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Sarah Quigley interview

Sarah Quigley’s longstanding interest in Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich led her to think about what it would be like to create art under a repressive regime. The result is her new novel, The Conductor.

The young man from the flat downstairs would speak in a whisper. Standing in the hallway of the East Berlin apartment building, he would look “like this” – in a noisy cafe back in her hometown of Christchurch, German-based writer Sarah Quigley throws a glance over each shoulder. “He was younger than I am, he would have been a kid growing up [before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989], but he had this thing of not talking in the stairway in case someone overheard. It made me feel so sad.”

The same fearfulness made Dmitri Shostakovich justifiably watchful. One of the two main characters in Quigley’s new novel, the Russian composer was in turn the golden boy of the Stalinist regime and an artist denounced for “formalist perversions” considered “alien to the Soviet people”.

“I don’t love all of his music,” says­ ­Quigley. “Some of it is very difficult and strident. But I’ve always been interested in Shostakovich – he was always there – and I started to think about what it would be like to create art under that really repressive regime with that strict official eye on you all the time.”

In Quigley’s The Conductor, Shostakovich is determined, single-minded to the extreme – an obsessed composer, an erratic husband, a distracted father and the unsuspecting subject of the envy and devotion of Karl Illyich Eliasberg, conductor of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra. Where Shostakovich is proud, unshake­able in his faith in his own ability, Elias­berg is a small pedantic man who is wearingly punctual and regularly overlooked, an outsider who likes to listen at doors – “a necessary subterfuge which he’d never considered as eavesdropping”. Event­ually, he finds his lonely place at the podium of an orchestra that is a conspicuous step down from the mighty Leningrad Philharmonic.

Vastly different in temperament and social standing, the two men nevertheless share an all-consuming passion for their art and an intuitive appreciation of musical composition and performance that becomes more apparent when, three months after Hitler invades the Soviet Union in June 1941, the German army is on Leningrad’s doorstep. For Shostakovich and Eliasberg, it is an unacceptable distraction from their work. When he is not batting out incendiary bombs on the Conservatory roof as a volunteer fire warden, Shostakovich is working furiously on his much-anticipated Seventh Symphony. In the rehearsal room of Radio Hall, Eliasberg is urging his musicians to play on even as the threat of imminent invasion looms larger: “We’re professional musicians,” he exhorts, “and we will play like professionals until we no longer have the lips, lungs or arms with which to do so.”

One month into the 900-day siege that would leave around a million Russians dead from starvation and exposure, Shostakovich and his family are evacuated to Moscow. Already much of Leningrad’s cultural elite, including the Philharmonic Orchestra and its principal conductor, Yevgeny Mravinsky, have left to hunker down in the relative safety of Siberia. Only those artists and musicians not considered national treasures by Stalin’s all-powerful Arts Department are left within the parameters of Leningrad, a freezing city drained day by bomb-shattered day of heat, food and life.

Shostakovich completed his symphony in 1942. It premiered in ­Kuybyshev and was later performed – to a score smuggled out of the USSR on photographic film – in London and New York, where it was hailed as a triumph of Soviet fortitude, an anthem to the besieged city’s enduring strength. In Leningrad, however, it falls to what remains of Eliasberg’s broken Radio Orchestra to perform the triumphant work, to rouse the spirits of the city’s waning population and to send a resolute reminder to the German army that Leningrad is not beaten.

It is a vivid portrayal. The fixated Shostakovich grappling with the musical score in his head as he fights fires, Eliasberg dragging his emaciated body between the Radio Hall and the unforgiving stairs of his home. The bodies, the greenish pallor of the survivors, the fear, the suspicion, the inhuman desperation. And the cold, always the cold – pervading the frozen streets, the wrecked buildings, the bomb shelters. In the draughty rehearsal room, the orchestra wear fingerless gloves and coats that hang on their skeletal frames. They survive (most of them) on a few extra rations and are able to keep performing, with the dismal supply of amateur musicians replacing those who have fled or died. By the time spring arrives, everyone is too thin and too hungry to feel the warmth on the skin.

As you walk around Berlin, says Quigley, the war feels close. There are bullet holes in the buildings, there are stories recounted by East Berliners and Russians. There is a shared knowledge of the siege and the Leningrad concert. “Even with the young Russians, they actually know of that, they care about that.”

In 2000, Quigley was awarded the inaugural Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers’ Residency. After the requisite 10 months, the city remained foreign to her. She couldn’t speak the language – a strange and isolating experience for a writer used to “reading a city through its signs and displays” – and she was unaccustomed to the long months of snow and sub-zero temperatures. She stayed on, working as reviewer, editor and columnist by day (her “money work”), writing short stories, novels (this is her fourth) and poetry by night.

Now, she says, she loves Berlin – its unpretentiousness, its diversity, its passion. “Whatever type of person you are, you can find a niche, particularly in the arts. It’s extremely tolerant, extremely unpretentious. If I go to a different city, a more conservative, money-driven city [her husband’s family lives in Stockholm], I feel like an oddity. I get back to strange, shabby, colourful Berlin and I feel I can breathe again.”

Since beginning The Conductor, she has returned to music – throughout her school and university years in Christ­church, she played the cello and the piano. She bought a small upright piano. She plays, she says, every day.

“It worked in a very strange way. I sometimes found that if I wasn’t sure where things were going, I would sit down at the piano and things would fall into place in an odd way. I would still be thinking about the book [it includes a CD of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony] but it would somehow defuse the tension.”

Just as important to the writing of this book, however, were the inescapable cold, the isolation, the loneliness – memories of her first year in Berlin that have crept under the covers of The Conductor.

“Sometimes I think it’s a terrible thing to be a writer. The loneliness, the necessary aloneness, and the fact there is nothing to draw on but yourself – that pressure is constant and exhausting. But on the positive side, it sustains you, I really think writing can save you. When things are falling to chaos around you, you’ve always got words. It’s like building a little wall of defence or protection – it stops you from being alone, paradoxically. I think that seeps into the novel in both those main characters.”

In The Conductor, Shostakovich’s obsession with the symphony is almost a physical phenomenon, a ­fortification through which he takes reluctant glimpses at the events unfolding in his city. For Eliasberg, it is an escape from the misery of living in the shadow of his mother, Shostakovich, Mravinsky and the whole closed cultural fraternity of Leningrad from which he feels so ­cruelly excluded.

For both men, as for so many ­artists, says Quigley, such single-mindedness is a requirement.

“That need to remove yourself from ordinary life – sometimes it is horrible, having to stand aside, always to be watching and processing. It stops you from fully engaging with life.

“I see that in Shostakovich and it is mirrored by Eliasberg – they both recognise the loneliness in each other and they recognise that driving passion which borders on obsession, even though they can’t bridge the gap.”

Shostakovich remains larger than life, irascible but brilliant, but it is, as the title suggests, the transformation of Eliasberg, pushed by wartime necessity to give voice to Shostakovich’s victory symphony, that drives the book.

“It was a working title but the more the book grew the more appropriate it seemed. I think of any of the characters he is the one that takes the biggest learning curve. Shostakovich was probably born the way he was and died the way he was.”

In New Zealand to launch The Conductor and to participate in the Auckland ­Writers & Readers Festival, Quigley is now on to the second draft of her next novel – the story of three 20-year-old characters of exceptional ability. She won’t give away too much, but says it’s character-driven and a welcome return to modern times.

“I love that process where everything you’re seeing and hearing and doing – when all those little things are jostling to get in. It was strange writing in a time when I couldn’t pick up on those things around me.”
It feels solid, she says of her new novel. “It’s fully engaging. I’ve got a good first draft but it’s still ­changing a bit. It feels springy and alive.”

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