Saturday, February 22, 2014

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth – Feb 20, 2014

An Equal Music - First Edition cover

May all our fiction selections this year be as satisfying as An Equal Music! Eight of us enjoyed reading and discussing it, avidly offering our responses to Vikram Seth’s long excursus into the arcane world of chamber music and its dedicated practitioners.

Sunil, Mathew, Esther, Priya, KumKum reading Julia's letter

We learnt about book-cricket and wondered which Eden we would now be inhabiting had Adam been born with a snake-eating habit. Aphorisms and allusions fill this novel with verbal riches.

Priya reads about Billy the cellist making expansive gestures on the open string

There is the mandatory Onegin stanza at the head of every novel by Vikram Seth, this one dedicated to his (former) lover Philippe Honoré. A discussion with him on a walk, standing on a bridge over the Serpentine, started VS off on his novel. He writes:
Our story lit with borrowed powers
Rather, by what our spirits burned,
Embered in words, to us returned.

Thommo signing the Association of Parties articles making KRG a legal entity

The epigraph by Donne, reminds us of what qualities Paradise will have – among them
no noise nor silence, but one equal music  

KumKum, Gopa, Thommo, Sunil, Mathew


How wonderful to experience that here and now on this earth!

Esther, Gopa, KumKum, Thommo, Mathew, Sunil, Joe (Priya left early)

To read the full account click below ...

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
Reading on Feb 20, 2014



Vikram Seth at the Hay Festival in Kerala 2010 –  Surprised by my camera

Present: Esther, KumKum, Priya, Joe, Thommo, Sunil, Mathew, Gopa
Absent: Talitha (out of town), Zakia (busy with mil), Ankush (out of town on work), Preeti (?)


These are the dates for the next two sessions:
Fri Mar 21, 2014: Practice for Shakespeare Festival reading by KRG on Sat Apr 26
Fri Mar 28, 2014: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

Esther who chose the book introduced Vikram Seth to the readers. She read out from her smartphone web– based information about Vikram Seth (amader Bikrom, as he was called at the Kolkata Lit Fest Jan 25-30, 2014). A brief outline of his wonderful and adventurous life is at the wiki site:

Because he is such an accessible person, readers will find many interviews scattered on the web. See:
for a straightforward bio.

 “All of us are pretty much in her shade,” VS says of his mother, [Leila Seth] crediting her with encouraging him to write Two Lives.

Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ Sequel finds a new home. He started work on his own novel in verse written in Pushkin stanzas: The Golden Gate. Even now all his prose works are prefaced by a poem in this verse form.

Interview: Chinese is such a compressed language that each word is actually one syllable so it expands inevitably in English. However, as a result of studying Chinese and doing translations, some of my English poems have also become monosyllabic so the entire text of Soon [the AIDS poem] or Walk is in monosyllables and certain passages in An Equal Music are also monosyllabic.

The Stanford connection. "Since I was studying economics, not English, I stood outside the orbit of the latest critical theories and did not realize that writing in rhyme and meter would make me a sort of literary untouchable," Seth recalls. Rejected by every publisher he tried, Seth typeset, published and distributed the book himself. Peddling it around to Bay Area bookstores, however, he found few takers. "I then forced copies on my friends and family, telling them to sell them if they could and to give them away if they couldn't," Seth recounts.

A year later, the collection of poems, Mappings, was published by P. Lal at the Calcutta's Writers' Workshop. (Penguin Books reissued it in 1994.). See: http://www.indianexpress.com/story/343417.html

The connection to George Herbert. VS says: “If somebody writes clearly, you can pretty much tell immediately if something is shallow or deep, whereas if they write with all this duckweed on the surface, you can’t tell if the stream is one inch deep or a hundred fathoms.”

Vikram Seth obliges Joe by signing his copies of 'An Equal Music' and 'The Golden Gate' 


1. Priya
After reading the passage Priya said she liked the music. In the passage an incident develops regarding Billy’s habit of making expansive gestures on the open string a disease common to cellists. Everyone else begins to imitate him unconsciously. Sunil felt that you had to know the music they were playing, and have some learning in Western classical music, in order to appreciate the novel fully, for it is about the effect of Music played in an intimate group by humans (chamber music), as much as it is about Love among humans. Of course, the author explains many things so that the unmusical are not left out altogether, said Esther.

KumKum remarked on an audiobook read by Alan Bates – it has the music too. The book seems even more beautiful listened to in that fashion. She heard it on audiotapes borrowed from a library by a friend in Ohio.



Asking about the origins of VS, Mathew noted he is a Khatri from UP. But it is quite misleading to tag an author like Vikram Seth with a narrow ID like that; for he breaks every genre of writing and has resided in many parts of the world while sporting an Indian passport, and travelled to many more, including Antarctica. VS was recently at the Patna Literary Festival, a city with which he has connections from childhood.


2. KumKum
KumKum first read Julia’s letter in which she tells Michael:
I, of all people, who have a Before and an After, should have known that you can't relive your life. I should never have come backstage that night.

J is not willing to let go of her stable life with James, the Boston banker. She wants another child by him so Luke can learn to share. In the second passage where they go for a walk in the park, J says,
I am not, I am not ever, I am never going to play with anyone again.

and a little later:
I love him [James] now. I can't live without him. What's the point of explaining these things? Or Luke. How could I have been so stupid –  worse than stupid, so selfish, so self-indulgent, so reckless?

M replies:
You'll cope without me, Julia. I won't without you.

And that’s the heart of the tragedy, not merely that love is lost, but the further prospect of life for M is blighted.

Sunil noted the absence of a ring on J’s finger. Gopa asked: is it the residue of Indian culture in VS that has caused him to give this cast of being forever the loyal wife to J? Joe thought not, for the characters are doing whatever they are doing as VS thinks such a person would do – he’s inside the mind of the character and empathising with J, and indeed with every other character in the novel. VS in an interview said:
It’s not often that I can understand the motivations of my characters and it’s not always that I’m very pleased with what they do; in fact, very often I am frustrated with what they do but then I realise that they themselves don’t understand what they themselves do, anymore than I do.

KumKum was emphatic that J could not fulfill her life in any other satisfactory way. But when Joe was challenged how he would make the story turn out, he replied that a different ending might be possible with J leaving James (with a proper farewell letter), asking for a no-fault divorce, agreeing to share Luke, and flying off with M to Salzburg, Vienna or Venice (wherever their musical heroes lived), some place where they could make love and make music with equal abandon, thus making possible a sequel titled, An Equal Abandon

Soon they’d have a child of their own, equally precocious, and Luke and Matthew (their future gospel child’s name) will be as close as M&J. And James having won a premature fortune as a trader at his bank, will retire, buy a villa in the same city and invite M&J to play at his home. He would meanwhile have married a hearing-unimpaired art restorer who will confess to him ‘Music to me is dearer even than speech.’

Esther gave her own version.

For KumKum the moral of the whole story could be summed up thus: never sneak off to an encounter with a former lover, whether backstage or on stage. So, no novel.

Mathew thought that J only realised later that she had made a bad mistake by going backstage to meet M, for although her passion for M had long abated, such was the flammable fire burning still in the poor boy’s arid heart, that it would soon consume her too.

The conversation turned to VS. Mathew said he was bisexual. Yes, that’s right. The first explicit hint is in his poem, Dubious. It is light in texture, the fluffiest mousse you can imagine made of words, half in quest of self, half questioning the accepted conventions on sex.
Some men like Jack
and some like Jill;
I'm glad I like
them both; but still

I wonder if
this freewheeling
really is an
enlightened thing –

Or is its greater
scope a sign
Of deviance from
some party line?

In the strict ranks
of Gay and Straight
What is my status?
Stray? Or Great?

The last word is a self-reference to the time he had in one cheeky line of a stanza in The Golden Gate rhymed ‘Seth’ with ‘great:’

An editor at a plush party
(Well-wined, -provisioned, speechy, hearty)
Hosted by (long live!) Thomas Cook
Where my Tibetan travel book
Was honored – seized my arm: “Dear fellow,
What’s your next work?” “A novel…” “Great!
We hope that you, dear Mr Seth – ”
“In verse”, I added. He turned yellow.
"How marvelously quaint,” he said,
And subsequently cut me dead.

KumKum narrated the story VS told at the Kolkata Lit Meet in Jan 25-30, 2014 – that he was originally to be named Amit after the hero of the story Sesher Kobita in Bengali, but some elder in their clan pointed out that the eldest son’s name had to begin with the V sound, so he became Vikram and was glad to be saved from carrying the effete poet’s name in that novel by Rabindranath.

Sunil noted how simple the language is, although the development of the relationships among people, and the description of nature is full of things that make you wonder. Priya added there are no ‘purple’ passages – god, wouldn't VS be embarrassed if readers ever found him writing like a Mills & Boon author!

Mathew noted the Doon School upbringing of VS, and said it was a pastime among Dosco graduates to search for passages in his writing to find traces of Doon School. In an address to Doon School boys VS spoke of his being bullied for not conforming, and hoped it was not like that any more.

Esther said there are no ‘tough’ passages. True, but how much you extract from the novel depends quite a bit on the musical attainments of the reader, and hiser ability to ferret out the innumerable historical and poetic allusions which are hidden in the novel.

3. Gopa
Going back to the past always brings heart-break was Gopa’s preface to her reading of M&J’s first days together in Vienna. Gopa noted a sentence
… what I learnt from her I was not taught

as indicative of the special meaning J had for M. Gopa specially liked the insight in another sentence:
She had an acuity, a gentleness unlike anything I was used to. Perhaps what she saw in me was a corresponding strangeness a volatility, a sense of resistance, of scepticism, roughness, impulsiveness, even, at times, of dark panic, almost brainsickness.

Someone noted M has just dropped Virginie, the French girl who was his student and stand-in for a casual lover. She never meant much to him; there was no real passion there.


4. Thommo
Thommo was not quite prepared but the readers insisted he open the book at a random page and read. Amazing to report, his choice fell upon the single deus-ex-machina moment in the book: M seated in a double-decker bus in London going along Regent Street and sighting J (whom he has not seen in ten years) in another bus going in the opposite direction, not more than five feet from him! This pivotal sighting is the great thrust that propels the novel forward, with flashbacks to illumine the unique double love (of each other and of Music) that lies at the centre of the story.

Joe noted this was the one Bollywood movie type moment in the novel, but others said they saw further instances of M&J’s coordinates coinciding by the author’s design, with important consequences for the two protagonists. Yes, for instance, J going backstage to greet the Quartetto Maggiore without knowing M was a member.

Mathew elaborated on ‘book-cricket’ a game which distracted students play when the class session is boring. He explained, but as always wiki has a note catering to such minutiae (which would never have entered the now defunct Encyclopedia Britannica):


5. Joe
An Appreciation by Joe
Love lost in youthful Vienna, regained a decade later in London, reinvigorated in Venice, then lost again in London – with the woman retreating forever to a secure life with her banker-husband, but afflicted by the saddest condition a musician can have: deafness. She manages the emotional sundering from Michael to be back with her James; but Michael is shot through, and we hear him muttering:
Grief and rue, grief and rue, break the erring heart in two.

At bottom is the question: can one amorous heart hold two loves? Apparently it can. But one rational mind cannot. Julia gives up, realising two loves cannot be reconciled in her life, alas. The innocent, and precocious Luke decides matters in the end for her.

For Michael the question is: can love regained, be lost again? Can life bereft, be lived with one unending love? Vikram Seth depicts him as Orpheus, in the Italian painting by Padovanino that adorns the cover of one edition. 

Orpheus and Euydice (detail) by Alessandro Padovanino. Photograph by Corbis

Orpheus lamented without end for the love he lost, Eurydice. He rescued her from Hades by the power of his music. And then lost her forever, when he looked back before regaining the upper world. By this allegory VS indicates that one life can yield no more than one undying love, for a person so stricken as Michael; and yes, a love regained can be lost again, in a trice.

Michael has no one to return to, only an empty flat and all these memories for the rest of his life. He will fall apart. But the bequest of the Tononi violin to him by the old lady who encouraged his talent in Rochdale, is a tender solace. He decides to retire from active quartet playing and return to his roots in the north country, a cultural backwater compared to London, but it’s a place he can live out the half-impaired life left to him, close to his aging father and aunt. He’ll survive by teaching and forming his own trio.

The Art of the Fugue - Contrapunctus I by Johann Sebastian Bach

But there’s one last piano recital by Julia he has to attend in London, and after hearing her play Bach’s The Art of the Fugue on the piano, he muses …
There is no forced gravitas in her playing. It is a beauty beyond imagining clear, lovely, inexorable, phrase across phrase, phrase echoing phrase, the incomplete, the unending "Art of the Fugue". It is an equal music.
Music, such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music not too much, or the soul could not sustain it from time to time.

KumKum complained that Joe took up excessive time with his readings and the commentary, which Priya said she liked. KumKum added, as an afterthought, that people like Michael should never marry.

By what matrimonial criterion does Michael fail? Should a guy like M not be allowed to marry even in fiction? This is fiction after all; and while it’s moot whether VS would agree with KumKum, M is ejected beyond the pale of marriage in the book.

Thommo’s answer was that KumKum would then disapprove of lots of the guys who are getting married nowadays. Sunil derived from this the lesson, ‘beware of going backstage!’

And what about Adam in the Bible – did he have any choice, asked Thommo? Sunil gave us the joke about what would have happened if Adam was a Chinese – he’d have killed the snake and eaten it, and all of us would have been living happily ever after in the Garden of Eden!

But wouldn't we all be simpleton duffers in that garden without having eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? Would we know the Pythagoras theorem, or E=mc2, and the DNA's Double Helix? And how could we have undermined the very idea of the creation myth in Genesis by discovering Darwinian evolution?

The first piece Joe read is Ch 4.25 which is all in monosyllables. It’s a very conscious effort that strikes the attentive reader right away. It is similar to many stark poems VS has written in monosyllables like the famous one, Soon, about a man dying of AIDS.

In the second passage M&J, while touring Venice on foot, come upon the church of Vivaldi, Santa Maria della Visitazione, or della Pietà as it is popularly known. There M takes out his Tononi violin to play Vivaldi’s First Manchester Sonata’s Largo movement (II) and he convinces J to join him on the piano. 

Vivaldi's Church - Santa Maria della Pieta, Riva degli Schiavoni, Venice

It is an ethereal experience for both of them. Joe read out the passage while playing the three-minute movement softly in the background from his computer. You can hear it here shared from his Google drive:

It is also here:


6. Sunil
Sunil read a piece that is ruminative and sensuous; M is able to remember J’s playing from long ago and senses her presence deeply as he plays. Joe remarked that though all his novels have a filmability, not one film has been attempted, although there’s an attempt at a radio play on BBC Radio 4:

A Suitable Boy would make a blockbuster 3- or 4-part movie, but it would take immaculate casting to make Rupa Mehra, Lata, Haresh, Amit, Kabir, Kakoli, Saeeda Bai and the lot appear real and true to the novel, not mere caricatures.

The second passage is the beginning of the end as M&J leave Venice. The post-mortem of love starts with the question of M:
Why did you come here with me if everything between us was a sham?

M concludes:
Yes, I have got to where I am from somewhere else. But I too am subject to higher powers to music, to my fellows, to the life of someone who is better off without me.


7. Mathew
Mathew’s first passage is about love-making by daylight. VS does not disappoint. It’s tender, not mushy; about loving sex, not eroticism.  The closest he comes to the latter is:
The scent of her body, mixed with her faint perfume, drives me into a frenzy.

What exquisite taste!

The second passage is the mind-expanding walk in the park with Luke and the dog, Michael getting to know the other world of Julia, that he is unaware of.


8. Esther
The first passage is a trail of subconscious thoughts as M wanders around Venice on J’s departure. It will seem obscure to a person who has not been to Venice and seen the sights: ‘Campari calls from the Lido’ refers to a huge neon sign atop a building advertising the aperitif Campari; ‘our plankton love might grow’ refers to Marvell’s poem To His Coy Mistress where the line ‘My vegetable love should grow’ appears; Carpaccio’s dog refers to this painting of St Augustine:

which is housed in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni of Venice; ‘Each beast is sad thereafter’ refers to post-coital blues, first signalled by Galen in his Latin proverb
post coitum omne animal triste est, sive gallus et mulier
(After sex all animals are sad except the cock and the woman.)

One can go on.

Two striking aphorisms grace the passage:
Grief and rue, grief and rue, break the erring heart in two.

and

An egg may not be unboiled nor trust resealed.

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