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 …

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