Friday, 19 August 2016

Book Review: The Conductor by Sarah Quigley
2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

Undeniably, every war affects the civilian population in many ways and to varying degrees. It’s inevitable. And the closer people live to the front lines, the greater is the danger that they will find themselves run over by the enemy or even by their own troops. If there is time they will flee as far away from the fighting as they can, but if it’s a big city and if they live under a rigid regime like Stalin’s Soviet Union this option may be refused them. If they are lucky, it’s all soon over. If they aren’t, they have to struggle for survival under siege as was the case in Leningrad (today again: Saint Petersburg) during the winter of 1941/42. In The Conductor by Sarah Quigley the musicians of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra who are caught in the city by advancing German troops strive for some kind of normality despite hunger and cold.

Sarah Quigley was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1967. She studied literature at the University of Oxford earning a DPhil before dedicating herself to writing professionally. She brought out the short story collection having words with you in 1998 and her debut novel After Robert in 1999. From then on she produced many award-winning short stories, poems and also non-fiction along with the novels Shot (2003), Fifty Days (2005), and The Conductor (2011). The author’s latest published book is a collection of short stories titled Tenderness (2014). In 2000 Sarah Quigley was writer in residence in Berlin, Germany, and since then she divides her time between Germany and New Zealand, working as a writer and freelance editor.

In spring 1941 Leningrad still is a peaceful place and The Conductor of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra Karl Elias Illyyich Eliasberg, generally called Elias, rehearses with his musicians for a concert of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony due to be broadcast a couple of weeks later. Also famous composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whom Elias knows and adores since the time when they were both students at the Conservatoire, lives in Leningrad and he craves as much for sleep as for inspiration.
“A pattern started up in his head, rising and falling in regular peaks. ‘C to G,’ he muttered. ‘C to G.’ Trapped in an endlessly repeated progression, he could neither struggle awake nor escape, and he was filled with dread. ‘Steady,’ he mumbled. ‘Focus on what you know.’ But the white moulded ceiling, the mantelpiece clock, the glass of water: all had vanished. Thudding boots shook the bed, and he saw the machine-like movement of a hundred bodies, flashing teeth, the sun glancing off the curve of an eagle’s beak. …”
And he knows, they are the first notes of a military march “to motivate the honourable men of the Red Army” that will cost him much struggle because with necessities of daily and social life, family and friends claiming him, he can’t work uninterrupted. When war breaks out, the fervent patriot Shostakovich not only refuses to leave Leningrad with his favourite conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky and the musicians of the Leningrad Philharmonia (as wife and friends urge him to) but he joins the Home Guard which makes his task even more difficult. Moreover, his composition changes from a simple march into his Seventh – his War – Symphony.
“ ‘… You’d think twenty-five minutes of thunder and lightning would be enough. But a few days ago I was forced to acknowledge that there is more to come.’ He remembered the moment with something close to annoyance. As he’d dragged a bucket of sand up the steep steps to the Conservatoire roof, suspicion had hardened into certainty. The final grumbles of the main theme, the tanks fading into the distance — they weren’t final. There was more to write.”
Only after the symphony is finished Shostakovich gives in to the pleas of his wife and accepts to be evacuated, while Leningrad and its less fortunate citizens like Elias and his musicians go through a starving and freezing winter under siege. Already in December Elias has to suspend orchestra rehearsals because musicians died or are too weak and cold even to hold their instruments. It’s almost spring when he is called to see the Head of the Arts Department and the Director of the Radio Committee who order him to regroup the orchestra and prepare for “a season of symphonic concerts to raise morale” starting with Shostakovich’s new Seventh Symphony to be broadcast to the world. But who will be the musicians and will they be up to the task starved out as they will inevitably be?

Apart from some unspecified alterations of facts that the author thought necessary, historical background and central idea of The Conductor correspond with the true story of the legendary concert of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony that the Leningrad Radio Orchestra gave under the baton of Karl Elias Illyyich Eliasberg in summer 1942. Most of the rest, however, is expertly woven fiction including biographies and personalities of real people depicted under their true names (probably expect Dmitri Shostakovich). In other words, the author tells the tale of how her characters, be they real or invented, may have experienced the German siege, notably the creation of the Seventh Symphony and rehearsals up to the day of its performance. Nevertheless, the various, skilfully interlaced plotlines and individual fates feel not just entirely credible but exceedingly authentic. I also think that the author does a good job showing Shostakovich’s idea behind the Seventh Symphony, i.e. the one approach (of many possible) that she chose “for purely novelistic reasons” as she emphasises in her note, and thus making his music more accessible to ignoramuses of classical music like myself. The language of the novel flows naturally without unnecessary flourish or trivia with the result that it’s an easy as well as a quick read. Moreover, it’s a catching story.

On the whole, I passed an excellent time with The Conductor by Sarah Quigley – also because it fitted in so well with my most recent reads that all except one dealt with the (forced) participation of the Soviet Union in World War II (»»» read my reviews of If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi and The Train by Vera Panova). Admittedly, it was a bit disappointing to find that although the novel centres on a true event it doesn’t give historically correct account of what led to it or of who was involved in it because the author preferred to make it the starting or rather finishing point of a good work of fiction… and as such I gladly recommend it.

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This review is a contribution to
(images linked to my reading lists):


  1. Edith, another book I would love to read. Thank you for your review!

    1. My pleasure! I hope you'll like the book as much as my review ;-).


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