The novel is written in the present tense which makes its words press in on the reader, there is no distance from what is being felt or said or done on the page. Sometimes the thoughts of the first-person narrator are given to us without attribution; this is a novel of feeling and sensibility where the feelings and sensibilities of the narrating 'I' are the medium in which the story moves.
The novel happens in the taken-for-granted present and most of it is set in London with excursions to Rochdale in the north of England where Michael grew up, Vienna, where he went to learn music and where he met, loved and lost Julia, and Venice, where Julia and he, reunited, find a temporary refuge for their fugitive love.
All the lives in this book happen in music. Literally, Julia and Michael meet in Vienna because both of them are learning music there. Julia is a pianist. Michael abandons both Vienna and Julia because he is traumatised by the cruelty of his teacher and distraught that Julia seems to have taken the teacher's part. In London most of his time is spent rehearsing or performing with the Maggiore, his string quartet; in the time left over he teaches music to make ends meet, and when we meet him he is sleeping with one of his students.
The events that drive the novel are musical events: Michael following up a reference to an unknown (or nearly unknown) string quintet by Beethoven, which he finds, loses, then finds again; Helen, the quartet's viola player, trying to find a viola that can be tuned down a fourth of an octave so that the Maggiore can do a recording of the Art of Fugue; Piers, Helen's brother, and the quartet's first violinist, bidding himself into bankruptcy at an auction where he has set his heart on a violin he can't afford; Michael, anxious about his own violin (an anxiety that spans the novel), loaned to him by an elderly benefactress and forever in danger of being taken away... Vikram Seth set out to write a novel about music and he doesn't stint.
This musical world works very well, even for a reader like me who can write everything he knows about classical music on the back of a postage stamp. The grave tenderness with which the quartet is shown playing the same three-octave scale before every rehearsal as a rite of union (and when Michael first becomes a part of the quartet, as a rite of initiation) is wonderfully moving. There is a lovely, funny bit where the cellist's mannerisms infect the other three players during rehearsal; "... expansive gestures on the open string..." is how the author describes the cellist's habit and though I have no idea what an open string is, I can try to guess and still enjoy the teasing intimacy of that scene.
Whenever we are shown narrative business through Michael's eyes, the novel zips along. Julia, who has been absent from his life for 10 years, reappears in the most satisfactory way: he sees her sitting in the bus next to his at a traffic light. The frenzy this sets off in him, his crazed attempts to make her look at him as she sits reading a book five feet away insulated by traffic noise and glass, the lights turning green, the mad chase at the end of which he catches up with her bus to find her gone, all this leaves the reader sweating and grateful that he is in such good hands.
Likewise, when Julia's little boys gives his mother's dreadful secret away (and if you don't want to be let in on the secret you shouldn't read the rest of this paragraph) the reader realises how carefully the trail has been laid, and how much of her conversation and behaviour vefore this revelation is explained by her deafness. A deaf pianist; I read on riveted, wanting to know how she will perform in concert with other musicians, how it happened, what it means to her, and I am given answers. Creating suspense and supplying wholly satisfactory resolutions is something this book does wonderfully. What works less well is the idiom of Michael's interior state, the words in which we hear his thoughts. The moment he is left alone to think or fret about music or love he makes me restless. For one, he thinks in slightly elevated prose, girdled with archaisms. It is hard to know why this is, unless high feeling needs heightened diction. This is what he thinks after he gets a letter from his former teacher, Carl Kall: "Strange missile, coming at a time like this when no one could have known, not I, not they, that anything would be amiss among us. He has decided; that is just as well. For Wolf I must be and am glad, but in myself I burn that this man still should claim the right to bless or blast what I may do or not."
THERE'S a lot of this, especially when things haven't gone well between him and Julia: "That was the sum of our meeting. Nor did we touch in parting. We spoke for not even five minutes—and what we said was stilted, bitty. I know nothing of what she now thinks or now is. I find myself empty." His reflections on their relationship are generally followed by volleys of silent questions:
"Is she happy? Why does she want to see me again? Why, of all places, did she ask me here? Was it simply what first came to mind after the concert? Surely it could not have been because of Venice."
After this happens a few times, I become nervous whenever the two of them meet. With the quartet, while playing music, Michael is very likable, I trust him as my guide to the book, he seems both sensitive and sensible. With Julia or when he is thinking of her, he's either solemn or anguished or both, and it's very difficult to take his torment seriously because it is expressed in rounded periods or in these strings of questions which make him sound overwrought rather than tormented. The reader is given to understand that he is of a nervous disposition; he fled Vienna as a student after breaking down during a public performance, he swoons again during a concert on his return to that city, he walks out midway through a lunch with Julia and her husband, consumed by jealousy, so it can be argued that his agitation is in character, but he loses his claim to my sympathy by sounding pettish and highly strung and I begin to wish that someone would tune him down a fourth.
The hardest part of the book to read is Part Six where Julia and Michael are together nearly all the time, making love, quarrelling, agonising over their adulterous circumstance, worshipping at musical shrines like Vivaldi's church, moving from vaporetto to palazzo to plaza to art gallery; it reads like a cultural obstacle course and it leaves me exhausted. But even here, the moment Michael joins the Maggiore at rehearsal minus Julia, the reader re-enters the world he had begun to love.
Back in England and bereft of Julia, Michael improves despite himself. There is much musical business again: Piers' violin auction, Michael's brush with violinless-ness when his benefactress dies, his break with the Maggiore.Inspite of his melancholy this is recognisably the Michael I like, the intent musician who alternates between playing with the Maggiore and swimming with the Water Serpents in the rat-pissed and goose-turded Serpentine in the middle of winter just to get away from it all. There is one bad bit left, though; Michael's visit to a prostitute is the worst thing in the book and typically of him in his Julia-bitten mode this is what he thinks: "I pay what she asks, and say goodbye. I am sick at heart, sick to the heart. Has this been me this hour?"
I'm happy to answer that oddly phrased question: no it hasn't been you, at least not the Michael that the readers of this novel like. When I read Anna Karenina I loathed Anna and her lover Vronsky; the only reason to read that book is Levin's story. There are a few novels like that, which tell two reasonably separate stories and readers sometimes love one and hate the other. Vikram Seth's An Equal Music belongs to that list.