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