The Ground Beneath Her Feet. By Salman Rushdie. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999. ISBN 0-8050-5308-5 (cloth), $27.50.
An Equal Music. By Vikram Seth. Toronto: McArthur and Company, 1999.ISBN 1-55278-047-3 (cloth), $26.95.
Musicians and music-lovers through the ages have found the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice compelling. The parable of love lost and almost restored by the power of music’s irresistible rhetoric is practically an article of faith for those who want to believe music can express more than mere words. In it, Eurydice dies of a snake bite on her wedding day. Orpheus, the greatest musician in the world, refuses to accept her death and descends to the underworld, where he sings so persuasively that Hades allows him to take back his bride, only to lose her again (in most versions of the tale) because of lingering doubt and weakness. The story articulates the anguish of heartbreak and the agonies of accepting loss; it is not difficult to understand how this tale can have resonated through the centuries with anyone who has ever so much as contemplated a desperate bid to revive a dead romance.
This year, two of India’s preeminent writers of English language fiction have produced novels based on the legend. Both Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth were well-respected authors long before the meteoric rise of Arundhati Roy, whose phenomenal 1997 success with The God of Small Things sparked an unprecedented interest in Indian literature for readers world-wide. Seth is best-known for his A Suitable Boy and Rushdie for novels including Midnight’s Children, The Moor’s Last Sigh, and the infamous, fatwah-inducing Satanic Verses. New works by these authors are eagerly awaited, so for aficionados of South Asian literature, 1999 is a banner year in yielding a novel by each. The fact that both have addressed the same theme makes their contributions all the more rewarding when read side by side–it is a rare treat to be able to consider two such different philosophies on the death of love.
Despite the coincidence of their commonalities, The Ground Beneath Her Feet and An Equal Music are strikingly dissimilar novels: Rushdie’s always extraordinary language and inventive narrative structure set the reader spinning through a fantastic world of impossible personalities and magical realism, while Seth’s careful attention to detail and character draws one into the mundane reality of a narrow existence. Both novels are written in a first person narrative from the point of view of a lonely and sensitive man; Seth’s Michael Holmes plays the central role of Orpheus to Julia McNicholl/Eurydice in his ill-fated romance, while Rushdie’s Umeed Merchant (“Rai”) glides in and out of the main action in his account of the grand passion of Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara. Rushdie’s characters are Bombay-ites, by birth or by persuasion, whereas the people in Seth’s novel are all English. The most important distinction for my purposes, though, concerns the function of music in the two love stories and the kinds of music that govern emotions and events.
Seth’s An Equal Music is set, for the most part, in London and chronicles the story of Michael Holmes, a no-longer young classical musician resigning himself to an unsatisfying existence. Michael is second violinist in a slightly-better-than-average string quartet, where he still feels like an interloper for having replaced one of the founding members six years earlier; he teaches mediocre students uninspiringly, feels guilty about his non-relationship with his father, is bored of his girlfriend, worries listlessly about how he will cope when the legal owner of his precious Tononi violin dies and the instrument is sold at auction for more than he can hope to pay, and pines for his lost love Julia, a pianist he has not seen or heard from since their days as music students in Vienna a decade ago. A series of random events brings Julia back into his life and Michael summons all his energy in an effort to resurrect their relationship and come alive once more. But Julia is married now, a mother, and she carries a secret burden that seems to preclude the possibility of a love affair based on music-making. Nevertheless the two struggle awkwardly to find a new way of loving one another and communicating through music, even bringing Julia into Michael’s group for a performance of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, but their efforts inevitably fail when Michael presses Julia to give more than she is able.
The great strength of Seth’s book is the way he succeeds in conjuring up particular spaces through aural cues; rather than describe locations with reference to their appearance, the author manages to give a sense of what places sound like. Thus Michael’s home town of Rochdale is represented by a lark’s song, his Bayswater flat by its surprising silence, London parks by pigeons “cooing fatly,” and Venice by the music of Vivaldi, played by Julia and Michael in the composer’s church. Music is more than a professional interest for the actors in this story; they make sense of their surroundings through sound and music. This sonic relationship with the world is constructed convincingly. Seth also succeeds admirably in representing the fragile and delicate relations of a chamber music ensemble, whose members are often as antagonistic as they are empathetic:
A strange composite being we are, not ourselves any more but the [quartet],composed of so many disjunct parts: chairs, stands, music, bows, instruments, musicians-sitting, standing, shifting, sounding–all to produce these complex vibrations that jog the inner ear, and through them the grey mass that says: joy; love; sorrow; beauty.
His painstakingly accurate attention to musical detail can become tiresome, though; accounts of quartet rehearsals would be just as effective without lengthy descriptions of tuning and scale-playing. Seth is obviously well-informed about classical music and the experiences of musicians, and does not need to prove it on every page.
The musical relationship of Vina Apsara and Ormus Cama in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, on the other hand, is presented to readers only in searing descriptions of their hit songs, and we never enter into the day-to-day world of their rehearsals or the processes of songwriting. The dizzying scope of this plot defies summary, and describes a universe that is both like and unlike our own. The ground shifts constantly; both literally, for the characters, and metaphorically, for the reader, when facts become fiction and strange fictions are fact. In this world, John F. Kennedy served two terms in the White House, while Indira, Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi were a powerful dynasty in Indian politics until a triple assassination in the mid-nineties. “Heartbreak Hotel” was recorded by Jesse Aaron Parker, and Carly Simon and Guinevere Garfunkel were an influential, pensive folk duo in the seventies. The most important rock group of all time is the duo VTO (is Rushdie aware of Bachman Turner Overdrive?), comprised of guitarist and songwriter Ormus Cama and his inamorata, singer Vina Apsara, their songs “Tar Baby” and “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” are emblazoned on our collective memories for all time.
The novel begins with the dramatic vanishing of Vina Apsara, swallowed in one of the earthquakes that have become increasingly common in Rushdie’s fictitious world, where not even the solidity of the earth can be trusted. Vina’s death takes place on Valentine’s Day, 1989, the date on which, in real life, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the righteous assassination of Salman Rushdie following the publication of his Satanic Verses. This wry nod to his own disappearance underground sets the tone for what is surely Rushdie’s most playful and light-hearted novel, in which the themes of exile and loss are examined almost affectionately. Rushdie’s belief in rock’n’roll as a means of articulating and exploring emotion, one which offers the possibility of reconciliation with the terrible uncertainties of life, is doubtless affected by his friendship with titanic rock group U2. (The group’s next release–originally planned to coincide with the publication of Rushdie’s book–will apparently feature songs based on the novel.) Although Rushdie’s novel does not demonstrate the same kind of factual knowledge of music that is evident in Seth’s book, his intimate connection to music allows him to offer a moving account of how lives can be saved by rock’n’roll, writing of Ormus and Vina that
They have both been damaged, are both repairers of damage. Later, entering that world of ruined selves, music’s world, they will already have learned that such damage is the normal condition of life, as is the closeness of the crumbling edge, as is the fissured ground.
The story of Vina, Ormus, narrator and sometimes lover Rai, and their variously disfigured friends and relations moves freely between Bombay, England, New York, and Mexico, interweaving past and present, fact and fantasy, in a profound and often hilarious discussion of the cracks in all our realities. In this tale as in Seth’s, Orpheus loses Eurydice but is able to bear her loss, as well her constant reappearances in other faces and other voices, because of music’s sustaining power. Michael Holmes and Vina’s lovers alike accept, in the conclusions of these two novels, that love can die (though not the memory of love), and they turn to music for solace and strength in the face of the uncertain future. Because in love, as in life, we can never go back, only forward. But as these two novelists know, our ruined, misshapen selves can seem whole (or at least sufficient) when we immerse them in music.
University of California, Los Angeles