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Sentimental Education

Salman Rushdie’s novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet is to be “supported,” we hear, by a new release from the rock band U2. As if in coy echo, the promotional blurb to Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music tells us that “bookstores have invited string quartets to perform during his readings.” Simultaneously? While the phenomenon of celebrity publishing has accustomed us to the idea that the book itself may be the least exciting part of an overall package, it is disturbing to find two authors with such literary ambitions allowing our eyes, or indeed ears, to be distracted from the pleasures of the text. The multimedia experience may be fashionable, but in literature distinction and discrimination are of the essence. One reads, for preference, in a quiet place.

There are uncanny parallels between Rushdie’s and Seth’s latest efforts. Like chalk and cheese it seems impossible not to mention them together. Both books are by hugely successful, male, Anglophone, Indian-born authors now in early middle age. Both feature musicians as their central characters. In each case those protagonists are involved in a love triangle. In each novel the musician-lovers lose sight of each other for ten years, allowing a third party, this time a non-musician, to slip in. Both first-person narrators seem driven to tell their stories out of a sense of loss, the need to overcome pain and disillusionment. Much, very much, is made of the intimacy generated by the lovers’ creating music together and in both cases the music played comes to be seen as a manifestation of a transcendental realm of feeling. But while Rushdie with his usual spirited bluster seemed set on giving back to the world only the cacophony the mind is in any event subject to these days, Seth is after more calculated and harmonious effects. The distance between the rock band in Central Park pushing amplification to the limits to drown out helicopters and sirens and the tail-coated string quartet entertaining a scrupulously silent, if somewhat dusty, middle-class audience beneath a baroque ceiling rose will serve well enough as an analogy for the distance between these two performances.

Vikram Seth’s reputation began with The Golden Gate. Here some light-hearted satire and a series of sentimental relationships were rescued from banality by being presented entirely in tightly rhyming tetrameter. The effect, at least in the opening cantos, is absolutely charming. Unlike Rushdie, when Seth approaches his readers, it is always to seduce, never to accuse, even less to browbeat. But he is careful not to challenge either. Despite its frequent lapses into doggerel The Golden Gate slips down like a pleasant ice cream. It would be churlish to raise objections and simply unkind to hazard comparison either with Pushkin, whom Seth names as his model, or Byron, of whom the reader, despite the different verse form, may more often be wistfully reminded. Even returning to the book today, one cannot help but take one’s hat off to someone who had the resources and tenacity to bring such a project to a conclusion and convince a publisher it would work.

That hat-doffing admiration—the critical faculty forestalled by wonder—is something Seth once again sought and largely attained with his second work of fiction, A Suitable Boy. Much was made at the time of its publication of the distance the author had trav-eled from The Golden Gate, from a good-humored satire of contemporary California in chiming verse to this vast, meticulously researched drama of India in the 1950s, the crimes and loves of four extended families in over 1,300 pages. But with hindsight the similarities between the two ventures are evident enough: first the decision to ignore current experimental trends in literary fiction, particularly Anglo-Indian fiction, in this case by resorting to a conventional narrative prose that offered a tried and tested vehicle for pleasure; then the gently satirical delight in social trivia with here the exoticism of the mainly Hindu milieu standing in for the wit of clever rhyme, and the sheer scale and intricate extension of the plot serving to generate that same gasp of disarmed surprise.

There was a similar concentration, too, on affairs of the heart, again with an awareness of the dangers of passion and the virtues of traditional, in this case even dynastic, common sense. Unpleasantness and indeed horror are not excluded, but as Anita Desai acutely remarked in these pages,1 Seth tends to hurry over the brutal and lurid as if such things were really too distasteful to occupy much space on his charming pages.

Since a great deal of contemporary fiction seeks primarily and often solely to shock, this is a decision that will hardly raise hackles. If a problem does arise it is when we begin to feel that Seth’s designs upon us are all too irksomely evident. There are readers whose antennae go up before succumbing to seduction. Various Indian critics in particular suggested that A Suitable Boy‘s complacent vision of Indian society verged on the grotesque. The desire to please must always be in complex negotiation with the spirit of truth. In this sense the decision, in An Equal Music, to encourage us to look unhappiness long and hard in the eye might be seen as an attempt on Seth’s part to redress the balance.

The narrator, Michael Holme, describes himself as “irreparably imprinted with the die of someone else’s being.” Unable, that is, in his mid-thirties, to get over his first love of ten years before, he lives in “a numbed state of self preservation,” in a tiny attic apartment to the north of Kensington Gardens, eking out a barely adequate living playing second violin in a string quartet and teaching a variety of unsatisfactory students, with one of whom he pursues an affair that offers no more than physiological relief. The book’s three brief opening paragraphs, which also form a separate section of their own, strike a melancholy and decidedly minor chord that is to be sustained, with variations, throughout.

The branches are bare, the sky tonight a milky violet. It is not quiet here, but it is peaceful. The wind ruffles the black water towards me.

There is no one about. The birds are still. The traffic slashes through Hyde Park. It comes to my ears as white noise.

I test the bench but do not sit down. As yesterday, as the day before, I stand until I have lost my thoughts. I look at the water of the Serpentine.

Immediately we recognize the familiar sadness of the lonely man in the urban scene, trapped in empty repetition, eager to forget, clearly attracted to and menaced by that black water the wind blows at him. There is nothing remarkable here. We might even want to call it creditably low-key. Gone the springy step of The Golden Gate, gone the sprawling exoticism of A Suitable Boy, the style now spare, often willfully limp, Seth thus renounces the visiting card of virtuosity. When we discover that his hero is not only white and English but that he hales from the town of Rochdale, a declining industrial satellite on the edge of the Manchester conurbation, the kind of place that tends to be the butt of dismissive jokes in the sophisticated south, it becomes clear that if there is to be a gasp of surprise this time around, it must be at Seth’s boldness in placing himself right in the mainstream of English fiction, doing exactly what the English do.

Michael, then, is marooned in the past, “with inane fidelity fixated on someone who could have utterly changed.” Ten years ago, studying in Vienna, he fell in love with another student, Julia, a pianist. For a year things went well, but Michael’s music teacher was a harsh master and dissatisfied with his achievements. Despite Julia’s insistence that he see the experience through, Michael gave up, leaving both girlfriend and the possibility of a solo career behind. When, two months later, he began to write to her, she did not reply.

The exact dynamics of this break-up, the reasons for Julia’s not replying to Michael’s letters, for his not simply returning to see her, are never clear to the characters themselves and even less so to the reader. What evidently matters to Seth, however, is that it should appear an unnecessary separation in a relationship of enormous potential. Michael is thus more understandably in thrall to his sense of what might have been. To make matters worse, since he and Julia used to play together in a trio, his very vocation constantly brings him up against the memory of her. In particular there is a Beethoven trio—opus 1 number 3—that he often listens to but cannot play either privately or professionally. Informed, significantly enough by Virginie, his student who is also his current girlfriend, that Beethoven in later life prepared a now obscure variation of this early work as a quintet, Michael becomes obsessed with tracking the piece down and getting his quartet to perform it with the help of an extra player. It will both remind him of Julia but at the same time be different from the past. “I know,” he thinks excitedly, “that, unlike with the trio, nothing will seize me up or paralyse my heart and arm.”

Instead, then, of seeking a more appropriate sentimental variation with Virginie, Michael sets out to find this different and improbable version of what he remembers all too well. We are thus treated to one of those episodes, now so familiar in contemporary fiction, where someone searches for the crucial but elusive text in specialist libraries and secondhand shops, only to meet with the predictable mixture of obnoxious obtuseness and unhelpful helpfulness. Ironically, it is precisely as, at last successful, he boards a bus to bring home an old vinyl recording of the piece, “so desperately sought, so astonishingly found,” precisely as he prepares a decidedly sentimental, indeed potentially masturbatory (not a word Seth would use) evening with this variation (“I’ll come home, light a candle, lie down on my duvet and sink into the quintet”), that the lovelorn Michael sees, after ten years, who but Julia herself going by on a bus in the opposite direction. The variation, we immediately understand, is to be with the loved one in person. When his quartet does play with an outside artist, it will be with Julia.

But before we consider how Seth tackles the revival of lost love, let’s turn aside for a moment to look at his handling of Michael’s provincial boyhood, since this strand of the narrative offers in miniature an example of the writer’s aesthetic at work.

Home of the industrial revolution, the north of England has a long and spirited tradition in socially engaged fiction. From Gaskell’s Mary Barton to the novels of contemporary writers like Pat Barker and Jane Rogers, first the ascendancy of the brutal factory owner, then the desolation of industrial decline, and, throughout it all, the plight of the poor have all been passionately documented. Seth is aware of this of course and as the dutiful Michael goes to visit his aging father at Christmas, he offers us a number of pages in line with the tradition, portraying a disadvantaged boyhood in a decaying landscape.

  1. 1

    See Desai’s review, The New York Review, May 27, 1993.

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