REVIEW by Chris Moss

NWR Issue r29

A Simple Scale

by David Llewellyn

cover of A Simple Scale

Just about everything about this book is enticing, at least for anyone who likes a bit of East European/Russian sophistication and prefers their suspense to come packaged without the formulae of the thriller. It’s set in Soviet Russia and McCarthyite Hollywood. Its protagonists include two Russian composers. Spies, the gay underworld, actors, writers, atomic scientists people its pages. The simple scale of the title alludes to an allegedly stolen piece of music and a Pushkin quote about the heavens being as ruthless as the earth; what could be more Russian than that! In a UK fiction scene mobbed by parochial inwardness and anti-intellectualism, Llewellyn would seem to be offering us a holiday in the depths of the Cold War.

An accomplished novelist and TV screenwriter, he sets up his story with dispatch. In New York, shortly after 9/11, a man comes to town asking questions about a piece of music written by his grandfather that he believes has been plagiarised. The mood in Manhattan is tense, angry, sorrowful. Cut to: 1950, Leningrad, the scars of the siege are still on view, and the people who lived through it bear the deepest cuts. A once-acclaimed composer arrives back home after more than a decade in a gulag. Again, tension, bitterness, damage, darkness. The parallel preambles have just the right number of holes and shadowy grey areas to plunge us right into modern Manhattan and the far-off fictional world of Stalin’s USSR with our ears pricked and our eyes wide open for clues. The next stop is LA, the start of the Fifties again. This time it’s the music factory that supplies scores for big studio movies. Laurel Canyon and the Capitol lot spring into life. We can hear the motifs and clichés of a thousand swooning soundtracks, designed principally to fix our attention on Vivien Leigh’s cheekbones, Errol Flyn’s steely stare. The next jump is to the gulag itself: Vorkuta, north of the Arctic Circle, far to the east of civilisation. The novel we’ve come in to is no soft-focused American movie.

Our most obvious navigator in this fast-thickening, time-spanning global intrigue is Natalie, PA to an ageing composer, Sol Conrad. He suffers from dementia, but has lucid days. She suffers from self-loathing but has drinking days. Clarity is what she knows she needs as she explores the connection between the eras, but she gets much more than that as the plot draws her in at the deepest level.

There are shades of stock characters here: the reticent Russian survivor, the nostalgic sot; the New York PA is a wee bit Friends at the outset. The dialogue, however, is neatly crafted, nuanced and convincing (just as well, as there’s a lot of talk in this novel), and Llewellyn picks out the frayed edges of people’s psychological traits – the manipulative undertow behind one person’s sentimentality, the defensiveness behind the veneer of another’s failure or success. He locks in our interest with the subtexts and time shifts, which work like musical counterpoint. The flashbacks are rendered in the present, while the recent past is delivered in the past. It’s a deft way to compress time. Conrad’s point of view is told in second person, which sounds radical but isn’t; rather, the prose has the lilting feel of a man talking to himself, as when you say ‘you bloody fool’ to yourself.

Formidable research underpins this elaborate story and gives it a rich texture and believability, but the author never overcommits to exposition. Rather, the history is of the human kind, lives shattered but not yet broken by geopolitics, mended by artistic creation and convulsed by love. Moreover, he gives us a spy story of sorts, and a historical novel, too, without resorting to the tired rules of either; indeed, the one plays off the other and the novel has the slow build of literature, not the quick fixes of genre writing.

Llewellyn responded to 9/11 in his widely praised 2006 debut novel, Eleven, using emails to riff on the history-defining tragedy of the beginning of the century. This novel is a more mature, aesthetically ambitious response, successfully channelling some of the fear and horror of post-war Leningrad into its depiction of contemporary New York. An impressive and compelling work, entirely original, I can already hear it gaining its own score for an atmospheric movie directed by someone from Budapest or Brno, ideally deracinated and equal to its daring.

Chris Moss is a travel writer and journalist.

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previous review: A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things
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