Bum notes

An Equal Music

Vikram Seth <em>Phoenix House, 381pp, £16.99</em>

If Vikram Seth is not writing novels then he's writing librettos, if not translations then travel books or verse. Most ambitious of all was A Suitable Boy, a masterpiece of story-telling on a Victorian scale, in which the huge sweep of the narrative was combined with a miniaturist's eye for character and detail.Yet with An Equal Music, the long-awaited and hugely hyped successor to A Suitable Boy, Seth has pulled off perhaps the greatest surprise of all: a novel so mediocre that it verges on the bad.

It is, like A Suitable Boy, a love story, but whereas in the earlier novel Seth's narrative was as convincing as it was captivating, in the new book it achieves the improbable feat of combining the worst of Jilly Cooper and Thomas Mann. Michael, the protagonist, plays second violin in a string quartet. Violinists in novels naturally have hidden depths, and in Michael's case, it is the memory of Julia, a pianist whom he abandoned ten years earlier when they were both students in Vienna. Then one day on Oxford Street he sees her through the window of a bus and eventually they renew their affair. Julia, though, is now married with a son, and almost inevitably - she being a beautiful pianist, and this being the sort of story that it is - she is becoming deaf.

It is the nature of love stories that they must be drawn from cliches. What is extraordinary, though, about An Equal Music, not to say baffling, is the way in which Seth's genius for characterisation, which in A Suitable Boy had breathed life into even the most minor characters, seems utterly to have deserted him. This is the sort of novel in which music critics call people "dear boy", agents go "mwah-mwah!" before jumping into taxis, and French girls complain how "You English are mad". Nor is the poverty of invention confined to characterisation: whole cities exist as cliches, rather in the manner of an airport novel, so that in Venice, for instance, the lovers share swooning moments in churches, while in Rochdale, Michael's hometown, his old Da's butcher's shop has - surprise, surprise - been knocked down to build a car park.

As a narrator, Michael's etiolated style of description and dialogue veils a romanticism of the most conventional kind. Indeed his repressed emotions, rather like the dingy London he inhabits, seem almost to belong to a different era altogether; perhaps the novel would have been more effective if Seth had, as in A Suitable Boy, set it in the 1950s. There is certainly more than a touch of Brief Encounter to the story, even down to the constant soaring of classical music in the background.

Nothing so 20th century as Rachmaninov for Michael, though. Playing Bach with the other members of the quartet, he describes how "our synchronous visions merge, and we are one; with each other, with the world, and with that long-dispersed being whose force we receive through the shape of his annotated vision and the single swift-flowing syllable of his name". This is the very essence of the romantic vision, a head-on attempt to render what is by definition unrenderable; and it reflects Michael's own unconquerable conviction that opposites can indeed be dissolved: that there is, in the words of John Donne that provide the title, "One equal music, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession".

Yet what might seem fitting when applied to the splendours of the great romantic composers can seem a little highblown when applied to an adulterous affair in W2. Maybe only a novelist brought up in a very different tradition of transcendence would even think to attempt it. But boldness is no guarantee of success: as it stands, especially in the context of Seth's remarkable talent, An Equal Music must be ranked as a huge disappointment.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - This country is not so special