I'm (re-)reading "An Equal Music" by Vikram Seth and encountered the following paragraph which I do not understand.
For context, the book is written in first person perspective (although that isn't apparent in the quoted portion), the main character (Michael) is a violinist and at this point in the book the love of his life (Julia) has just left Venice to go home to her husband. Michael stays in Venice (since he is on tour with his string quartet).
Here is the passage I'm having trouble with, I marked the specific words and phrases I do not understand in cursive:
A walk at the end of the world, the earthquake plate, alone; the mudflats of subsidence and flood, and the hermitage of the one who found the true cross. Then in the city on the day of the earthquake was born the weak priest whose writings were dispersed, coming through hands and hands to the library of the curved wall. There they lay till ecstasy rose unheard to the crowning angels and the dove. If we were dolphins, what would we play? If we had four hands would Bach's mind have further branched? Let our thumbs be opposable at the opposite edge. Let our teeth be pulled, let us have baleen like whales, that our plankton love might grow, that we might ungnashing plash and play.
There are three points I have trouble with:
- Saint Helena (of Constatinople) is the one who (allegedly) found the true cross, and there is a chapel dedicated to her in the outskirts of Venice (a city plagued by earthquakes), which Michael and Julia have visited. However, who goes on this walk alone? Initially I thought it would be Michael revisiting places they went to together alone but since the next sentence starts with "then", it seems the walk has to precede the birth of the weak priest (1678) while the story is set in the present. Also, I don't understand what the mudflats of subsidence and flood are supposed to be.
For context to the next phrase I'm having trouble with, an explanation of the weak priest: the composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741) was born in Venice, (allegedly) during an earthquake, became a priest and had terrible health. He wrote a piece Michael and Julia played together which is part of a set (now called the Manchester Sonatas) discovered only relatively recently (very recently when the book was written) in the Manchester city library (where Michael has spent time earlier in the book) which, according to Google Images, is a round building (so there is only one outside wall, in the obviously curved shape of a circle).
- Apparently the discovery of the Manchester Sonatas coincided with the rising of ecstasy – I don't have a clue. Neither do I know whether they lay unheard (which is obviously true, since, having been forgotten, they weren't played until their discovery) or whether ecstasy rose unheard (which makes no sense to me but the word order seems to indicate this). Who are the crowning angels? And does the dove symbolise the Holy Spirit? The idea of music being written and played soli deo gloria was common in Vivaldi's time, but in the present music isn't regarded in this way anymore.
- What comes next might seem bizarre but Michael wouldn't be the first to wonder what composers would have composed if circumstances had been different. Though usually the question is what a composer had written if they had been born in a different time (usually later), what would change if humans had had a different physiology is not so farfetched. But what does this have to do with the rest of the paragraph? My best guess is that this wishing for different music for a different human condition somehow relates to him wishing for different circumstances in which he could be with Julia (an important motif in the book is them playing together) but I'm not exactly convinced of this interpretation.