[BOOK REVIEW]Separate spirits, shared sublimity

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[BOOK REVIEW]Separate spirits, shared sublimity

We all do many things in cooperation with others. But can we imagine what it is like to play in a string quartet? Vikram Seth takes us there in this 1999 novel. "The audiences who listen to us cannot imagine how earnest, how petulant, how accommodating, how willful is our quest for something beyond ourselves that we imagine with our separate spirits but are compelled to embody together. Where is the harmony of spirit in all this, let alone sublimity? How are such mechanics, such stops and starts, such facile irreverence, transmuted, in spite of our bickering selves, into musical gold?"

There are six individual relationships in a string quartet, and since each of the players is usually partnered, spouses and lovers be-come part of the tangle that must be managed. Vacations, childbearing are group decisions. And heaven help the quartet if one member suddenly decides to give it all up. Three other livelihoods are put at risk.

These complications are brought to life in "An Equal Music." Vikram Seth was born in Calcutta, but his novel is at home in London, Vienna, Venice and the dying north English town of Rochdale. There are several love stories ?Michael and Julia, Michael and his violin, Michael and his quartet, Michael and his hometown, and of course, Michael and music. All mix moments of transcendent joy with unbearable pain. The characters and situations are believable, the writing beautiful, the insights into the musical life fascinating.

Some who have read it say there is too much technical musical stuff that got boring. There is a lot of shop talk; for me it was one of the book's pleasures. I suppose a musical background would enhance the reader's enjoyment. But I can hardly distinguish a sonata from a concerto, and I think it's a terrific book. Best of all, a CD has all the quartet's music. I've got to track down that CD.

by Hal Piper

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