Not a bar of it
The cover of the Spring 2011 issue of NZB announces that “Elspeth Sandys keeps time with Quigley’s The Conductor”, but her disappointingly thin review falls short of doing justice to this complex and satisfying novel. Central to the story is the composition of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony – and Quigley vividly evokes this aspect of the composer’s inner life, the agonising labour of the creative process – but, as indicated by the title, the central character is not the composer but Karl Eliasberg, conductor of the second string Radio Orchestra, admirer from afar of Shostakovich’s brilliance, confidence and social ease, who with almost manic obsession drives his depleted and debilitated band of musicians towards a broadcast performance of the symphony from the besieged city. The novel begins with his terrible declaration “I was born without a heart”, the explanation for the emotional detachment of which Sandys is so critical, but by the end we rejoice with him in what he has achieved, and in what he has discovered about himself and his fellow survivors. By then Shostakovich the man is peripheral, having because of his fame been evacuated by government order.
That the narrative develops through successive points of view is a great strength. It moves rapidly and vividly, unburdened by extraneous detail. We see Shostakovich drinking with his friends, and later understand that when they had left the city and there was nobody left to talk to, he turned almost in desperation to Eliasberg over a problem with the score. We share Eliasberg’s mortifying memory of his conservatoire failure, then attend with him the party where for the first time he crosses the daunting threshold of the world of those who have the gloss and assurance of success, and the rich food makes him sick. We share Eliasberg’s exasperated devotion to his mother, and his struggle to feed her, the stresses in the Shostakovich family, Nikolai’s anguished love for his daughter, and her unswerving devotion to her cello, and Nina’s stoical acceptance of the injury which destroys any chance of her dancing again.
What Sandys means by the lack of “Russianness” that she deplores in the novel is not clear – was she expecting a bit of Pasternak pastiche perhaps? More recent translations of, for example, War and Peace,
superseding Constance Garnett’s long-accepted version, show that the language cadences which for many convey this particular flavour have not survived. The “Russian soul” is famously enigmatic; surely only a Russian writer can write about it. Sandys’s ungenerous and inconsistent review seems to be based on what she thought Quigley should do rather than what she actually achieves.
The gruesome reality of the siege of Leningrad has been shown many times, in films and novels as well as historical records, and, surpassingly, in the music of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. This finely wrought novel uses it as an integral part of an affirmation of creativity, the importance of the arts as well as love and human kindness in the face of terrible suffering.