"He created the first make-believe composer who did not make real composers wince," said Ned Rorem of Thomas Mann, referring to Adrian Leverkhn in Mann's Schoenbergian roman ࠣlef Doctor Faustus. Rorem later reconsidered even this mild praise: "When non-practitioners (even Huxley or Mann or Proust) write about music, musicians (even second-raters) twitch." So it's no small achievement that Vikram Seth's An Equal Music rings so true in its account of the classical-music biz, as a young English ensemble, the Maggiore Quartet, prepares for concerts in London, Vienna, and Venice; rehearses and bickers; pursues a recording contract; hunts for new instruments; and endures agents, promoters, and (most frustratingly) critics. An Equal Music
by Vikram Seth (Broadway, $25) But this is all a lovingly detailed and rendered stage set for the central plot, second violinist Michael Holme's consuming love for Julia Hansen. She's a pianist who re-crosses his path after an intense graduate-school affair and a decade of bitter separation; when she does, Michael's personal and professional crises tangle painfully. Both of Seth's previous novels also deal with the bittersweet vagaries of love, and both include musical references, particularly to his beloved Viennese classicists. The Golden Gate (1986) is a tour de force that explores, entirely in strict tetrametric sonnets ࠬa Eugene Onegin, the lives of urban professionals in the Bay Area circa 1980. A Suitable Boy (1993) is a richly satisfying 1,350-page miniseries of a novel set in post-partition India. Another virtuoso display, Seth here conjured several dozen memorable characters and as many absorbing storylines. An Equal Music is on a smaller scale (a mere 381 pages), but Seth weaves the plot-threads with a similar effortless deftness. Appropriately, one of the musical works that plays a major role in the plot, along with Schubert's "Trout" Quintet and Beethoven's C-minor piano trio, is Bach's Art of Fugue. Seth's smallish output (he's also written travel memoirs, books of original poems and translations, and opera libretti, one or two of each) indicates a painstaking, tortured-artist approach to writing, but the novels themselves have a gently direct and casual tone that suggests that for him the summum bonum of art-making is an exercise of craft in the service of readerly pleasure. It's the legacy of the Viennese classicists, again—Haydn, Mozart, Schubert. Trollope, maybe, is his closest ancestor in the literary canon. The author, of course, ought to share in this pleasure, so Seth relishes setting himself formal challenges—those sonnets, or A Suitable Boy's daunting scope and complex family trees—much as these composers adopted proscribed forms like the fugue or the theme-and-variations. An Equal Music didn't have to be set in the first person, the story unfolding all from Holme's point of view, but you get the impression that Seth did so partly for the thrill of the endeavor. (In a more arcane example, chapter 6.13 is composed entirely of one-syllable words; there are doubtless other such Oulipo-esque feats scattered throughout the book that I didn't catch.) The greatest challenge, though, is to capture in prose such a verbally intractable subject as music. Seth does bring his musician characters to life, without evoking a single wince or twitch. He sprinkles in a little insider talk ("Why don't you just go up the C-string?" "It's too woofy"), which un-initiates should be able to pass over painlessly, and provides a marvelous fly-on-the-wall profile of how working performers relate to the music they struggle with. Ideally, the novel would come with a CD, to listen along as you read (somebody in Marketing's asleep at the wheel). But An Equal Music is more than just accurate reportage. Seth in a way shares his lead character's experience here, which deepens and darkens the book's lyricism: putting music into words is a hopeless quest, but impossible to abandon, just like Michael's doomed pursuit of Julia.