Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 27, 2012

The Conductor (2011), by Sarah Quigley

The Conductor

My interest in Sarah Quigley’s fourth novel, The Conductor, was piqued when I read its description amongst the titles listed in the IMPAC longlist.  It’s the story of how the 7th ‘Leningrad’ Symphony came to be composed by Shostakovich and then broadcast on August 9th 1942 by a raggle-taggle orchestra during the 900-day Siege of Leningrad in the Second World War.

It’s well-written historical fiction, shedding light on the interior lives of three main historical figures: composer Dmitri Shostakovich; the conductor of the Radio Orchestra Karl Eliasberg; and the musician Nikolai Nikolayev.  The story begins with the rumours that Hitler might be about to renege on the pact he had with Stalin, when life among the cultural elite is a mélange of backstabbing jealousies and gossip and Eliasberg is only on the fringes because a radio orchestra is not in the same league as the Philharmonic led by the great Mravinsky.

With the outbreak of war civilians are enlisted to erect defensive measures and there is the rush to enlist.  The Philharmonic is evacuated to  Siberia while Shostakovich takes up fire-watching duties by night while trying to compose by day.  Quigley’s portrait of a creative, driven soul trying to find solitude to in order to compose is heart-wrenching; he is always torn between the urgent need to record the scraps of music in his brain and the need to be there for his family.  He has two irrepressible children and a long-suffering irritable wife and his position as an eminent musician means that unlike most citizens of the city, when conditions deteriorate further, he is offered evacuation.  He has to choose between loyalty to his city, serving it both creative and practical ways, and loyalty to his family and his obligation to protect them.

Nikolayev and Eliasberg, on the other hand, are emotional cripples.  Nikolayev fears love, because his wife died when giving birth to their only child, Sonya.  He leads a quiet, self-absorbed life, encouraging the precocious Sonya with her cello and devastated when the order comes for the children to be evacuated.  Eliasberg lives with his irascible elderly mother, unable to form relationships partly because he has to care for her, and partly because – despite his second-rate status in the musical elite, he has given his heart to Shostakovich and his music.

This is a character-driven novel with the siege as background.  There are allusions to various landmarks in St Petersburg such as St Isaac’s Cathedral and the monument to Peter the Great, and there is mention of the canals and waterways and the bleak weather.  The novel realises the privations and misery of this appalling siege, but there is less sense of the Soviet State other than allusions to Stalin’s purges of the competent generals and his impact on Shostakovich’s career.   While the focus of the novel is on music not politics, it seems to me that the author has understood what it is like to live in a besieged city, but hasn’t quite made the imaginative leap into the domestic detail of life under communism.  From novels such as Doctor Zhivago (see my review) and The New Moscow Philosophy (see my review) I have gained a sense of what it was like to be crammed into sub-divided palaces and mansions with little space, no privacy and having to share communal facilities, and this is what is missing from The Conductor.

Even though these main characters were the cultural elite, they seem to have surprising privileges.  Nikolai, for example, lives alone which seems unlikely in a city full of homeless people under bombardment.  When eventually he does take a billet, it is only his sister-in-law who arrives, and there is no mention of arrangements for her cousin, her cousin’s husband and her cousin’s father-in-law, also homeless after their house was bombed.  Other snippets jarred too: there is a Krug-and-caviar birthday party before the war.  Someone sneers at ‘peasant’s food’ and the man at the Musicians Union is deferential to Shostakovich, calling him ‘Sir’ (not Comrade).

But these quibbles aside, The Conductor is a compelling book about a little known incident in what Russians call The Great Patriotic War.  The experience is enriched by listening to the symphony as you read.

Other reviews:
Bella Bathurst at The Guardian; Beattie’s Book Blog thinks it’s the finest novel since Mr Pip.

Author: Sarah Quigley
Title: The Conductor
Publisher: Random House New Zealand, 2011
ISBN: 9781869795061
Source: Stonnington Library via Inter-Library Loan


Fishpond: The Conductor


  1. “The Conductor” sounds fascinating with the background of the seige of Leningrad. I see the book was published in New Zealand – is the author from New Zealand?


    • HI, Tony, greetings of the season:)
      Yes, she was born there, though since 2000 she’s lived in Berlin – an hour’s flight from St Petersburg which would make the research easier!


  2. My knowledge of Shostakovich is very general – and it sounds like this novel would be an enjoyable way of getting a sense of his life (despite your quibbles). I guess being longlisted for the IMPAC suggests, as you do, that it’s worth a read, but I think my knowledge at this stage will just have to be what I’ve gleaned from you!


  3. Hi Sue, I think you’d enjoy it. There’s not really much about Shostakovich’s life, just this brief part of it, but the insight into the creative process is interesting and the part where the radio orchestra comes back together for the performance is really poignant. The musicians were (like everyone else) starving, and they could barely get breath to blow their instruments. The book is an homage to their indefatigable spirit – I find it’s always inspiring to read books like this.


  4. I’m almost embarrassed to say that I haven’t read anything about Russia during WWII. This sounds like a great place to start. Thanks for the review, Lisa.


    • But Debbie, it was such an all-encompassing war: none of us could have read about everywhere! I knew nothing much about Russia till I decided to visit it this year and I’ve never read anything about Finland (which ganged up with the Nazis to encircle Leningrad, how weird is that?) or any of the Asian countries that were (a) sending their men to fight with the Commonwealth or (b) occupied by Japan. There’s always more, more, more to discover!


  5. Another superb review, Lisa.


    • Thanks for dropping by, Ken:)


  6. Thanks for this complete review! The book is going to be released in France in September and I remembered having read something about this author here. I am afraid that the little details you underline concerning the life under communism should bothered me because I’ve read quite a lot of books (mainly non fictions) about this era.

    (the email adress I entered is false because I’ve got problems with WordPress; I don’t know why but it is annoying).


    • Hello Flo, and welcome:)
      Since writing this review I have visited the War Memorial in St Petersburg where the Leningrad Symphony plays as a background to the sombre atmosphere. So many thousands of people died in this siege, and now that I have learned more about it, this book seems even more poignant. I hope you will give it a try.


      • Thank you Lisa!
        I understand that your visit should have been quite an experience. I am willing to give it a try but will wait that my library purchase it, even if its NZ section is a mess (from France, outside the rugby field, NZ & Australia is a unique country or something like that).


        • *chuckle* Ah well, if you went to my library you wouldn’t find much from France either. Some old classics, maybe, and perhaps Houcellebeq (?sp) but not much else…
          But we must be grateful that we have libraries. In the UK and USA they have been shutting them down to save taxpayers money…


          • Oh I’m shocked! I have always thought France was the center of the universe ;) Seriously, I read very little French fiction so your library will be ok for me (I don’t read French classics – bad memories from school – and I have never been interested in Houellebecq who seems to be largely translated – it’s always a surprise for me since I am not sure his novels are the most understandable).

            I agree with you on the libraries, even more that mine has books in foreign languages, and if books in French are quite affordable, mainly thanks to the law, books in English are awfully expensive and translations are more and more bad (but it’s another problem).


            • I like reading books from all over the world, but I like a good Aussie novel best of all :)


  7. […] of the city (an event which forms the basis of Sarah Quigley’s novel The Conductor – see my review) but the focus of the novel is mainly on the emotional and creative cost of Stalin’s Terror […]


  8. Just finished reading this for book group (not my choice as we have a rotating pick). I completely agree with your comments about the lack of any real sense of the punitive nature of life under communism. It feels as though this broader context, and the extreme hardships it must have created for the people of Leningrad, are largely absent from the book. There are mentions of food shortages/rations (especially towards the end), but little else.

    Moreover, the pacing seems more than a little off. While I agree it’s a character-driven novel, the story in earnest doesn’t really get going until the final 50 pages of the book (something of an issue for me in a 300-page novel!). In effect, Elias doesn’t get the gig until that point, so the final section seems rather rushed. I suspect this will be an issue for some of the other members of my group too, particularly those who like their fiction to come with a bit more plot.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed your review of this one, Lisa. Plenty of food for thought for our meeting tonight…


    • Hello Jacqui, I’m pleased to see this old review has life in it yet:)
      Things have shifted a bit since I wrote it: there was a generally benign attitude to Russia back in 2012 but now it’s almost as if the Cold War is back again. But whatever the hostilities now, I think it’s important for us to realise that we owe an enormous debt to the Russian people for the decisive part they played in the war. Throughout the Cold War we were told that D-Day was the turning point of the war, but it wasn’t, it was the German defeat at Stalingrad.
      The sad irony is that the staggering number of Russians who died gave us freedom from totalitarian rule, when they didn’t have it themselves.


  9. […] sympathetic depictions of his career frustrations in Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time and The Conductor by Sarah Quigley, but in this novel, the composer’s ambivalent cooperation with the Soviets is regarded by […]


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