Dimitri Shostakovitch is a musical genius on a mission. Impatient with interruptions and intrusions, and desperate to be free of domestic demands while he’s composing, he intersperses bouts of work with frustration at not always working. Karl Eliasberg is Leningrad’s second conductor, a man who looks enviously at the Philharmonic’s celebrated Yevgeny Mravinsky, Shostakovitch’s – and Leningrad’s – darling.
British writer Sarah Quiqley’s The Conductor sets the stories of these two men against the siege of Leningrad, a two-and-a-half year period when around 1.5 million people died, the city’s supply routes were cut off and the Germans were bombarding the inhabitants in an attempt to utterly eradicate the city. The novel opens in 1941, when for most of the city’s inhabitants the war, not yet officially declared between the Soviets and the Germans despite many rumblings of military action, is hardly any more of a nuisance than everyday life under the Soviets. By the time the autumn arrives, however, the inhabitants are utterly isolated as part of Hitler’s attempt to destroy the city and give the land to the Finns.
When evacuations begin, Shostakovitch, an important yet unreliable asset for the Soviets, is declared too valuable for the military. Claiming to want to protect his city, while really needing to stay put until he finishes his Seventh Symphony, he fire-watches on the roof of the Conservatoire by night, and frantically pushes his way through the musical movements by day. When three of the movements are completed, his creative urge dies down just long enough for him to notice that his wife and children are suffering, and he at last accepts the offer of evacuation.
In a reckless bid to raise morale in the beleaguered city, Soviet officials fly the completed score in across enemy lines and order Eliasberg, with his orchestra much depleted by death, starvation and disappearance, to perform the entire work as a live radio concert.
Despite the desperation all around, Eliasberg – hindered not only by his lesser talent and social awkwardness, but also the large chip on his shoulder – hopes that this performance will lift his career to another level. Quigley is good at depicting how large-scale bad events can work to the benefit of individuals, without making them seem like monsters.
Music as a way of uplifting people during times of great hardship is a common theme in literature and film: Think of The Pianist or The Cellist of Sarajevo – even, perhaps, Half-Blood Blues. It’s the kind of myth we want to be true and meaningful, like the tales of German and English soldiers sharing a Christmas Eve game of football across the trenches. We can’t get enough of the poignant, the bittersweet, and the pleasure of beautiful plus brutal is heightened if the story is about to be decided one way or the other.
But Quigley’s story departs from the usual narrative arc of musical uplift coinciding with salvation, survival or tragic end, resembling more the Christmas truce in the trenches. She cuts the music at just the right moment: seconds before the orchestra falls silent, instruments tuned, bows ready, all eyes on Eliasberg as he waits to lift his baton. This hubristic project is going to be a success against all odds, we think.
We’ve been through such a lot to get to this moment that it’s a shock to realize that for the city formerly known as St. Petersburg, stumbling on despite the people dropping dead from starvation in the street, the siege still had another year and a half to run.
C. Sutcliffe writes about books at slightlybookist.wordpress.com.