The strains of performance

AN EQUAL MUSIC By Vikram Seth Broadway Books 386 pp., $25

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," says Vikram Seth. He's used to mixing media. In 1986, he published a novel about California yuppies called "The Golden Gate," composed of 690 sonnets.

His latest novel, "An Equal Music," is the story of Michael, a violinist from a working-class background, who narrates his love for Julia, a pianist he meets while studying in Vienna. The daughter of an Oxford professor, Julia introduces him to a different world of art and literature. They find that they are able to make music together naturally, and with a cellist, they form a piano trio.

Michael's growing disagreements with his brilliant but dominating teacher lead him to a kind of musical breakdown while performing, and he leaves Vienna with not much explanation to Julia.

Back in London, when he realizes what he has lost, he tries desperately to reestablish contact, but to no avail. They meet again only 10 years later, when Julia attends a performance in London. However, she is now married to an East Coast banker and losing her hearing.

Seth vividly captures the musical life of a quartet in performance, the bickerings, gossip, anxieties, tuning, warming up, "mechanics ... stops and starts." And yet, anyone who has attempted to make a relationship work, musical or otherwise, will understand what he describes as that "wilful ... quest for something beyond ourselves that we imagine with our separate spirits but are compelled to embody together."

Seth's expertise as a poet is more than evident in his lyrical prose. As a schoolboy, he learned by heart the poetry of both English and Hindi poets such as Surdas and Kabir, which may account for his command with verse.

The novel concludes appropriately with a musical performance. Julia performs J.S. Bach's "Art of Fugue" on the piano. "It is a beauty beyond imagining - clear, lovely, inexorable, phrase across phrase.... Music, such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? ... it is to be blessed enough ... to hear such music - not too much, or the soul could not sustain it - from time to time."

Vikram Seth's tale is a gift for any reader and a must-read for music lovers and musicians.

*Prateeti Punja Ballal is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

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