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The Conductor by Sarah Quigley review

Sarah Quigley’s conductor Karl Eliasberg is a man besieged by more than the Nazis.

Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor is set in the period 1941-42 and based on the composition of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony and its eventual performance in the besieged city. It is a novel I was always likely to enjoy, its subject matter being dear to my heart, but Quigley also succeeds in the difficult task of addressing readers less familiar with the time, place and real people she fictionalises.
Another challenge was plotting a convincing course between the competing narratives of what the symphony represents: a protest against Stalinist repression, a response to Hitler’s invasion or perhaps both. In choosing the invasion-response narrative, Quigley reflects the immediate reality­ of her ­characters.

She has researched thoroughly and the conversational tone of Shostakovich – and also of his intellectual and personal circle – rings true (much like the tone of his letters to his friend Isaak Glikman).

However, the novel is called The Conductor, not The Composer. Shostakovich dominates early on, but this works on a structural level, with symphony conductor Karl Eliasberg’s witnessing of Shostakovich’s creative anguish and self-doubt deepening his own sense of burden and responsibility later.

Once Shostakovich flees the city, the focus shifts to the main and subsidiary characters left behind. In Eliasberg, we witness an unconfident, stuttering and rather pedantic man being slowly crushed from all directions, including by the numbing cold, starvation and the dehumanising effect of the suffering and death around him. Added to this is the weight of conducting Shostakovich’s mammoth score with a makeshift orchestra of “walking cadavers”.

Eliasberg’s inferiority complex manifests on many levels and he is an object of scorn and derision (in particular from a drunkard oboist named Alexander). This is the story of a man of modest talents desperately summoning strength and self-belief (and inspiring others to the same) in an attempt to buttress art against the barbarism all around. The minor characters possess a believable stoicism and dishevelled nobility in response.

The novel stops short of describing the symphony’s actual performance, which I applaud – to have done so would have been a travesty. Any understanding of what that particular performance imparted belongs solely to those who were there. The book does, however, come with a more recent Naxos recording of the work by the Russian Philharmonic under Dmitry Yablonsky, to aid the imagining.

THE CONDUCTOR, by Sarah Quigley ­(Vintage, $39.99, including CD).

Graeme Downes is a senior lecturer in music at the University of Otago.