Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: Review: The Conductor

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Photos / Supplied
Photos / Supplied

It can be a good or a bad thing if you finish a novel wanting more. In the case of Sarah Quigley's The Conductor it's both.

If I get to the final page of a book wanting to read more, it's usually because I'm not ready to let go of characters I've come to care about, even if their immediate journey has ended for the purposes of the story. That's a good thing. And it was true of The Conductor, a novel based on the experiences of a shy and difficult conductor during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II.

But when I'm tearing to the end of a good novel it's jarring to flip a page, expecting to rip into the final chapter, only to find the acknowledgements.

And so it was with The Conductor. I had assumed that the novel would end with the performance it is based on: a starving ragtag orchestra rallies to perform Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony to bolster the besieged city's spirits, in defiance of the Nazi bombardment.

But Quigley pulls up just before this momentous occasion. I can understand why. As she's imagined it, the internal journey of the conductor, Karl Eliasberg, reaches its conclusion on the eve of the performance. As a novelist, she's done her job - and well. The Conductor is a textbook-perfect novel: an absorbing plot, peopled with believable characters you can't help but care about, beautifully told.

But would a little indulgence at the end have hurt? Perhaps a newspaper clipping relaying how well the orchestra pulled off the performance, considering the musicians had been falling off their chairs from exhaustion in rehearsals - in one case, dead - and had barely enough strength to breathe, let alone play an oboe. And how was it received: in the concert hall; by the evacuated Shostakovich listening on the radio; and on the front lines of the siege, where it was relayed via huge speakers? Did feeding their souls make a difference to people whose bodies were starving?

Because the novel is based on a true story, the internet provided the denouement I craved, in a great article by journalist Ed Vulliamy in the British Observer newspaper, which Quigley credits in her acknowledgements and evidently drew much material from. In 2001 Vulliamy recorded the stories of Eliasberg's few surviving orchestra members.

Clarinet player Viktor Koslov told Vulliamy the performance was "the answer to our suffering".

"I have seen it in my sleep many times, and still hear the thunder of applause from the audience. That will be the last image before my eyes when I die."

An artilleryman listening on the front lines wrote in his journal: "It seemed that the cloudless sky had suddenly become a storm bursting with music as the city listened to the symphony of heroes and forgot about the war, but not the meaning of war."

Eliasberg recalled: "People stood and cried ... The hall, the homes, the front, the whole city was one human being seizing his victory over the soulless machine."

The Conductor does come with an epilogue of sorts: a CD of the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra playing the symphony in modern times. This is a nice touch. As adept as Quigley is at explaining the music, words are never going to do justice to such a stirring composition. It was spine-tingling to listen to it and imagine how it sounded to people on the edge of death.

So that's June's book club wrapped up. For July, I've chosen a non-fiction book, Lost in Shangri-La, by American journalism professor Mitchell Zuckoff, which I'll start writing about next week. Tune in on Friday for Christine's first blog about her chosen book, Owen Marshall's The Larnachs. You can read a snippet about each book here.

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