It is the winter of 1941. Dead bodies are strewn through the streets, and starvation is rife. Shells from the surrounding Nazi forces shatter the city while victims lie hopelessly in hospital beds. Those still alive stagger to collect their meagre rations, passing the frozen bodies which lie in doorways.
This is the grim setting of Sarah Quigley’s book ‘The Conductor’. Amidst this devastation, it is a triumph of the human spirit which Quigley paints. The narrative is underpinned by the creation and performance of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, which the composer dedicated to Leningrad. It is not Shostakovich himself who is the focal character of the book, but Karl Eliasberg. The mediocre conductor leads the equally second-rate Leningrad Radio Orchestra, but his chance to shine comes when the Party offers him and the orchestra the chance to perform the 7th Symphony in summer 1942.
Quigley divides the narrative voice between those in the circle of musicians who are central to the plot, including Shostakovich himself. I have always been skeptical of historically-based novels, and this was no exception. There is always a conflict between the need to resolve the narrative and an accurate representation of the truth. Even though Eliasberg and his orchestra did in fact give a triumphant performance of the Symphony (an act to defy the surrounding Nazis), I thought that the trajectory of the novel was compromised. The resolution of the other plot lines seemed to come at the expense of a balanced conclusion which took the atrocities of the siege into account. I felt that this was due to a disjunction between Quigley’s florid prose and the horrors lining the city’s streets. Such a tone comes with the territory of the novel genre: any more gravitas would probably alienate a portion of the readers.
Another problem for me was Quigley’s characterisation of the central figure. Even as a flawed protagonist, I found it hard to sympathise with Eliasberg. His needy inner monologue for much of the book appeared to suddenly disappear, allowing the emergence of an almost unrecognisable hero figure at the end. However, I did like the portrayal of Shostakovich. Even though Quigley avoids digging into his relationship with the Party, his representation as an imperfect figure was welcome: it would have been all too easy to lend him a status as a martyr. I was dismayed at his sudden disappearance from the narrative: it would have been interesting to have his view of the situation from outside Leningrad. Other characters certainly evoked more empathy, such as the wounded former ballerina Nina Bronnikova and the father and daughter (Nikolai and Sonya).
Despite my criticism, the tale that Quigley tells is a harrowing one and she describes the struggles of the city well. Particularly poignant were Eliasberg’s rehearsals on the 7th Symphony with his malnourished musicians, which capture the despair of the situation. The Symphony gradually comes to dominate the novel. Eliasberg drives his weak musicians to the limits of their endurance; those fighting on the front line take up their instruments; and the score is treacherously transported across enemy lines. The epilogue sees Eliasberg preparing for the iconic performance of the Symphony, which was broadcast by loudspeakers to those fighting on the front lines. Despite the novel’s flaws, the inspirational story is gripping and it is the theme of achieving the impossible which accounts for the book’s power. Yes, there may be artistic license: if you want verified facts, look elsewhere. But for a novel which balances the horror of the siege with a gripping narrative, ‘The Conductor’ is worth getting hold of.