Vikram Seth //
'Music is dearer to me even than speech' explains Vikram Seth in the Author's note to this engrossing novel. His intimate connection to music and the process of bringing it to life is palpable throughout the book. The story closely follows the ups and downs in the life of violinist Michael Holme and, to a lesser degree, that of the mysterious pianist Julia McNicholl. What makes the story move far beyond a romantic novel is Seth's ability to convey the deep significance of chamber music by no lesser composers than Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert for his characters' psyche and everyday lives. Yet, you don't have to be knowledgeable about the music to feel absorbed by this rich, complex and intimate love story.
The story, told through Michael's eyes, is mostly set in north London, where he has found refuge after fleeing Vienna, the town of his professional training. Ten years have passed but his musings keep returning to events in Vienna: self-doubts in his talent as a soloist, amplified by the demands of an exacting, overbearing teacher, had resulted in a complete breakdown. His abrupt departure left Julia, his love, music partner and muse, without a word of explanation or good bye. As he slowly recovered, he tried to reconnect with her, wrote, contacted her father, only to meet a wall of silence. Seth's depiction of Michael's continuing emotional immaturity, his increasing despair at having lost what he now recognizes as his great love reveals the fragility of a character where musical brilliance and human weaknesses are interdependent. His solo career seemingly over, Michael joins the Maggiore Quartet as second violin. While in many ways a close knit group - the "family" gives his life the needed structure and support - it also is the source of inter-personal rivalries.
The tensions, creative or destructive, between the quartet members are perceptively explored and the reader can appreciate the complex personalities of highly creative and sensitive virtuosi, whose captivating performances we tend to take for granted. Nonetheless, playing together, following the structural and harmonious intricacies of each composition, whether as duo, trio or quartet, overcomes any such impediments and leads to a level of intimacy and understanding that goes far beyond speech. Seth's ability to convey his characters' diverse emotions that are essential to bring out the beauty of each musical composition and to reach a harmonious interpretation is exquisite.
Getting into Michael's head with great skill, Seth creates a complex but believable character whose actions are often more the result of deeply felt emotions than rational analysis. To complement his protagonist's musings on his chamber musician colleagues and friends, and, of course, Julia, Seth turns to extensive passages of direct dialogue, thus energizing the narrative flow. Seth's deep connection to music comes out throughout the novel, yet his description of the protagonist's discovery of Beethoven's reworked early piece into late Quintet stands out as an example that interweaves music with the personal story of Michael and his feelings for Julia.
Michael's precious violin, an early 18th century Tononi, occupies one of the central themes in the narrative. It is another love affair of sorts and one he cannot abandon without losing his identity. Seth, well known also as a poet, finds the right lyrical tone when describing Michael's interaction with his violin, complementing the moods created by the music he plays or listens to. The violin, however, is only a long term loan from his violinist neighbour and music teacher in his home town in Northern England. She "discovered" and nurtured his talent from an early age and he keeps returning to her regularly for companionship and solace. Michael's family, while sympathetic, had no resources to support his ambitions. Seth very delicately raises the issues of family tensions, class and education as he contrasts Michael's upbringing with that of Julia, privileged daughter of an Oxford professor. Despite their differences, music can bridge any differences and misunderstandings between them.
It wouldn't be much of a story, if the former lovers were not to meet again... The romantic settings in Vienna and Venice add a beautiful and vivid backdrop to the concert tour by the Quartet. Seth has a wonderful sensitive touch in his exploration of the challenges faced by Michael and, in particular, Julia. The mystery that surrounds her and how others, especially Michael comes to terms with it, gives special and moving depth to the story and take it beyond what one could have expected.
text by Friederike Knabe / photo by Stephen Tiley