In David Llewellyn’s compelling new novel, A Simple Scale, a single piece of music starts a story that takes us from Soviet Russia and McCarthyite Hollywood to post-9/11 New York, as the mystery of the lives of two gay composers is uncovered.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a man arrives in New York to claim that the theme tune of a popular tv series, said to be written by composer Sol Conrad, in fact belongs his grandfather Sergey, an eminent Russian composer who was sent to the gulag by Stalin, and from whom Sol stole the score. Conrad’s young PA Natalie is determined to defend her elderly employer, but as she digs deeper she discovers worlds of which she barely knew – Russian labour camps, McCarthyism, repressive governments, and the plight of homosexuals in the USA and USSR during the twentieth century.
Rich in detail and atmosphere, David Llewellyn explores the points at which the personal and the political meet. Throughout, his depiction of ’30s Leningrad, ’50s California and post-9/11 New York is only too believable.
Our featured extract begins on page 24 of the novel. It opens onto a wintery scene, in what was then Leningrad…
LENINGRAD, FEBRUARY 1950
Another time, another place; the city grey, the snowflakes falling in the street like ashes. Beneath the station’s clock tower, two heavy doors swing open with a gasp, and Sergey Grekov steps out, his coat held around him and his gloveless hands clasped tightly in his armpits. Thirty-seven years old but prematurely grey and uncommonly thin, he looks at Leningrad as if it still might be a mirage.
From everything he has been told these last few years, he was anticipating ruins. Hollow buildings and charred timbers, streets strewn with rubble. Instead, he finds it repainted and rebuilt,and yet the place is different,as if everything has been moved around in his absence, as you might rearrange the furniture in an old room.
He’s unaccustomed to choice. When he comes to a junction, he can go in any direction; left, right, straight ahead. The space is almost limitless. No perimeter fence, no watchtowers, no guard dogs. Yet this isn’t complete freedom. His papers tell him where to go and when. The tenement, the factory. Disobey them, and there’s every chance they could send him
The streets around the station are almost empty. The few people he passes look shabby, not how he remembers them. Moscow was always the peasant city, the place where people look as if they’ve just arrived from the country. Not Leningrad. Not Piter.
Moskovsky Prospect is busier, especially once he’s crossed the bridge. There, he moves through a shuffling black mass of other people, winter coats and hats dusted with snow. A xylophone-ribbed dog shivers and keeps pace with him along the gutter. Red and white trams whisper through the slush, passengers pressed against windows opaque with steam. The bell of a nearby clock strikes one.
The last time he saw this street it was through the windows of a police car, in the early hours of a Tuesday morning. It was August then, the air already humid, and stuffier still inside the car. He remembers an agent, a lad barely older than twenty, lighting his cigarette for him – his own hands were cuffed – and the way the car was filled almost immediately with smoke.
As a young man, Leningrad’s winters seemed so much colder than this – far too cold to consider walking very far – but the last leg of his journey was spent in a train compartment with ten others. They took it in turns to sit, but there was no room to lie down and sleep. Cold as it might be, it’s good to be out in the open. Besides, he has known far colder.
His papers tell him to report to the tenement building no earlier than 3pm and so, to pass the time, he finds a café where he orders coffee, black bread and a bowl of rassolnik.
The secret police and their informants were everywhere in the north; guards spying on prisoners and even prisoners spying on guards. No-one trusted anyone. But what about here, in this café? The skinny lad behind the counter, perhaps. The old woman eating some indeterminate grey mush out of a chipped bowl. The crooked figure hunched over a newspaper in the far corner.
The soup, when it arrives, is mostly barley and carrots, little in the way of meat. Sergey dips his bread into the soup. He hasn’t eaten in more than a day. The broth dances on his tongue. Its warmth spreads out, from his chest and through his limbs and into his fingers and toes. He closes his eyes, and when he opens them again he senses someone staring at him.The figure in the corner; the small man with stooped shoulders, his face drawn, pinched and beetle-browed. Though as threadbare and hungry-looking as everyone else in the city, this man could be secret service.
After studying him a moment longer, the stranger gets to his feet, tucks his newspaper into the inside of his overcoat, and crosses the café.
“Seryozha?” he says, his smile a gash of yellow teeth and greyish gums.“Sergey Andreievich?” Sergey nods slowly, waiting for the stranger’s smile to fade, and for him to say there’s been a mistake, that Sergey should never have been released, that his rehabilitation is incomplete and that he will be placed on the very first train back to Komi, by orders of the MGB.
“Do I know you?” he asks.
The stranger laughs. “Know me? Sergey! Of course you know me! It’s me! Vasily Nikolayevich. Sidorov! Vasya!”
Vasily Sidorov. A name he’s neither said nor spoken nor even thought about in years. When did they last see one another? Perhaps the night of the premiere, or in the days that followed. No, his memory of that time is too clouded to picture the exact scene. When he first laid eyes on him, however… this he remembers clearly.
A rehearsal room, backstage at the Kirov. Secretary Remizov taking Sergey on a tour of the theatre, introducing him as “our latest genius”. Echoing against a polished floor, the sound of a piano playing one of Chopin’s nocturnes. In the studio, holding the bar, a young man, eighteen or nineteen, with dark, lightly curled hair, performing a series of degage, and stopping only when he noticed the presence of a stranger.
Now, in the café, Sergey’s innards clench. He hardly recognises him.
The man draws out the facing chair and sits.
“I knew it was you!” he says. “I work nights at the children’s hospital, and every day I come here for lunch, which is really supper, I suppose. But every day I come here, and I know everyone who comes in, if not by name then by face. I see them every day. But you, as soon as you walked in, I thought, ‘Hold on, he’s new.’ And then I looked at you again, and I realised it was you.”
“Yes,” says Sergey, smiling almost painfully. “It’s me.”
“How long has it been? Ten years? Fifteen?”
“Twelve years. Well. Can you imagine? Twelve years. Incredible. I heard you were up in Archangel, writing music for a theatre company. That’s what everyone was saying. Is it true?”
Sergey shakes his head.
“Oh,” says Vasily. “They must have got it wrong. But you’re here now.”
“And it’s so good to see you! I hardly see anyone these days. We were, well, you know… One oughtn’t say such things in public, but people like us, the artists, we weren’t exactly front of the queue when the rations were being handed out. Were you here at all, during the blockade?”
Sergey shakes his head.
“Of course not. Silly question. But you were lucky. Say, are you going to eat all of that bread?” “Yes.” “Only, if you weren’t, I have some wood in my flat that I could swap. It’s good, too. It’s not damp and it won’t burn too quickly, not like some of the cheap shit that’s going around.”
“No, I’m quite hungry, so-”
“Do you have a place to stay?” Sergey tells him that yes, he has a place to stay, in Kirovskiy, near the Kirov plant.
“Nice, nice,” says Vasily.
“Oh, yes. And prestigious, too. You’re lucky. Have you moved in yet?”
“Not yet, no,” says Sergey. “I only got here an hour ago.”
“Oh, well,” says Vasily. “If you’ve not moved in yet, they might not have wood. In your rooms, I mean. They don’t always give you fuel, when you move in. Some places, it takes weeks. So, you know, if you don’t have any…”
Sergey draws his plate closer and dunks what’s left of his bread into the rassolnik.
“You must be hungry,” says Vasily. “I know they don’t always have much bread on the trains. I’ve heard, a friend once told me, if you want a bigger ration of bread…” His voice drops to a whisper. “If you want a bigger ration of bread, you have to give the ticket inspector a blowjob. Is that true?”
Sergey smiles. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Oh, then you must be hungry,” says Vasily, laughing and coughing at the same time.“Say, listen. I live near here. When you’re finished, let’s go to mine. I’m on the third floor, so it’s not too cold,and I have some vodka.”
A loaded invitation, but Sergey has nowhere else to go and two hours till he can report to his tenement. When the bill is settled he and Vasily walk the short distance to Vasily’s building, just off Sennaya Square.
Twelve years ago Vasily Sidorov lived not so far from here, in an apartment complex on Sadovaya Street, and Sergey remembers summer parties when they would congregate on a small terrace overlooking the square ,and they would drink champagne; Soviet champagne, of course, but ice cold, and sparkling and as crisp as a fresh apple.
Vasily’s new building has no terrace. One of its two entrances is sealed shut by a frozen snowdrift, and the other opens only when Vasily barges into it with such force that Sergey worries he – and not the door – might break.
Once inside, they are taken up to Vasily’s floor by a gloomy hallway and a flight of stairs that smells strongly of piss, while Vasily’s room smells mustily of tobacco smoke, mildew and dust. Sergey recalls Vasily having a small collection of illicit Persian rugs and a mantelpiece crammed with ornaments, but this new place – if it can be called new – is sparse, decorated only with a few pieces of old furniture. The floor and the walls are bare.
“Please, sit,” says Vasily. “I’ll get us some vodka. I only have one glass. Do you mind having yours in a teacup?”
“Not at all.”
“What am I saying? You have the glass, I’ll have the teacup. As you may be able to tell, I don’t do much entertaining these days…” Vasily opens a cupboard and takes out the vodka, a chipped teacup and a cloudy tumbler. He crosses the room with an awkward, scuttling motion; bug-like, a spider creeping along a skirting board. He was once the most graceful man Sergey had ever met. Small in build, but not feminine. Women and men alike considered him beautiful. Now he reminds Sergey of a gargoyle or some grinning demon, a didko, from an old folktale. He takes to the sagging armchair opposite, and for a moment they sit in silence; Vasily still smiling at him, scrutinising him.
“It’s incredible,” he says, at last. “That you came here. To Leningrad. It isn’t often men come back. Usually, well, usually they’re sent to some other place. Remember Remizov?”
As if the room has grown a degree or two colder, Sergey flinches. “Yes,” he says. “I remember him.”
A Simple Scale is available to pre-order on the Seren website: £9.99
Join our free Book Club for 20% off every book you buy from us.