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Composing Discord

AN EQUAL MUSIC;\o7 By Vikram Seth; (Broadway Books: 390 pp., $25)\f7

May 30, 1999|JONATHAN LEVI

Here's the challenge: Take one concert hall (Carnegie, say, capacity 2,804), one symphony orchestra (the Cleveland, 100 players, plus or minus, including conductor, say, George Szell). Then dress yourself up in a starched shirt and tails (cummerbund optional), walk out on stage, tuck a million-dollar piece of wood, varnish and aluminum-wound catgut between your chin and collarbone and play one concerto (Beethoven A major, 3 movements, 40 minutes, 8,976 notes, more or less), better than anyone has played it before.

Even sperm has a better chance.

The pressures and pitfalls on the road to solo stardom are so intense for the violinist that a whole body of music, from Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale" to Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" is scored on the belief that winning requires the backing of Satan himself. If you ain't an alpha male, you'd better pop a beta blocker. Solo violinists who suffer breakdowns rarely regain titanic control. Some, like the late Yehudi Menuhin, focus their musicianship and energy on other forms of music making, on education, conducting, world peace.

Some play chamber music.

Michael Holme, the hero of Vikram Seth's annoyingly readable and maddeningly untuned "An Equal Music," is just such a suitable fiddler. The son of a butcher from the British Midlands, Michael, against all odds, wins an Italian violin, a scholarship to study with a great master in Vienna and the love of a beautiful pianist. In the minds of both maestro and mistress, Holme has a great solo career ahead. But pressure to conform to the teacher's program puts a mysterious crimp in Holme's third finger. His trills get slower, then cease altogether. He abandons Vienna, teacher and pianist. The breakdown is complete.

Ten years later, Michael has returned to England and the violin. Recovery has led him to the second violin seat in the Maggiore Quartet and a pleasant, if unenthusiastic, affair with a French student. He owns a soundproof aerie high above Hyde Park. The Maggiore is on the brink of a major record contract. Life is good.

Although, to be honest, Michael isn't entirely content. The eager and willing Virginie is no replacement for the Julia he so brusquely abandoned in Vienna. And who, in their heart of hearts, buys all those homilies about how "second fiddles and violas get all the wonderful inner voices." I mean, c'mon--would you rather be a Vandella, a Pip or an Animal, rather than Martha, Gladys or Eric Burden? The great string quartets of the world, like any other team, rise to fame on their sense of ensemble. But the first violinist is the quarterback, the starting pitcher, the Wallenda who, at the end of the night with all the drums rolling and all the Kliegs shining, gets to perform the quadruple without a net.

Michael, in fact, has a project. By chance, he has discovered that the Beethoven C minor piano trio that he played years before in Vienna with Julia, was reconfigured by the composer in his aging deafness into a string quintet. An obsessive chase leads Michael to an old recording and a determination to convince the Maggiore to take up its performance, perhaps even, with Michael playing first.

So it as if in a dream that, on the way back to his flat, the recording on his lap, Michael spots the long-lost Julia on the upper deck of the No. 94 bus. She has recently moved back to London with a burgeoning solo career of her own. She's still beautiful, still musical, and--sotto voce--still in love with Michael. Only problem is she's married and has a young son. And she's going deaf.

There are a symphony's worth of fine elements to "An Equal Music." The Maggiore's grand quixotic project--to record "The Art of the Fugue," written by Bach for the keyboard--has the tremendous chase potential of any good four-car fugue. And Seth captures the suburban daily lives of classical musicians as well as Arnold Steinhardt did in "Indivisible by Four," his memoir of 20 years leading the Guarneri Quartet. Deafness and performance, first and second violin--all worthy subjects for novels.

But subjects and structure don't help a fugue if it ain't got a tune. And Holme is an unsingable melody. Everything that might have made him a great soloist has created a total boor. An only child, he has become the troubadour of selfishness, making demands of Julia and all around him, never imagining the discord he might be composing in their lives.

Great novels have been fashioned around great artists of monomania--think of the Gauguin of "The Moon and Sixpence" or Charles Foster Kane. But Holme is neither of these. Or at least Seth gives us no reason to believe he might be. He is no more or less talented than any of a hundred violinists in London and is certainly less lovable. Even Vronsky was a better swordsman than his fellows.

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