Who is Vikram Seth? Even with a career that has spanned two decades and spawned nine books, Seth remains something of a mystery. No two books of his have been alike. He is a poet, a novelist, a travel writer and even the author of a libretto. Unlike most writers of Indian origin, whose works are obsessed with the subcontinent, Seth seems at home anywhere in the world. "The Golden Gate," the novel in verse that first brought him renown, was a witty and inventive story of Californian yuppiedom; "A Suitable Boy," one of the longest novels ever written in English, is a sprawling, multigenerational tale of family, tradition and politics in post-independence India.
Now, five years after that epic effort, Seth has returned with something completely different again. Set in the exalted world of the European classical music circuit, "An Equal Music" is a sensitive, meticulous novel that has something of the delicacy of a haiku. Gone is the grand sweep of "A Suitable Boy" -- Seth's new book is an intimate and internalized story of love and music.
Michael Holme, the high-strung narrator, is a violinist in a London string quartet. He is in love with a ghost: It has been years since he has seen Julia McNicholl, a pianist with whom he fell in love while studying in Vienna. Then one day he sees her again, on a bus in London. She is married now, but their passion (for each other, and for each other's music) soon rekindles. Part of Seth's achievement lies in his weaving these dual passions into a complex and multifaceted relationship. There are many emotional twists and turns (which I won't ruin by giving away), and at its best the book is a gripping and profound meditation on love, music and the irrevocability of time ("the swift ellipses of the earth," in Seth's masterful formulation). Narrated in the present tense, in an insistent first person, this meditation is intensely personal; unlike anything Seth has previously written, the novel is distinguished by remarkable psychological portraiture.
The portraits, though, are not uniformly convincing. In the early pages and toward the end, the narrative sometimes falters on the very qualities that elsewhere distinguish it. The poetic language can seem oddly archaic ("What hath closed Helen's eyes?" Michael soliloquizes in one instance), and the intensity can descend into generic -- even maudlin -- expressions of romantic anguish. "My life had shelved towards desolation," Michael whines near the end of the book; "If I didn't love you, things would be quite a bit simpler," Julia says earlier.
But these are just the perils of writing about art and love. "Making music and making love -- it's a bit too easy an equation," Julia says at one point. It is certainly true that Seth has undertaken no mean task in trying to distill something original from a subject that is almost by definition generic and sentimental. "I'd be bored unless I wrote a book that in some sense was a challenge," he recently told an interviewer. It is to his great credit that despite the occasional lapses, he answers the challenge with a convincing and often beautiful story of passion.