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Books Without Borders

An Equal Music
by Vikram Seth
(Broadway Books, 381 pp., $25)

The poet Ronsard once began a poem by saying that in sixteenth-century France writers were running about in their abundance like ants. Not all of them, he hastened to add, were any good. On March 22, the Delhi magazine Outlook said the same of teeming India. Indian writers in English are making waves abroad, "with premier publishers and serious money chasing them on both sides of the Atlantic," and with "all kinds" of subcontinentals "belting out novels," sending in to publishing houses long works in longhand, and inquiring about large advances and a possible nomination for the Booker Prize. A vast hive of activity. Eat your heart out, Ronsard.

The magazine carried a piece by Pankaj Mishra that corroborates this account by supplying evidence of the excitements and tensions predictable in the situation that it evokes. Hailed in the British press as "the worst review ever in an Indian magazine"--meaning the most devastating--Mishra's piece is an attack on Salman Rushdie and his new novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet. And, whether by accident or by design, Vikram Seth's new novel has appeared at the same time, and has been placed in the ring with Rushdie's book by newspapers hoping for a grudge contest.

Mishra thinks that Rushdie's novel is a kind of anti-literature. An editorial banner over his article describes the novel as a "descent into literary dementia." Rushdie's fictions are seen by Mishra as prone to authorial homily, and his ascendance among Indian writers in English is thought to have led to a blithe liberation "from such considerations as economy, structure, suspense, irony, plausibility of events, coherence of character, psychological motivation, narrative transitions--in short, everything that makes the novel an art form." Rushdie's new novel rounds off what he has always been doing: "story, characters, drama [have] come to resemble aborted sublimations of the storyteller's obsessions, his prejudices and biases." Rushdie has gone West, Mishra explains. He is "the colonial child who has had to re-invent himself for the West." He is also said to have set off in pursuit of the non-English practices of Grass and Garcea Marquez, having declined what some might regard as the classical English novel form, based on character and plot.

At the end of Mishra's article comes the information that his own novel, The Romantics, has been sold around the world for half a million dollars. This information speaks of a robust internationalism, of a literary world in which India, Britain, America, Latin America, and Europe are mutually responsive. And it joins with the spite communicated by the article in presenting Mishra as a rival, fresh to the field, a challenger out to put down the resident master. Omissions and distortions were therefore to be expected of the piece. The novel as soliloquy, as autobiography, need not be spurious, need not be a recipe for transience; but Mishra implies the opposite, and can scarcely bear to mention either the power and invention of Rushdie's language or the charm of the internal stories-complete with character and plot-that proliferate in the books he writes.

Contemporary Indian and Anglo-Indian writing, moreover, can hardly be reduced to a stand-off between soliloquy and structure. The new Indian writers in English display a variety of approach that testifies to their vitality and to the value of their achievement. Neither Amit Chaudhuri nor Ardashir Vakil are acolytes of Rushdie; nor do they diverge from him in the same direction. They are no closer to him than they are to the old master Narayan, from whom no writer could be more different, stylistically, than the newcomer Arundhati Roy.

For all its simplifications, however, Mishra's piece has the merit of raising issues which are often ignored, certainly in Britain, where Rushdie is a household name, and where he was already casting spells before his wizardry fell afoul of Muslim fanaticism. And the issues that it raises are also relevant to the writings of Vikram Seth, which are far from deficient in plot, structure, and character. The endings that monologue, and fictional autobiography in most of its many forms, may necessarily have to postpone are reached in Seth.

Seth's works come in different shapes and sizes, but they share a distinctive lightness of touch. They sail to the same Sethian breezes. His long poem The Golden Gate appeared in 1986, five years after Midnight's Children. It is an emulation of Pushkin and Byron, and could be called a romantic but not a confessional work. A Regency gaiety and mockery were applied to a sexual-revolutionary singles' San Francisco, where his teacher of the time, Donald Davie, at Stanford, is said to have frowned on the result. Davie is not the only senior English poet to have felt that Seth's verse, or some of it, wouldn't do. But then The Golden Gate is designed to be disapproved of by seniors, and it has given great pleasure. Seth is a festive writer, with an unexpired boyish innocence, and lots of allegro in what he gets up to. Not everyone likes that sort of thing.

Seven years after this long poem came a really long novel whose title played on the idea of acceptability. A Suitable Boy is as fast as it is large: over a thousand pages of buoyancy and dynastic chronicle, and of information about Indian life. This lucid, graceful, Gangetically copious book has also been disapproved of by one or two senior figures, and greatly enjoyed elsewhere. Admirers have spoken of the novel as Austenian, because of such features, presumably, as its concern with the mating of a sprightly girl in the neighborhood of the "cad" Maan: but it is closer to Murasaki's eleventh-century Tale of Genji than it is to Pride and Prejudice.

Scope, speed, and a lyrical simplicity do nothing to inhibit portraiture, as the nonchalance of two sentences about Maan might indicate: "A later flame, however brightly it burned, did not douse an earlier one in Maan's heart. He continued to feel sudden throbs of warmth and goodwill at the thought of almost any of them." There is an echo there of the Regency language and sentiment to which Seth can seem drawn. Another sentence forecasts the double plot of his next novel, the present one. A lachrymose widow is moved by a Hindi film, which proves very sad: "the songs were sad too, and it was not clear whether it was the piteous fate of the blind singer or the tenderness of the love story that had most affected her."

Seth is one of the Indian writers who have gone West. He attended an English public school, as did Rushdie, and they have both in their time been taken, or mistaken, for an exotic species of English public schoolboy. He currently inhabits both Delhi and London. All this shows in the shape of the seamless versatility that registers at all levels of his work. There are no Indians in An Equal Music, and it has as its first-person narrator an emotional man, Michael Holme, from Rochdale in unemotional Lancashire, who plays the violin in an aspiring string quartet, the Maggiore.

Early in the novel, Holme is in bed with one of his pupils, Virginie from France, who is forbidden to bite his shoulder--"it'll end very badly"--and who bites his shoulder. The exchange might seem boring, in extraction, but it isn't boring at all, and it isn't inauthentic. Her Englishman then plays the mad dog by choosing to go off and swim in Hyde Park's daunting pool, the Serpentine, which drains subterraneanly into the Thames. Not every Londoner knows that, but Seth does, just as he knows that London buses bound for the same destination travel bunched up in caravans, as if across the Sahara desert, so that the citizens have to wait for hours for the one they want. Michael accuses Virginie of "ODing on your English idioms." This is not something that Michael does. He calls his mother Mum in ways that seem right, and it is no less English than Indian of him to tell his agent that "mum's the word." There is more to this than knowingness, or ventriloquism.

Several years before the love-bite, Michael had had an affair with a pianist named Julia when they were students in Vienna, and had broken it off, for reasons that involved the strains of his relationship with his professor, a masterclass depressive bully. Julia now turns up in London, glimpsed on a bus and confronted at one of his concerts. The pair had seemingly lost touch since Vienna--mysteriously, since London's classical music community is large and complex but hardly a haystack. The affair is resumed. But Michael has discovered that she is married, and has a child, and he is soon to discover that she is going deaf. Michael tells a member of the quartet, with which she is due to perform, about her deafness. He tells Julia that "a question of trust" required him to do this: "I couldn't look at him and keep lying." She replies: "What do you think I have to do at home about you?"

Vikram Seth has sometimes resembled the daring young man on the flying trapeze whose falls are predicted and pronounced, and in certain quarters this new novel has been pronounced a fall. A likeness to Erich Segal's Love Story has been detected. There may also be those who will think that the book is touristic for going on about its visits to interesting foreign cities, for pondering in Venice, as many visitors have done, Carpaccio's Saint George and the Dragon. Michael's quartet has been blamed for ignoring the modern repertoire in favor of Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven; a modern work, a modern din, overheard by the narrator, is felt by him to profane Vivaldi's Venetian church. For those who think that there is a competition between Rushdie and Seth, and that the young may be on Rushdie's side, the rock music in The Ground Beneath Her Feet might be deemed morally superior to the classical music element in An Equal Music; but I don't believe that Seth's attachment to traditional form, in this respect and in others, is a grave objection to his book.

Indeed, it can be argued that it serves the book well. The good news about An Equal Music is that it possesses more than one of the "classical" properties that Mishra opposed to the novel of soliloquy. It has structure, suspense, plausibility (the protagonist's musical colleagues are entirely convincing), and it could be considered richer in these properties than romances usually are. But is it a romance? In any negative sense, only intermittently. The first-person narrative is neither wishful nor self-indulgent. It is less dependent than readers might anticipate on the pathos of Julia's deafness, and the loving fax to her Bostonian banker husband, lit upon by Michael, owes more of its impact to realism than to romance. A wide readership may once more enjoy what some critics and colleagues have failed to enjoy. Here as before, Seth is both aerial and musical--Aeolian, you might say, in the language of the Romantic period. The music in the book is more than subject-matter: there are moments when it is possible to imagine it set to music, or versified in the manner of Pushkin.

I have been writing as a British reviewer, in an American journal, about an Indian writer writing in English about the English. Such activities have their place in a long history of cross-cultural influence and affinity, and they are not about to come to an end. Nor are they about to win over the world's cleansers, anxious to keep people out and other people in, to keep them from going west, or east, or wherever they wish to go.

This article originally ran in the July 12, 1999, issue of the magazine.