Books: Simple love story of unsuitable length

An Equal Music

by Vikram Seth

Phoenix pounds 16.99

This is a simple book. A gimmick-free love story, narrated in the first person, set in the world of classical music, it is high on charm, wit and affectionate characterisation, low on novelty and narrative trickery. It is a Haydn, not a Shostakovich.

The plot, a staple of romantic fiction, involves the rekindling of a decade-old first love, with the woman now a married mother. The protagonist, Michael, sees (or thinks he sees) Julia, with whom he had an affair as a music student in Vienna. Now the second violinist in the moderately successful Maggiore String Quartet, Michael is thrown into chaos by Julia's appearance. It isn't long before she comes to one of his concerts, and becomes involved once again in his sexual and musical life. Only with their love affair already underway does Michael discover that in the intervening decade she has fallen victim to a disease which has rendered her almost completely deaf. Despite her affliction, their love and music-making both blossom, before Julia's situation becomes unsustainable, and she has to choose between her family and her lover; between ensemble music and a solo career.

As always with Seth's writing, the pleasure is in the detail. His description of the awkward four-way marriage behind a string quartet is at once enlightening and touching, teasing out the minutiae of the frustrations, joys and bitternesses in four musicians' entangled lives.

Seth's artistic goals seem to mirror those of the Maggiore Quartet, who spurn modern music in favour of the "classic" repertoire against the grain of fashion-obsessed music critics who ignore and patronise their work. Likewise, Seth's approach to fiction is self-consciously anti-modernist. Although his masterpiece, A Suitable Boy was widely acclaimed, much of the critical praise was dampened by a feeling that the book wasn't quite "serious" and was a little Soap Operatic in tone.

Some of this criticism, which could just as easily be levelled at , seemed to stem from the curious belief that clear, unfussy prose is somehow not "heavyweight". While the baroque, flashy contortions of Michael Ondaatje, Arundhati Roy, John Lanchester and the like are regularly slobbered over by literary prize juries, writers like Seth - whose poetry is in clarity - are inevitably passed over. The Arthur Rubinsteins, who make it look difficult, are held in higher esteem than the Alfred Brendels, who make it look effortless.

Seth's dig at the music critic who is more interested in a composition for baritone and vacuum cleaner than in Schubert's Trout Quintet seems to work in parallel as a riposte to the critics blind to the labour and skill behind the flawless, transparent prose of which Seth is a master. However, while dismissal of Seth's linguistic artistry is glib and ignorant, there is perhaps a little more to the accusation of soap opera than the texture of his prose. What he shares with populist drama is a crudity in his narrative structure. The bait on Seth's narrative hooks is rarely allowed to dangle for long before being swallowed and replaced.

Michael's first suspicion that Julia has a hearing problem comes on page 142, yet although this is the chief dramatic pivot in the first half of the book, we only have to wait until page 149 before a full confirmation of this is given in a letter with gives an entire history of her medical condition. Likewise, a dearly beloved record which is left in a taxi is returned a few pages later, and dire legal threats made in chapter 8.23 are resoundingly laid to rest in chapter 8.24. It is for this reason that one suspects Seth will never shake off the criticism that he is too much of an easy read. He demands almost nothing from his reader's memory or concentration, guiding us a little too firmly through his story.

The inevitable, lazy epithet ascribed to long, story-based narratives is that they are Dickensian, but this certainly doesn't apply. Seth makes Dickens look positively modernist. Austen, perhaps is a more accurate touchstone. While hordes of Aga-saga writers churn out middle-brow, self- consciously "traditional" narratives every year, Seth is a rarity among literary writers in looking so far back in time for his inspiration. While the tradition versus modernism debate still rages in musical circles, the modernists are generally accepted to have won the literary dispute 80 years ago. Seth, meanwhile, seems to be staking an antediluvian claim for the seriousness - or at least the value - of easy to read, linear, simple narrative.

While A Suitable Boy gave some credence to Seth's stance - no-one who carried it around for very long would be likely to dismiss the book for being too light - perhaps exposes the weaknesses in Seth's literary aspirations.

One is unlikely to feel truly nourished by this book. For all the pleasure it imparts, the novel lacks edge and thrust. Like the piece of music most central to the novel, Bach's Art of the Fugue, one's admiration at the work's artistry and perfection wanes somewhere around the half-way point, and one begins to itch for a little noise and mess. Ten fugues, for most people, is enough, and by the time you've listened to 12 or 13 you generally find yourself seeking out some Jimi Hendrix.

is ultimately too simple. Seth is a brilliant and hugely entertaining writer, yet he fails to credit his readers with a satisfying degree of intelligence - a fault which only begins to grate in the second half of the novel. Unsurprisingly from the author of A Suitable Boy, is just too long. It is a 400-page novella. Its precision and beauty undermine themselves through overkill. The scale of the story is out of proportion. It is a piece of chamber music in eight movements.

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London