The Conductor, by Sarah Quigley (Vintage, 2011), 303 pp., $39.99.
The Conductor, by Sarah Quigley (Vintage, 2011), 303 pp., $39.99.
Sarah Quigley’s fourth novel opens with a small but ominous harbinger. In the spring of 1941, the renowned Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich is informed by his friend, music teacher Ivan Sollertinsky, that two German diplomats have cancelled suit orders with Leningrad’s most reputable tailor. The signal is significant – as the German diplomats are leaving the city and returning to Berlin, it seems that the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 is about to collapse. After it does, in mid-summer 1941, the Germans invade the Soviet Union and lay siege to Leningrad, bringing ghastly privations to the city’s civilian population.
Within this hideous environment Shostakovich (1906-1975) composes his Seventh Symphony, a personal magnum opus which will be broadcast by the Soviet authorities in order to sustain the morale of the population. Shostakovich has for some time had an uneasy relationship with Stalin’s regime, but is tolerated because of his popularity with the people. As Sollertinsky remarks to Shostakovich, after the composer has called him a ‘masterful dissembler’: ‘We both know that dissemblers live longer than dissidents’.
Karl Eliasberg, the unmarried conductor of the below-par Leningrad Radio Orchestra, lives in an apartment with his nagging, petulant mother. He worships Shostakovich, who is everything he is not. Eliasberg is an insecure loner whose own musicians barely tolerate him. Neurotic and a stammerer, he seems incapable of conducting even a Leningrad tramcar. Closer to Shostakovich is violinist Nikolai Nikolayev, a widower and father of a beloved nine-year-old, Sonya, a promising cellist. Another precious possession of the Nikolayev family is Sonya’s cello, a Storioni, which the girl plays during her birthday celebrations, drawing sincere praise from Shostakovich.
The siege intensifies. Leningrad is garrotted by the German Army and blitzed mercilessly by the Luftwaffe. Although most of the city’s leading musicians are evacuated to the Far East of the USSR, Shostakovich stays, digging ditches and fire-watching from the rooftops by day, then working through the night on his symphony. Barely tolerated by Nina, his long-suffering wife, he subsists on bread, vodka and cigarettes.
Dread sets in among Leningrad’s citizens, who know that the bitter winter is looming. The city’s children, including Sonya, are evacuated by train to the countryside. This causes anguish for Nikolai, whose grief becomes unbearable when he hears that the train his young daughter was on has been bombed and derailed by the Germans.
Under the most constrained of circumstances, Shostakovich labours on with his composition, shutting himself away in his room and cutting himself off from the demands of his family. Close to despair, the composer wonders, ‘When would life stop getting in the way of music?’ At the same time, poor Eliasberg tries to cope with his rebellious orchestra as well as the querulous demands of his mother.
While the siege, the bitter winter and starvation beset Leningrad’s inhabitants, the novel’s central characters – Shostakovich, Eliasberg and Nikolayev – confront their various demons. Shostakovich wonders if he can possibly finish his symphony. Even sheet paper on which to write his score is almost unobtainable. Nikolayev grieves for his lost daughter, painfully regretful that he ever sent her away. His sister, Tanya, threatens to barter Sonya’s priceless cello for food. Eliasberg struggles to cope with his disintegrating orchestra, whose oboeist, Alexander, is openly contemptuous of him.
The privations of the people of Leningrad have become so extreme that even the corpses of the dead are stripped for food. The horrors of the siege, the wrecking of innocent bodies and the desperation of people driven to live like foraging animals is vividly evoked. Eliasberg is close to despair: ‘In the long winter weeks that followed, he crawled through the days half-blinded by grief and rage. The frozen city splintered under the German shells, and bodies piled up at the sides of Nevsky Prospect. Stick-thin women stumbled to the Neva and drew water through holes drilled in the ice. Because Elias’s vision was failing, he tried to make sense of the disintegrating world by listening to it. What sounds did he hear? The grating of sled-runners loaded with corpses. Huge explosions as mass burial pits were created with dynamite. The howls of stray dogs and cats, slaughtered by Leningraders desperate for meat’.
When Eliasberg is able to provide a grateful Shostakovich with score paper, the conductor comes closer to his hero. The Soviet authorities then arrange for Shostakovich and his family to be evacuated, taking them far from the conflict so that Dimitri can finish his composition. Completed from afar, the score is flown over the German lines and back into Leningrad. Now it is over to Eliasberg and his pitiful orchestra to rehearse, and eventually perform Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony.
Unexpectedly but heroically, Eliasberg rises to this extreme challenge. Freed from the hungry clutches of his mother, supported by a lovely, wounded ballerina, Nina Bronnikova, he overcomes his self-pity, learns to love and be loved, and becomes resolute in his determination to do justice to the composer he so admires. Shostakovich now being off-stage, Eliasberg moves to the forefront of the narrative and justifies his role in capturing the novel’s title.
With its assured characterisation and trenchant dialogue, and informed by the author’s musical background (Quigley has played cello herself), The Conductor’s narrative begins slowly but gathers movement, momentum and intensity. The sometimes bitchy world of the professional musician provides a chorus to the story. Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky come in for some scathing comments, and even the master, Shostakovich himself, is accused by Eliasberg at one stage of ‘referencing other works’, in the Russian’s case, Ravel. The novel then builds to a tantalising crescendo in which the final movement – the broadcast of the symphony – is delectably anticipated. Eliasberg is on the podium.
‘When he cranes slightly forward, he can see a row of microphones pointed like guns towards the stage, ready to catch the Leningrad Symphony and broadcast it to the world. He takes a deep breath and steps into the blaze of electric light, far brighter than any sun. Sweat leaps on his back, the orchestra rises to its feet, and the audience also stands, a dark gleaming mass of military badges and medals, and pearls.’ Art is about to triumph over war, death and destruction.
There are a few jarring notes in The Conductor. Characters bite their lips, tongues, and roll their eyes, rather too frequently, while the use of the contemporary words ‘recycled’ and ‘inappropriate’ are out of register for scenes occurring in 1942. But these are relatively minor linguistic quibbles.
Originally from Christchurch, the recipient of a Buddle Findlay Sargeson fellowship in 1998 and the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers Residency in 2000, Quigley has lived in Berlin for the past eleven years. This European experience has been put to good use. The Conductor is by any standards a remarkable novel. Works of fiction depicting classical music and musicians are notoriously difficult to transfer to the pages of a novel, yet by credibly transforming Eliasberg from underdog to hero, Quigley succeeds in validating the conductor’s veneration of Shostakovich and at the same time provides the novel with a hearteningly upbeat conclusion. And to fill any imaginative musical vacuums from which the reader may suffer, the novel comes with a CD of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. Ambitious in its conception and stunningly executed, The Conductor is a work of truly international stature.
GRAEME LAY is an Auckland-based reviewer, writer and editor. His recent books include the non-fiction work In Search of Paradise: Artists and Writers in the Colonial South Pacific and the novel Alice & Luigi.
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