Leningrad, 1941. Nazi troops move to surround Russia’s second city, planning to shell and starve its people into submission. The 871-day siege is a time of unimaginable horror: air-strikes raining down, bodies buried in blood-stained snow, neighbour distrusting neighbour, rats providing nutrition, some people even resort to cannibalism. Three quarters of a million civilians die. A city is on its knees, but the war effort dictates things must appear otherwise. Russian authorities know the world – not least, their own troops and people – need to believe the city’s heart still beats. In a move that pays testament to art’s power to lift, and, indeed, crush, the human spirit, Shostakovich is charged with composing a piece to represent a defiant Leningrad. And, on 9 August 1942, his new Seventh Symphony is played by the Leningrad Radio Orchestra in a concert hall within the besieged city. Loudspeakers relay the music to the frontlines, to be heard by both Russian and German soldiers. The majestic composition is played around the world in concerts and radio broadcasts. Leningrad lives, the notes say.
It is a truly remarkable – almost unbelievable – passage from history. One that nearly any writer of any genre would struggle to do justice to. It is to Sarah Quigley’s credit that, with The Conductor, she not only does this in a work of fiction, but that she does it quite so magnificently. For this hugely-assured novel is a triumph of both representing history and of literary style.
Wisely, the author has searched for a personal tale within these events of monumental scale. Our hero is not a War General, or the composer himself, but conductor Karl Eliasberg – an awkward man, uncomfortable in his own skin, living at home with his mum.
In the winter of 1941, Eliasberg was asked to lead his second-rate orchestra – for the city’s treasured Philharmonic Orchestra, like many of the cultural elite, had long been evacuated -in playing Shostakovich’s symphony within what seemed an impossible timescale and impossible conditions.
Many of the orchestra’s original musicians were either away fighting, already dead, or were so weak they struggled to hold their instruments. Eliasberg had to beg and borrow his way to players and instruments. But, for five months, during Leningrad’s harshest-ever winter, Eliasberg drove those at his disposal towards the victorious concert.
Quigley is in no rush to race to the great occasion – in fact, we never quite get there. Instead, she slowly weaves a tapestry of the daily lives of the people that made it happen. Shostakovich’s presence dominates the novel early on – we see his family life, his artistic circle and him at work. He emerges as a difficult, obsessive, utterly brilliant individual. He initially turns down opportunities to evacuate the city, feeling he bears the weight of Russia’s people on his shoulders. It is a powerful portrait of genius at work.
Shostakovich’s friend, the fictional musician Nikolai, is the third of the protagonists, serving as a bridge between composer and conductor. His concern for the safety of his daughter provides much narrative thrust and emotion. Quigley smartly draws a range of other characters – mothers, girlfriends, neighbours, musicians, and prospective lovers – who offer ways of exploring how people deal, both mentally and physically, with living in horrendous circumstances.
When Shostakovich is eventually convinced into fleeing (his completed score would be dropped into the besieged city by aircraft), Eliasberg comes very much to the fore. A picture emerges of a tortured individual. A brilliant conductor, but not quite the acknowledged genius he want to be, or that Shostakovich is, and he is painfully aware of this. He has no heart, say his musicians, used to his cold demeanour. On the book’s first page he tells us that this is because he gave his heart to the composer, after being stunned by the beauty of his music. Quigley uses the rest of the book to show us the decency, the compassion, the flaws – the essential humanness – of this ‘strict, overly exacting, hostile, dictatorial’ man. Eliasberg even finds love, although the slow-building relationship between him and the beautiful, maimed ballerina Nina Bronnikova is perhaps one of the novel’s few missteps, failing to fully convince (even though it is based on historical fact).
The book’s greatest strength lies in its exploration of characters living in all-too-real times. People’s natures are revealed through small kindnesses and slight deceits. Circumstance dictates that every action is of major consequence. We see the tortuous way of life: the boiling of leather for soup, treasured possessions being tossed on the fire, queues of people with ration-book in hand, the bartering at market. Quigley doesn’t spare us the unwelcome truths: people stealing from each other, bodies piled up on pavements, some with clumps of meat chopped off and taken away as food. Indeed, on occasion, Quigley’s vision of the city is one less akin to the Blitz all-in-this-together spirit than it is to Cormac McCarthy’s barbaric, every-man-for-himself, The Road.
But, ultimately, this beautifully written and restrained novel is a celebration of human spirit, endeavour, and the love of music. It was the highest-selling adult fiction title in Quigley’s homeland of New Zealand in 2011, remaining at number one for twenty weeks. Just rewards would see something similar happening here.