An Equal Music: Book Review

I’m not much of a fic­tion lit­er­a­ture guy. In fact, you could say I’m fic­tion­al­ly illit­er­ate. 🙂 When I read blogs with promi­nent book­shelves, or ‘Lit­er­ary Exper­i­ments’ in the tag line, I get an infe­ri­or­i­ty com­plex. My Unqui­et Mind has to con­front the real­i­ty that I’m pret­ty much a moron when it comes to ‘lit­er­a­ture’. Dis­count­ing Ayn Rand, my involve­ment with fic­tion is pret­ty much lim­it­ed to Lud­lum, Aster­ix, and Three Men In A Boat. The only rea­son I’ve heard of T. S. Eliot is because of the graf­fi­ti that it is an ana­gram of Toi­lets. In order that I don’t need to use one when edu­cat­ed folks dis­cuss lit­er­a­ture, I occa­sion­al­ly read friend’s posts of Book Memes, or bet­ter still, browse their real book­shelves. an-equal-music.jpg

I was thus perus­ing Asuph’s impres­sive library, see­ing if there was any chance there might be some­thing I would con­sid­er myself wor­thy of actu­al­ly read­ing. After some time, the only book I could request to bor­row was an old, decrepit, Per­ry Mason. 🙂 But being the good friend that he is, he thrust Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music in my hands, say­ing “you’ll be able to appre­ci­ate this, as it deals a lot with music”. I hes­i­tat­ed, but he goad­ed me on. That’s one of the rea­sons friends are for, isn’t it? They lead us to explore new avenues, ulti­mate­ly enrich­ing our lives, and we feel so grate­ful in the end.

So, with­out fur­ther ado, here’s my first attempt at writ­ing a book review.

Music, such music, is a suf­fi­cient gift. Why ask for hap­pi­ness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music — not too much, or the soul could not sus­tain it — from time to time.


An Equal Music is nar­rat­ed by Michael Holme, a sec­ond vio­lin­ist in a Quar­tet based in Lon­don. It is a nice­ly woven braid of his love of music and his love of Julia, with whom he stud­ied music in Vien­na. He has lost her when he ran away from Vien­na to escape his auto­crat­ic men­tor. The sto­ry is about his ten­u­ous reunion with Julia, who is mar­ried with a fam­i­ly of her own, and about Michael and his Quartet’s strug­gle in the Euro­pean clas­si­cal cir­cuit.

His past haunts Michael to such an extent that the sto­ry pro­gress­es as if walk­ing for­ward while con­tin­u­ing to look back­ward.


The strongest ele­ment of the book. It act­ed like a glue hold­ing the sto­ry and char­ac­ters togeth­er, and my inter­est till the end. Seth indulges in the works of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Haydn, offer­ing a unique glimpse into the world of cham­ber music. The inter­per­son­al dynam­ics of the Quar­tet that influ­ence their per­for­mance. Their approach and method of rehears­ing. The com­merce of instru­ments. The busi­ness of a Quar­tet.

anequalmusic.jpgThrough­out, I enjoyed the inti­ma­cy with music and iden­ti­fied with the char­ac­ters. The almost sub-con­scious habit of think­ing of the great com­posers as if they were liv­ing acquain­tances. The fas­ci­na­tion and roman­ti­ciz­ing of spe­cif­ic works. Michael has a less labo­ri­ous pur­suit to obtain a rare Beethoven Quin­tet than I did in search of a Mozart Diver­ti­men­to.


The weak­est aspect of the book is the shal­low char­ac­ter devel­op­ment. Michael is so strong­ly influ­enced by his past that his nos­tal­gia, his obses­sive brood­ing, make you real­ize that he will nev­er shape his future. Why exact­ly does he leave Vien­na abrupt­ly? He comes across as a ner­vous wreck and in oth­er mat­ters, incred­i­bly stu­pid. He needs a 101 on rela­tion­ships, finance, and pro­fes­sion­al net­work­ing skills. He loves deeply, but I could not empathize with his love for Julia.

Oth­er than her abil­i­ty to play well, why is she so lov­able? Why does she sud­den­ly sleep with him again? What influ­ences her deci­sions as she deals with the con­flict between a fam­i­ly life and an extra-mar­i­tal affair?

Zone of Silence

Julia’s pro­gres­sive deaf­ness may be con­sid­ered as a hack­neyed plot device by some read­ers, but Seth han­dles this chal­lenge extra­or­di­nar­i­ly well. He engages us in the ‘zones of inter­sec­tion of the world of sound­less­ness with those of the heard, mis-heard, and of imag­ined sound’. Rec­ol­lec­tions of Immor­tal Beloved are but nat­ur­al.


I doubt if musi­cal­ly unini­ti­at­ed read­ers would enjoy this book. If you’re not amused by liken­ing three tall and one short per­sons in a group to Beethoven’s Fifth, you will miss the most enam­or­ing aspect of the book: the pro­found love of music that per­me­ates through­out. Seth lives and breathes music.

PS: Con­nect on Shel­fari if you’re a real, non-fic­tion (a tau­tol­ogy?) lover. Many thanks to Asuph. Oh yes, and I did read the Per­ry Mason first.

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  • Mahen­dra

    I iden­ti­fy with the your char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of your­self at the begin­ning of this post. Some­where I learnt that I need 8–9 hours of sleep and I have 15–16 hours to work, cook, get ‘cul­ture’ and read. I chose non-fic­tion. To under­stand is more impor­tant to me than to be enter­tained.

    And I remem­ber when you mailed me say­ing every­time you have a mail from Shel­fari you won­der what She­faly is send­ing you now! 🙂

    I may update the shelves soon or move to Library Thing. Will see. Will keep you post­ed.

    PS: Good review indeed. It is over­all a depress­ing book although his depic­tions of Vien­na and Venice are creep­i­ly accu­rate. He is nice chap too, Vikram Seth. Genial, friend­ly and about my height (ha ha! Well, ok, a bit taller.)

  • The last time I read Seth was when I was apoplec­tic about the end­ing in his Dead-Tree-Soap-Opera “A Suit­able Boy”. I am yet to recov­er from that.

  • Hey, I not very much of a music love (Prob­lem is when I lis­ten to music, I don’t lis­ten, I drift into some­thing else), but I read this book few years ago and found it a good read. That Julia’s was los­ing her hear­ing capac­i­ty made it more entic­ing.

    Vikram Seth is good epic writer and it works for patient read­ers like me. Still, Suit­able boy is my pre­ferred book.

    It is a nice review. 😀

    And you don’t want us to con­nect at Shel­fari if we read fic­tion? 😉

  • Anand

    Nice review. As you know, I like to read a lot as well. Typ­i­cal­ly I read one non-fic­tion and one fic­tion at the same time. That way, depend­ing on my mood, I can switch back and forth between learn­ing and being enter­tained 🙂

    I haven’t read this one and maybe I will pick up a copy. The only Vikram Seth book that I have read is ‘The Gold­en Gate’. The entire book is writ­ten as son­nets. This made the book very unique although I found the sto­ry to be kin­da lame. The most inter­est­ing aspect for me was that the sto­ry was based in SF and it talked about lots of places in the city where I have been before.

    By sheer coin­ci­dence, while I was trav­el­ling, I read 3 books in which the cen­tral char­ac­ter had left his job and was either trav­el­ling or doing some­thing ran­dom — haha.


  • Hey Anand, thanks for the com­ments. Like your switch­ing prac­tice. I keep switch­ing between Asterix/Tintin and what­ev­er else I’m read­ing 🙂

    Almost every­one I know online seems to have read a Vikram Seth book, so now I feel priv­i­leged to join that club.

    Was that pick of books ‘pure­ly unin­ten­tion­al’? Ha ha ha!

  • Good ana­lyt­i­cal review Mahen­dra. I have not read much of Vikram Seth, and just the pop­u­lar Suit­able Boy which I did not find exact­ly grip­ping! There is no doubt how­ev­er that Seth writes superbly and is in fact a treat to read.

  • BTW, I see Step­pen­wolf in your shel­fari. Don’t recall­ing see­ing it the last time I browsed thru your books. Do you have it? (mighty inter­est­ed)

  • Dot­tie

    The sheer size of Seth’s books makes me a reluc­tant read­er. Haven’t yet a sin­gle Seth, yet. I liked your review and almost added the book to my list, but one of the com­men­ta­tors said it was a bit depress­ing. So, then maybe not 🙂 Re, your learn­ing vs. enter­tain­ing, for me they are most­ly the same. If I am not learn­ing any­thing, I am not being enter­tained either, most­ly. And vice ver­sa.

    I went to your Shel­fari umm.. shelf. And what, no Asi­mov? 🙂

  • Dot­tie

    lol. I like sci-fi, although I think Asi­mov is more futur­is­tic fic­tion! Clarke is more my style. oh and BigGeek won’t com­ment under my moniker 🙂

  • Oops! How did I think he would use your alias? Sil­ly me. 🙂

    Nope, I haven’t read much sci­ence fic­tion. Some­thing to think about. Thanks.