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
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
exhibition Gillian Orr traces the movement from Bram Stoker to Kate Bush
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone