For a Cold War kid like me, the prospect of a new novel by a Welsh writer that plots its course through a bleak historic fog of McCarthyism, Soviet oppression and nuclear weapons testing sits firmly in the finely-honed and rarefied category of ‘right up my alley’. Toss a red-raw post 9/11 Manhattan landscape into the mix and it would be fair to say that a notable number of my overriding preoccupations would appear to be suitably catered for.
What I didn’t anticipate however is the degree to which A Simple Scale would draw me in and spit me out, nor the frequency with which I continue to return to it; a fairly remarkable achievement for a book that ostensibly sets out to discover nothing more that the true provenance of the theme tune to a one-time TV sci-fi series.
In the aftermath of the September terror attacks, Pavel Grekov arrives in New York determined to reclaim the musical legacy of his grandfather Sergey, a once-eminent Russian symphonist sent to the gulag by Stalin, from the acclaimed American composer Sol Conrad. Conrad’s PA Natalie, though determined to defend her now elderly employer, delves deeply into the past, uncovering worlds of which she was previously barely aware – Soviet labour camps, McCarthyism, oppressive state control and intrusion, and the compromised covert lives led by gay men in both the USA and USSR.
A Simple Scale is, at its core, a book about personal freedom, and the ultimately crushing impact upon the human spirit when those freedoms are either removed or repressed. The author’s expert handling of the key strands that act as a 20th century secret history of what it meant, and in many cases still means, to be a gay man are both deeply personal and inherently tragic and when a snatched clandestine liaison culminates in a bloody motel-room tragedy it tellingly does so in the searing white-heat aftermath of a nuclear test explosion. The world turned upside down, the personal and the political colliding with devastating consequences for all concerned.
A haunting sense of fatalism abounds throughout. Fleeting moments of hope and of raw human connection are clutched tightly and treasured as rare gifts as we are taken on a winding historic journey of love, death and deceit that displays no let up in either its intensity or preponderant sense of injustice. The impression of history being compelled to repeat itself pervades the novel’s concluding chapters and as the manipulations and betrayals at the centre of Sol and Sergey’s lives act as the defining elements of its 21st century denouement we arrive at two pivotal acts of self-determination and a blisteringly remorseless declaration:
The past is the past and the dead are dead and this is your life, so fuck every last one of them.
Llewellyn’s dialogue is underpinned by a vivid authenticity, and though this might be expected from an author who has previously turned his hand to scriptwriting these are conversations that positively crackle with life, invigorated as they are by the frailties and wonder of the human condition. The cat-and-mouse exchanges that populate Conrad’s personal and professional travails through an increasingly paranoid 50s Hollywood are deftly attuned to both the period and its location and I find myself still quietly applauding a smashing Montgomery Clift-themed flirtation that culminates in a line so mischievously perfect that it will make your heart skip a beat.
A Simple Scale is a work of self-assured persuasive power, and the resounding artistic statement of a writer who has truly arrived. It is bold, it is brave, and it is the real deal.
A Simple Scale is out now via Seren