Books: Simple love story of unsuitable length
Sunday 04 April 1999
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.
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