The Conductor by Sarah Quigley

ConductorIt is easy to understand how The Conductor (Vintage, 303 pages) stayed on the best seller list for weeks and weeks in New Zealand. The story is compelling, and Sarah Quigley knows how to tell it. Against the background of the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War Dmitry Shostakovich is writing his Seventh Symphony, struggling to finish it while German bombs are falling all around him. Meanwhile, the main character, Karl Il’ich Eliasberg (1907-1978), the second-rate conductor of a second-rate orchestra, goes about his life of quiet desperation, unaware that circumstances are coming together so as to place him at the center of history.

The name of Eliasberg is barely remembered any more. Sarah Quigley has brought him back to life as a fictional character, a modest man who, for one brief moment in history, becomes a hero. Imagine going about your usual diurnal and pedestrian life, only to wake up one morning and find that you are in a nightmare. That is what happened to Eliasberg and the people of Leningrad. Plenty of blockade survivors are still alive today, although what they went through is difficult for the rest of us to conceive of. This book gives us a good feel for the air raids, the lack of food, the stress of starving and freezing people, packed together in communal apartments, who press on with their lives while living this terrible nightmare. There are only a few main characters, but they are well portrayed, rounded—Eliasberg, Shostakovich and his family, the violinist Nikolai and his beloved daughter Sonya. At least the basics of the plot are related in a style reminiscent of nineteenth century Russian realism. Notwithstanding this, the novel has elements of the postmodernist style, although they are most likely unintentional (see below).

Of course, the plot revolves around the Seventh (Leningrad) Symphony, its composition and its early performances. Apparently some publishers include a CD of the symphony with the sale of the book (mine did not), and that is a wonderful idea. You should be listening to the music through earphones as you read the book, because the book is, primarily, about music. The big question is how do you write a book about music? Another, more problematic question: is it even possible to discuss music, its essence, in words?

It certainly helps if the person writing the book is her/himself a musician. Anthony Burgess was, and one of the best novels of the twentieth century about music is his Napoleon Symphony. I know nothing about Sarah Quigley’s background, but I would bet that she is a musician. Some of the best passages describe how music is written, how it is played, how a conductor conducts. Here is Eliasberg, escaping from the onerous task of caring for his mother by conjuring up Mahler’s Fifth Symphony:

“Instantly, there it was, catching him, stopping his fall. The low repeated notes of the trumpet—full of hope, or foretelling tragedy? The possibility of both was there in that urgent, repeated brass voice. Then the lift to the minor third and the rise to the octave—and then the descending notes, the repeated fall, the rising up again. And the crash! That beautiful, all-encompassing, full and worldly sound, shutting out critical faces and marching feet, ominous news, guilt and fear.”

The book is teeming with such references to composers and music. Here are a few more examples:

(1) Eliasberg’s Leningrad Radio Orchestra is at rehearsal, with (before the conductor begins) “messy riffs of violins, and flutes emitting single repeated notes,” against a background of gossip in the ranks. Then (when the rehearsal has begun) the conductor swallows and tastes the fried egg he had eaten for breakfast, “mixed with the sour bile of insecurity,” and nothing seems to go right. “The strings turned the melodies to mush, the brass was coarse, the woodwind as shrill as a wife long out of love with her husband.” To top it all off a stray dog out on the street begins barking against the beat, and bursts of laughter frolic about in the orchestra.

(2) The violinist Nikolai faces a tense family dispute, involving “his scolding sister-in-law and his small angry daughter.” He defuses the situation by sitting down at the piano: “He picked his way through a Boccherini minuet. Each note, even those imperfectly executed, fell like a small pickaxe, chipping away at the frosty atmosphere, easing the pressure.”

(3) Shostakovich, even at age eleven, is supremely confident of his musical acumen. He debunks his overly conservative teacher by presenting a parody of him for his sister: “He marched over to the piano in the corner of the room. ‘I was playing the opening to my Chopin Prelude like this—‘ With sticky wax fingertips, he began picking out the B Flat Minor Prelude. ‘And he said if I continued that way I would fail my exam. Then he told me to play it like this!’ Sitting up straight on the stool, he shut his eyes so as to better remember Gliasser’s pious expression, and felt his body transform into his teacher’s. His arms became stiff, his fingers turned to wood and, on the pedals, his feet shriveled to those of a seventy-year-old. Because this was a special knack of his, the keys also changed under his touch, as if responding to a different person.”

Of course, the main musical focus is the Seventh (Leningrad) Symphony, and the author is especially convincing (and daring) in the way she goes into Shostakovich’s mind and makes up scenes, describing important moments in the process of composition:

(1) The composer finds the march music of his First Movement in the nattering of a repulsive acquaintance. “But as Boris’s voice hammered on, a tinny tune emerged from the insults. . . . a mindlessly repetitive tune. . . .

“Pizzicato, that was it! A pizzicato refrain rising from a melancholic E flat melody like a puppet rising from a heap of toys. Unseen hands pulled on the strings (slowly, relentlessly) until the puppet was marching. The wooden tune spread from the strings to the woodwind, and battled repetitively against the snare drums. ‘Idiotic,’ said Boris’s voice from amid the growing din. ‘Arrogant. Imitative.’

‘Exactly!’ The words burst out of Shostakovich. ‘You’re right! The themes of fascism. It will be a fascist march.’”

(2) The air-raid sirens wail, and the German planes roar overhead. Shostakovich sends his wife and children down to the cellar, puts cotton wool in his ears and goes on composing. That’s when things begin coming together. “Then, at last, he found a path into the scherzo. The lilting melody of the strings was like stepping out into a fresh country morning. This was underpinned by some stealthy, stagy, staccato cello notes—a little like the footsteps of an aunt not wanting to intrude. Next, the oboe. Lilting and soaring, it was Tatyana’s voice as it used to be, before she became quarrelsome and possessive. . . .

“The storm? This would be easier. The first movement had pointed the way, with its uneasy C sharp minor key and its repetitive chaos. He would use brass and woodwind for the buffeting wind, crashing against barns and flattening hedgerows. And a hammering xylophone would return, slowly and inevitably, to the original key of B minor. . . . Then, for a single brief moment, he could see clear to the symphony’s end.”

(3) In playing part of the work on piano for Eliasberg, Shostakovich struggles with his doubts. Eliasberg: “A war symphony. For Leningrad. . . . It will be your Eroica. . . . Like Beethoven, you’ve captured the very essence of war.” Shostakovich: But then, as Beethoven proved, “a naturalistic portrayal of battle may. . . . turn out to be an aesthetic embarrassment.” And maybe it is too reminiscent of the first movement of Ravel’s Bolero, “they’ll say I’ve copied Ravel. Well, let them say it. This is how I hear war.” Then again (Eliasberg), there’s something here reminiscent of the second movement of Sibelius’ Fifth, and, of course, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 comes to mind, and then again (Shostakovich), they’ll say “I’m becoming derivative of my own work,” for, after all, “A seventh symphony necessarily carries the other six on its back.”  For a similar scene, see p. 218-219.

One who listens to Shostakovich’s music could argue, of course, with Quigley’s interpretation of the Seventh Symphony, but she forestalls such protestations in her introductory note: “I have chosen to depict the work as a direct response to the invasion of Leningrad for purely novelistic reasons.” Okay, but I still feel a little bit like arguing. Did Shostakovich ever really say, “This is how I see war”? Is the symphony that directly programmatic? Is the Bolero march in the first movement to be seen as a depiction of the fascists on their way to Leningrad (and never quite getting there)? Maybe. But then again, maybe not.

To me the so-called “invasion theme,” with its circumspect snare drums and its slow dimwit march with repetitive dimwit refrains, reminds me more of a bunch of Young Pioneers (Soviet girl and boy scouts), on their way to a picnic in May, marching along and singing mindless patriotic ditties. Then come the intrusions of dissonance, the wails of horror, and it all builds to a hideous climax, but a climax of what? Of triteness?

Among modern interpreters of the Seventh, many have taken the position that the dimwitted evil in the mindless march encompasses not only Nazi Germany, but the Stalinist Soviet Union as well. I can buy that, and I can’t prove it, but there’s a good chance that Shostakovich himself could buy it. There are even some who say that the glorious ending of the symphony, the spectacular and triumphant finale of the fourth movement (once subtitled “Victory” by Shostakovich) is, perhaps, too glorious by half: not a triumph, but a parody of triumph. Anyway. Just had to get that off my chest.

There are a few other things you could argue with. For example, the novel treats as fact Shostakovich’s work in the fire brigade during the siege. But now it appears that he was, for the most part, a symbolic firefighter whose firefighting was used for propaganda value. In her biography of Shostakovich, Laurel Fay writes that “he never actually had occasion to extinguish an incendiary,” and mentions “posed photographs of the helmeted composer steadfastly standing guard on the roof of the Conservatory, shot on July 29 [1941] and disseminated around the globe” (beginning of Ch. 8, “The War Years”). The cover of Time Magazine, July 20, 1942, portrays the bespectacled and youthful composer in profile, wearing an ornate fireman’s helmet–a picture that produces something of a comical effect: nerd as Roman legionnaire.

Now for a few things about the book’s unintentional postmodernism. How can you make such a realistic story into something other than realism? Easy. Take a story about Russians, set it in a Russian city, Leningrad, and then make the Russians neither act nor speak entirely like Russians. Furthermore, have them inhabit a city that is Leningrad but frequently seems like somewhere else– some fairyland inside-out version of the city.

Take the problem of the windows in the novel. They open and shut not like any windows in Leningrad or St. Petersburg. At one point Eliasberg is described as “raising the sash window, leaning out and feeling the wind on his face.”  One thing is right about that: you can lean out Russian windows into the air, because there are no screens on the windows. At another point doors are slamming and windows “fall like guillotines.”  That won’t work. Russian windows have a handle that you twist and then pull, and the long window half opens toward you, into the room. At the top right of any Russian window there is also a little offspring window (fortochka), used for a bit of ventilation. But sash windows, going up and down? No.

Take the problem of the Bronze Horseman, the equestrian monument to Peter the Great, which is certainly the most famous statue in all of Russia. Here is how that monument is described:
“In front of them was that familiar bronze statue of Peter the Great. He sat astride his huge rearing horse, face averted from the city he’d founded, eyes fixed eternally on a far horizon. His sword had a greenish hue towards the hilt, but its tip was bright from the touch of many hands and the bent fetlock of his horse had been stroked to gold.

“’What are they doing?’ Sonya spoke in a half-whisper.”

Indeed, what are they doing, or, better, what have they done? A lifelong resident of Leningrad, Sonya appears to sense that strange things have been done to the Bronze Horseman. Where are we and what is this? It certainly is not the Bronze Horseman as we know it, although that’s a nice imaginative touch (the thing about the bright tip of the sword and the bent fetlock stroked to gold). The fact is that the Bronze Horseman is not holding any sword and never has held a sword. If you look at the real Bronze Horseman the horse seems to be rearing up, spooked by the enormous snake beneath his hooves, and the rider appears to be holding out his right hand to get his balance. Although no one ever seems to notice, it always has seemed to me that Peter is about to be bucked off the most famous horse in the country. As for the stroking of the sword and the horse, even if there were a sword you couldn’t stroke it, and you couldn’t reach the head of the horse. Why? Because the statue is mounted high on a huge rock, too high for idle fingers to reach.

So are we really in Leningrad? At one point Eliasberg reaches “the crowded marketplace of Gostiny Dvor,” but then, one page later, he is suddenly at a different outdoor market—the one at the Haymarket (Sennaja ploshchad’—75-76). So which is it? Where are we? We’re neither here nor there; we’re in some kind of ontological crisis, and the peril of ontology is often a central theme of twentieth century post-modernist literature.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Russian characters of the novel are, simultaneously, not Russians. When irritated, for example, they say, “Shit.” Speakers of English do that, as do speakers of French. While there are perfectly good Russian words for excrement (¬gavno, der’mo), Russians, for some reason, do not normally utter them by way of expressing irritation.

Nor do Russians hold their thumbs for good luck, as Sonya does for Shostakovich (116-117). I’m not sure where people hold their thumbs for good luck (Germany, New Zealand?), but if you walk the streets holding your thumbs in Russia you will create mass confusion. Something like what once happened to a naïve American friend of mine, who, upon his first visit to St. Petersburg, walked down the street, smiling at oncoming pedestrians and saying, in English, “How you doing?” When he later told me that people were looking at him as if he were crazy I said, “Jeff. They really did think you were crazy.”

What else? Well, Russians, who don’t smile and say hello to strangers on the street, may also be the most superstitious of all nationalities. They deliberately don’t do things that are thought to bring on bad luck. Whistling is one of them. I have never seen any Russian walking down the street “whistling cheerfully.” If you want to guarantee that we are not in Leningrad have Eliasberg whistle cheerfully while raising the sash window.

For one who never experienced the Stalinist terror it is hard to imagine how traumatic it was. When you went to bed you never knew if tonight would be the night when they came to take you away. For years on end Dmitry Shostakovich had to live with that terror. In the late thirties some of his best friends were arrested, tortured, shot. If you are prone to condemn him for the compromises he made in order to survive, try reading the fine biography by Laurel Fay. You may find yourself less judgmental after you realize what he went through.

The Russians in The Conductor, however, in their attitude to the terror, behave, once again, as if they were not Russian. At one point there is a conversation that simply could not have taken place in the real Leningrad of the early forties. A member of Eliasberg’s orchestra comes to a rehearsal and blurts out to all and sundry the news that his Jewish neighbors have been arrested.  Not possible. In such situations you kept your mouth shut, or discussed things only in whispers with family members and close friends. Furthermore, on the next page, Eliasberg admonishes one of the orchestra by mentioning the forced labor camps: “At least you’d have learned about hard work, had you been in a labour camp.” Not possible. You assumed that there were spies and informers everywhere, ready to report any manifestation of disloyalty; you never spoke publicly about the camps.

Then there is the problem of the names and the patronymics. Admittedly this is a stumbling point for the foreign reader of any novel about Russians, and for any non-Russian-speaking author writing about Russians. Instead of saying “Mr. Volkov,” Russians who wish to be polite and formal address Volkov by his first name and patronymic (name formed from that of his father): Boris Vladimirovich (his father’s name was Vladimir). Yes, that’s a mouthful, but that’s the way it’s done. In her introduction the author explains that she uses Anglicised versions of Russian names and that she has “simplified the complicated Russian method of personal address.” Fair enough, if you can make it work. But then we get things like “Karl Illyyich” (name and patronymic for Eliasberg), with an extra l and an extra y.  We get, “Sonya Nikolaevska,” an impossible name-patronymic combination. Sonya is a nickname for Sofya (Sophia). Her father’s name is Nikolai; therefore, her name-patronymic would be Sofya Nikolaevna, although since she is a little girl no one would address her that way, except in fun. The only correct use of name and patronymic in the book is that of Shostakovich’s best friend, the polymath and linguistic genius Sollertinsky (Ivan Ivanovich). Of course Nikolai would probably call his daughter by any number of affectionate diminutives (Sonechka, Sonyushechka, etc.), but we need not get into that, and it is fine that Sarah Quigley sticks most of the time with “Sonya.”

In sum, the characters of the book live in a somewhat skewed variant of Leningrad; they frequently don’t act like Russians, they don’t address one another like Russians. And, finally, they do not appear to speak Russian. You say, okay, of course they don’t speak Russian, because the book is written in English. True, just as any translation of Tolstoy into English is written in English. But in a good translation we at least maintain the illusion that what the Russian characters are speaking is Russian. Not in The Conductor. Not only do the characters say “Shit” when hot and bothered. They use word play in English. When Eliasberg tells a man at the market that he is a conductor that man replies, “Trams? Or buses?” (80). Nice pun and one more poke at the hapless Eliasberg, but it won’t work in Russian. An orchestra conductor is dirizhёr, and there’s a different word for a conductor on a tram: konduktor.

If a translator, let’s say, were to translate the novel into Russian, that translator would certainly render the title as Dirizhёr. The only thing that he/she could do with the pun on p.80 would be to throw it out. Then again, what would the translator do with the multitude of un-Russian things that appear in the book? Leave them there with their eerie postmodernist effect, or try to straighten them out and make the book totally realistic? What, for example, would the translator do when the Russian characters correct each others’ English? See, e.g., p. 240, where Eliasberg corrects “I seen them” to “I’ve seen them” and “virgin-eaters” to “vermin eaters.”

In dwelling upon the un-Russianness of this book ostensibly set in Russia, am I condemning it out of hand? Not in the least. I like the book. I like the strong characterizations and the plot line. I like, especially, the masterly treatment of musical effects and descriptions of how music is composed and conducted. Strange to say, I even like, to a certain extent, the way the book is transmogrified, unbeknown to the author, into something like postmodernism.

Why not have a Leningrad/Petersburg that is portrayed in somewhat skewed fashion, a place where the windows open and close in unexpected ways and Peter the Great on his horse waves a sword? After all, the whole tradition of St. Petersburg in Russian literature, beginning with Pushkin’s famous narrative poem, “The Bronze Horseman” (which describes, among other things, how the statue comes to life and gallops after the crazed hero), is characterized by a similar eeriness. St. Petersburg, that “most abstract and premeditated city on all the earth” (Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground), is where a nose escapes from a man’s face and takes on an existence of its own (Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose”). St. Petersburg is where the murderer Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment–and scads of other Dostoevskian characters in many other works–wander the grim streets in a daze, where Andrei Bely lets phantasmagoria run rampant (in his novel Petersburg). One of the best stories written about life during the siege of the city, Zamyatin’s “The Cave,” has the same feel to it: we are in a nightmare.

To sum things up, I find much to like about The Conductor. In fact, and this may be my central point, I am exited about the prospect of seeing this novel made into a film. Why? Because seldom is a good novel successfully translated into a better film, and this one, like Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There (filmed with Peter Sellers in the lead role) could certainly become a great film—a film better than the book.

Why? Because of the theme of music. Although throughout the novel the author is extremely good at describing music, music is written to be heard, not described in words. Those who among the readers of the novel are musicians can probably hear the music as Sarah Quigley describes it, but the majority of readers (such as me) are not musicians. Take the following wonderful passage:

“Now the music was thinning, like ice at the edge of a lake. This was as it should be. The melody moved downwards, grinding into the uneasy key of C sharp minor. Low woodwind notes hinted at the watery depths: contrabassoon, bass clarinet pulling on the deepest of C sharps like an anchor, yet also releasing, rising, moving up towards the strings. A pizzicato bridge over the water, slipping into E major, leading to—

“Something was missing. Elias jolted back into the present. . . .”

What is missing, it turns out, is the flute solo, but what also is missing for the reader is the music itself. Make a film and you have the music in the score. You can keep the passage above if you want—do it as a voiceover. Make a film, shoot it in St. Petersburg (Leningrad), and in a trice you eliminate the problems with places and window sashes and merry whistlers on the streets. Make a film and you can show us that wonderful portrait by Kustodiev of the boy Shostakovich.  Make a film and you can hear as well as see the final dress rehearsal of the Seventh Symphony.

What is the climax of the story and the climax of the central character’s whole life? It comes on the day when the starving and feeble conductor and musicians of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra present the inaugural performance of the Leningrad Symphony in the besieged city of Leningrad. For Aug. 9, 1942, Hitler had planned a lavish banquet, to be held at the Astoria Hotel, just across the street from mammoth St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The banquet was to celebrate the fall of the city, the victory of Fascist Germany. Instead of the banquet the Germans, who never did take the city, got a performance of the Leningrad Symphony, dedicated to the heroic defenders of Leningrad and beamed out through loudspeakers over the front lines. In your face, Der Furher.

The book leaves out that climactic event. The book ends with Eliasberg holding a telegram from Shostakovich in his hand, a telegram that regrets the absence of the composer (long since evacuated East from the city in extremis), a telegram assuring Eliasberg that the upcoming performance will be MAGNIFICENT.

The film will end with the performance itself. We can watch the orchestra playing it, listen and watch the conductor conducting, watch Shostakovich by his radio set, listening from Kujbyshev, watch the Nazi soldiers, listening in their trenches. We can even watch the reaction, if we wish, of the Bronze Horseman, up on his horse and trying to get his balance, listening. I would recommend finding a good Russian director and let the whole thing be filmed in Russian, with the characters speaking Russian. You may wish to turn the semi-postmodernism back into realism, but it would be good to leave at least a few touches of the Petersburg phantasmagoria. Eschew Hollywood, however, even if Hollywood can come up with the big money. Hollywood would play too loosely with the truth for dramatic effect. Shostakovich was evacuated from Leningrad on October 1, 1941, but Hollywood would bring him back and keep him in the city for the duration of the filming. Furthermore, Hollywood would put him in his fireman’s helmet, would have him saving a building from a fiery inferno, handling a fire hose with one hand, while, simultaneously, conducting to the radio with his other, enjoying the performance of his Seventh Symphony. Eschew Hollywood, which could ruin the movie by over-seasoning it with the usual Hollywood excesses of violence, brutality, blood flowing freely, and, above all, gross sentimentality.

U.R. Bowie, author of Anyway, Anyways: Short Stories, 2014

One thought on “The Conductor by Sarah Quigley

  1. Pingback: When Writers Who Are Not Russian Write Novels Set in Russia | Dactyl Review

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