in the up-and-coming Maggiore quartet, a part-time teacher engaged in a desultory affair with Virginie, one of his students, and a member of the Water Serpents, a group of hardy eccentrics who swim all year round in the Serpentine. His settled existence is shattered when he catches sight of Julia on a bus in Oxford Street. Although he fails to make contact then, she visits him backstage after a concert at the Wigmore Hall, and their romance is gradually rekindled. Her circumstances, however, have changed. She has a husband, a child and, as later becomes clear, a severe loss of hearing. When playing with other musicians, she is dependent, Evelyn Glennie-like, on the vibrations of the bass.

The rest of the novel charts the progress of Michael and Julia's affair in London, Vienna and Venice: its effect on Julia's domestic life, in particular on her husband James, who may be growing suspicious, and on Michael's professional life and his role within the quartet (itself "an odd quadripartite marriage").

Julia betrays James, but Michael also betrays his colleagues by saying nothing of Julia's deafness when she joins them as accompanist. In the end, one of the marriages is sustained, while the other ( at least temporarily) breaks down.

Although a third of the length of A Suitable Boy, An Equal Music is a leisurely read, containing many passages, for instance the account of the Water Serpents, which add to the texture rather than to the meaning of the book. The dialogue, particularly the bickering within the quartet, is beautifully caught, and the descriptive writing, whether of a Carpaccio painting in the Scuola di San Giorgio or a sponsored walk between Blackpool and Rochdale, is extremely accomplished. The prose, however, while always fluent, is never arresting.

Several sections are devoted to the technicalities of music-making. Seth declares in an afterword that "Music is dearer to me even than speech" and it is clear that he knows his quartets. One example, in which he analyses the second violin, must stand for many: "Its role is different, not lesser: more interesting, because more versatile. Sometimes, like the viola, it is at the textual heart of the quartet; at others it sings with a lyricism equal to that of the first violin, but in a darker and more difficult register."

And yet, unlike Proust with the Vinteuil sonata, or Ian McEwan in Amsterdam, Seth fails in the more exacting task of conveying music's effect. Reviewers were provided with tapes featuring extracts from key pieces - a privilege not accorded to the general reader.

Both the strength and the weakness of the novel lie in its decency. Seth eschews all that is dark and dangerous. Julia deals with her deafness by counting her blessings and insisting it fosters originality. Michael breaks up with Virginie cleanly, on the phone; what she may feel is muffled, as she immediately disappears from view. His visit to a prostitute is decorous; his loss of his violin is averted; his breakdowns are momentary. Even his one outburst of violence is contained and quickly forgiven. As Julia returns to her husband and son and Michael to his violin, the true nature of the novel becomes clear.

This is a Brief Encounter for the Nineties, albeit with Bach and Schubert substituted for Rachmaninov, and played by the protagonists rather than simply heard on the soundtrack.