Ronald Blythe is sorry when a finale by Vikram Seth is over
THE WHITE CAT and I have one thing in common: we are immediate wakers. None
of that dozy inbetween business for us: we are either dead to the world or
suddenly alive in it. Who are we when we sleep?
I watch David Beckham sleeping in the National Portrait Gallery, and the
commuting girl on the train. How vulnerable they are! I imagine Himmler asleep,
his rimless glasses on the bedside table, tomorrow’s orders by their side. I
creep in to kiss the sleeping child goodnight.
But now it is dark morning and black trees, and the cat ordering breakfast
pronto. And a page on my desk saying, "To be continued." I tell the cat: "It is
vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows, for
so he giveth his beloved sleep." And what a gift! But all she hears is the word
A nice slow light heralds Christ the King. Pius XI inaugurated this now
popular observance for the last Sunday in October in 1925, perhaps after
reading in Revelation, "The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of
our Lord and of his Christ." An old Cowley Father once told me: "When I was
young, it was all Christ the King, but now it is all Christ the Servant, and I
have to get used to it." This was before the hymn obligingly healed the rift.
The new morning is not unlike my and the cat’s swift awakenings, inky one
minute, clear as daylight the next. Having gobbled up the bread of sorrows, aka
Whiskas, she returns to oblivion, and I tap out a sentence or two, just to show
Radio 3 is playing something by Beethoven’s father, Johann. I think of the
little Elector listening to it as he plays tric-trac with his ladies. Johann,
they said, taught his son nothing but music, and that quite savagely in order
to make him a wage-earner at six. The burgomaster, passing the house, glimpsed
the tiny Ludwig, or Louis as they called him then, standing in front of the
clavier and weeping.
Having just come to the last page of Vikram Seth’s marvellous novel
An Equal Music, I, too, could weep. No more chapters, no more words:
just the back cover, just the now redundant bookmark. All done. My sister said
that she read it through a second time, not able to leave these lovers and
their quartet, their London and Rochdale and Venice. But I must have a space in
my head for them to play Bach in for a long time to come.
I haven’t been so overwhelmed by a novel about musicians since, in my teens,
I read Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest. Vikram Seth took his
title from John Donne’s prayer — the one I always say at village funerals: "And
into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where
there shall be no cloud nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light,
no noise nor silence, but one equal music, no fears nor hopes, but one equal
possession, no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and identity, no ends
nor beginnings, but one equal eternity."
I clear the breakfast things, and shake the cloth over the sodden grass.
After a cautious five minutes, two wrens appear, small and trembling. Perfect
creatures. They eat in a kind of terror. A speck of apple, a toast crumb, then
a wary flight to a furry leaf, and this over and over again. The weather
contradicts the forecast, and is damp and moody. Radio 3 plays on, but, like
the Elector, I am often not hearing it, this equal music, and am ashamed. I am
thinking what to say about King Jesus — and should I plant more bulbs?