The Concert Ticket, by Olga Grushin, is the most poignant book I’ve read for a long time. This story of loss and desire is set in an unnamed Russian city after what is euphemistically called The Change, when colour and life leached out of the city, and grim repression took its place.
The story begins in Winter, as Anna is making her way home from work. She hears that a queue is forming at one of the city’s kiosks and hastens to join it – in a city of endless shortages, it will be worth queuing for whatever is on sale. The kiosk isn’t open, and no one is quite sure what it’s selling, but the rumour is that there will be tickets for a concert by Selinsky, a famous exiled composer.
In the bitter cold, Anna waits in the queue until it dissipates for the night, and then makes her way home to share the news. Her husband is a tuba player in the state band, forced to play turgid ditties approved by the authorities instead of the music he loves. But it is not only his repertoire that was taken from him by the Change:
He told her about his childhood, about his love for the violin, his parents who had believed in his talent, his teachers who had spoken of his promising future…
‘But you play the tuba now,’ she said.
‘Yes, well, my music school -’ He caught himself deliberating, choosing his words, and felt instantly ashamed of his caution. ‘My parents were paying for the best musical education, but after the Change, the State enforced open admission to my school. ‘Bringing Art to the Masses,’ they called it. Of course, most of the newly enrolled were not interested in music. And those of us who were considered privileged were expelled or, if we were lucky, assigned to instruments regarded as sufficiently revolutionary. I was among the lucky ones, I got the tuba. My best friend got the drums. He could have been a true virtuoso. A pianist.’ (p152)
Imagine that … imagine having your music taken away …
But Sergei is not the only one who longs passionately to hear Selinsky’s music. Anna’s mother asks to have the one ticket that the unwritten rules of queueing allow them. Anna’s mother has retreated from life, and hasn’t spoken in years.
She had fallen silent by degrees, small increments of shared joys and sorrows bleeding out through invisible cuts. By the time Anna had finished school, her mother often had what Anna thought of as quiet days, until there was a quiet week, and then – then silence, soft and comforting at first, a wise, forgiving presence presiding over the household, it seemed to Anna, then a hardening into a crust of ice with the passing of years. But she had talked when Anna was young, not much, hardly ever about the past, yet enough for Anna to reconstruct her life’s simple geography. As a child she had studied dancing abroad, in a dazzling city of light at the heart of the cultured world, to which she returned much later with a touring ballet troupe, and where she gained fame, and stayed, and lived for years, a celebrated dancer in a legendary company, until she met a man from her native city, almost two decades her senior , and having married him, departed with him on a brief visit to his family; and her daughter was born, and her husband died, and the revolution happened, and she never went back. (p129)
Heartrending, isn’t it? And so exquisitely written…
Anna, her husband and her son take it turns to take their place in the queue, each with competing desires unknown to the other. Alexander, a sulky adolescent, wants the ticket so that he can re-sell it at a profit and escape to freedom. Sergei’s longing for the ticket meshes with his desire for an affair to liven up his dull marriage and his dull life. And Anna, who at first wants the ticket because it’s the only thing her mother has asked for in decades, comes to want it for Sergei, to bring him back to her.
The story is written in four seasons. The queue – sustained by hope, patience and rumour – traverses winter, spring, summer and autumn. It is based on an actual event, Stravinsky’s return to the Soviet Union after decades of self-imposed exile. The year-long queue actually happened: it was formed when rumours began to circulate that Stravinsky had been invited to return.
Highly recommended. Thank you to Tom at A Common Reader for bringing it to my attention with his most enticing review.