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.
  • 1
    Thanks for this question. A Beautiful Music is a superb novel, and Seth a marvelous stylist. Good to have it represented on this site. – verbose Dec 11 '20 at 10:24

Michael is revisiting in his memory, and perhaps in actuality, the places in Venice that he and Julia have visited together, and imagining an alternative course for their failed relationship.

During their time in the city, Michael and Julia have stayed at an apartment near the church of Sant'Elena and have taken walks in that neighborhood as well as in other parts of Venice. The mudflats of subsidence and flood are the lagoons on which Venice is built, and into which it is slowly sinking, making floods a common occurrence—including right meow.

After wandering the city their first evening, they visit Vivaldi's church, the Pietà, on their second day. By coincidence, a local ensemble happens to have a concert scheduled in the church that evening, so there's a piano set up. Michael has his violin, so he and Julia play the Largo of Vivaldi's first Manchester sonata together. The then in the passage you quote reflects this temporality as Michael remembers and/or recreates the time he and Julia have spent together: first, the walk by the lagoons and canals; then the visit to the Pietà.

During their visit, Michael notes the ceiling of the church:

High above us on the great ceiling is a cartouche of space and light, edged with angels and musicians, at its heart a glorious effusion of pale blue, rosy ochre, and white. The Father, the Son, and the dove-embodied Holy Spirit are crowning the Virgin.

He's now remembering the Vivaldi sonatas' long journey to the Manchester Central Library where they lay for many years, and then how he and Julia played the largo in the Pietà, where the music floats up to this ceiling. During their visit, Michael has described his and Julia's music-making as "rapture", hence ecstasy rose unheard to the crowning angels and the dove. The ecstasy is unheard for many reasons. First, Julia and Michael were alone in the church when they played; there was no audience. Second, the angels and the dove on the ceiling are obviously unable to hear the music, not being sentient. Third, the music is unheard because the chief plot point of An Equal Music is that:

Julia is deaf.

This might impede a musician somewhat. Michael indulges in counterfactuals about what music would be like if other, equally critical attributes for musicians were different: if we, like dolphins, had flippers, playing piano or violin would be out of the question. If we had four arms, perhaps Bach's music, with its intricate counterpoint, would be even more intricate. If our thumbs were differently jointed, we'd hold a violin (or viola, or 'cello, or double bass) bow rather differently.

The part about having baleen, not teeth, is another counterfactual about what links Michael and Julia. Their music-making and lovemaking are entangled, so thinking about alternative means of music-making leads naturally to Michael's remembering their last lovemaking, the day after their visit to the church. He has bitten her rather hard on the shoulder, leaving bruises. Julia is worried about how to explain away the bruises to her husband. Michael speculates that with baleen, he would not be able to bite Julia. Baleen would also make impossible gnashing of teeth, a Biblical metaphor for the struggle, anger, and lamentation that mark Julia and Michael's adulterous relationship.

The plankton love might grow is an allusion to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”:

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.

That is, Instead of a curtailed and failed relationship, Michael and Julia could have a flourishing and long-lived one. The irony, of course, is that as in Marvell’s poem, all these counterfactuals Michael imagines just drive home the fact that Julia is a very reluctant partner to him in both music and love.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.