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A Simple Scale

David Llewellyn
ISBN-13: 
9781781724705
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, August 22, 2018
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LONGLISTED FOR THE 2019 POLARI PRIZE

‘Beautifully told and beautifully written’ – Philip Reeve (author of Mortal Engines)

‘An impressive and compelling work, entirely original’ – New Welsh Review

‘Masterly interweaving of narratives, time periods and places, David Llewellyn’s A Simple Scale is a symphony of mysteries and passions.’ – Paul Smith

‘A Simple Scale is a work of self-assured persuasive power, and the resounding artistic statement of a writer who has truly arrived. It is bold, it is brave, and it is the real deal.​’ – Wales Arts Review​

‘A compelling and suspenseful novel​’ – Buzz Magazine

A single piece of music starts a story that takes us from Soviet Russia and McCarthyite Hollywood to post-9/11 New York. A single piece of music, and two composers – one American, the other Soviet – but which of them wrote it? How did their lives cross? How were their fortunes shaped by history, and what were the consequences for those they loved?

A young Russian, Pavel Grekov, arrives in New York in the October of 2001, and accuses ageing TV composer Sol Conrad of plagiarising a work by his grandfather, Sergey. Conrad’s young PA Natalie is determined to defend her boss, but as she digs deeper she discovers worlds she barely knew about – the labour camps of Siberia, the “Red Scare” of 1950s Hollywood, government oppression, and the plight of gay men in the USA and USSR of the mid-20th Century.

Natalie, Sol and Sergey’s stories range across decades and continents, and A Simple Scale moves through narratives of love, death, deceit, the secret police, atom bombs, Classical music and the last days of Hollywood’s “Golden Age”. In a dramatic conclusion, the past and present catches up with them, as the secrecies and betrayals of Sol and Sergey’s lives inform events in 2001, when history is just about to repeat itself. 

Rich in detail and atmosphere, David Llewellyn explores the points at which the personal and political meet. Throughout, his depiction of ’30s Leningrad, ’50s California and post-9/11 New York is only too believable.

REVIEWS

Review by Sofía Villoria, DURA

Monday, February 11, 2019

 

David Llewellyn’s A Simple Scale sets out to provide the reader with a profoundly humbling experience: the attainment of the understanding that all our lives are ultimately at the mercy of the tides of history and that we and our fellow men are undeniably responsible for how that history plays out. Llewellyn explores this idea intimately through the perspectives of three people, into which the narrative voice dissolves: Natalie, a troubled New Yorker, struggling with the trauma she developed after witnessing the September 11 terrorist attacks; Sergey, a Soviet composer who survives the war and his 12-year-long stay at the Vorkuta Gulag; and Sol, a closeted gay man who is desperately trying to rise above his unfulfilling job as a Hollywood movie composer in the midst of the Second Red Scare, whilst taking care not to attract unwanted attention from the authorities.

The connections between these three lives, the details of which are subtly revealed through the recounting of the experiences of each, condense into the mystery that drives the narrative – the fact that the most recognisable piece of music of both Sol and Sergey’s isolated careers happens to be the same. In these mirrored stories, Llewellyn displays the complex relationships between the political, personal and artistic in three worlds, which share little more than a hostility towards the people who inhabit them. Through Sergey and Sol, the reader becomes familiar, almost to a personal degree, with the horrors of oppression and authoritarianism. In societies in which power is corrupt and there is no guarantee of justice, these characters are subjected to a constant state of paranoia, and forced to sacrifice their dignity and integrity for a chance of survival
This sense of uncertainty and vulnerability is paralleled in the phobia Natalie develops after the terrorist attack her city suffers, and her subsequent attitude towards the world. In all three cases, Llewellyn’s characters and the communities around them have ‘become a people scared’. They share a yearning for the lost innocence of earlier times, and an awareness of how people’s natures have become a reflection of the times they live in.

In fact, it is the cycle this reflection fuels which Llewellyn makes a point of revealing: the environment which drives people away from their personal empathy and kindness, very clearly illustrated by the pervasively emotionally distant tone of the narrator, has been brought about by other people’s previous fears and cruelty. A Simple Scale makes a compelling argument for the fact that this ‘Hell we make for ourselves and others here on Earth’ does not merit any valid justification. However, the ominous tone and bleak outlook of the novel fall short of feeling all-encompassing, and are instead counterbalanced by brief but intense moments of hope – usually brought about by a contemplation and admiration of natural beauty or, more significantly, art.

Regardless of all the suffering the characters are put through, each of them is able to find solace in the pleasure and self-expression of music. This art form is the one thing that transcends their physical and emotional trials, even as their perception and composition of it is altered. This remains true both during their lifetimes and once what remains of them is little more than their loved ones’ memories or old discoloured photographs. A Simple Scale, despite its oppressive exploration of the shortcomings of the human race and the communities we create, will leave you with a renewed reverence for justice and a commitment to kindness which surpass the cynicism both the novel and reality might sometimes let you fall into.

Review by Chris Moss, New Welsh Review

Friday, February 1, 2019

 

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.

 

Reproduced with the permission of New Welsh Review. See the full article here.

Review by Gary Raymond, The Lonely Crowd

Friday, December 14, 2018

I think it’s been a rich year in Welsh publishing, although maybe not as much has come out as has in previous years – that means it’s very difficult to choose the best, because so much of it has been really good. In fiction, though, David Llewellyn’s A Simple Scale is the one that stood out for me. Llewellyn is the real deal – it’s a thoughtful, superbly written story that drips with largely realised literary ambitions. As you’d expect from someone who writes a lot of audio drama, his dialogue pings, particularly in the sections of the book set in golden era Hollywood. But he’s not afraid to evoke the ghosts of Solzhenitsyn when the story then moves to the Gulags. Not an easy switch to pull off, but A Simple Scale is a classy complex utterly satisfying literary novel.

 

Review by Philip Reeve, author of Mortal Engines

Monday, December 3, 2018

There’s a slight echo of Beautiful Ruins plot in A Simple Scale by David Llewellyn: in the 1930s a Soviet composer falls foul of the party and his work is suppressed; in 1970s Hollywood an American composer borrows a piece of his music for the theme to a Battlestar Galactica-type TV show, and in 2001 the Russian’s son and the American’s assistant try to work out what connected the two men. It’s beautifully told and beautifully written. I also read another of David’s novels, Ibrahim and Reenie, which is equally fine.

Review by Rhianon Holley, Buzz Magazine

Friday, October 5, 2018

An intriguing premise: music plagiarism forms the basis for this gripping and fast-paced novel. Spanning three decades and two countries, Welsh writer David Llewellyn’s dramatic story begins in New York during the aftermath of 9/11. Famous composer Sol Conrad’s PA Natalie is contacted by a Pavel Grekov, claiming that a popular TV theme tune attributed to Sol Conrad was in fact composed by his grandfather Sergey Grekov. What transpires, via Los Angeles and Leningrad, is the background story and Natalie’s attempts to investigate the allegations against her employer, who is suffering with dementia.
The relationships formed between the characters prove pivotal from the offset, managing to convey the varying strands of the storyline with conviction. What could have been a complex plot has been smartly managed by Llewellyn in the service of conveying a suspenseful narrative. The atmosphere of the novel is enhanced by the various locations, bringing each period to life. The foray into Russia between the 1930s and ’50s provides an atmospheric setting to parallel the dark times experienced in post-9/11 America. The deft descriptive work manages to set the scene, providing a sense of place. The tension is notched up similarly onto the scores on which the story is based until we discover the outcome. 

A Simple Scale is a compelling and suspenseful novel that this reader could not resist from the beginning, enhanced by its plot twists. With such vivid descriptions of each location, it’s difficult not to envisage and be swept away into that period of time.

 

 

Review by Craig Austin, Wales Arts Review

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

 

For a Cold War kid like me, the prospect of a new novel by a Welsh writer that plots its course through a bleak historic fog of McCarthyism, Soviet oppression and nuclear weapons testing sits firmly in the finely-honed and rarefied category of ‘right up my alley’. Toss a red-raw post 9/11 Manhattan landscape into the mix and it would be fair to say that a notable number of my overriding preoccupations would appear to be suitably catered for.

What I didn’t anticipate however is the degree to which A Simple Scale would draw me in and spit me out, nor the frequency with which I continue to return to it; a fairly remarkable achievement for a book that ostensibly sets out to discover nothing more that the true provenance of the theme tune to a one-time TV sci-fi series.

In the aftermath of the September terror attacks, Pavel Grekov arrives in New York determined to reclaim the musical legacy of his grandfather Sergey, a once-eminent Russian symphonist sent to the gulag by Stalin, from the acclaimed American composer Sol Conrad. Conrad’s PA Natalie, though determined to defend her now elderly employer, delves deeply into the past, uncovering worlds of which she was previously barely aware – Soviet labour camps, McCarthyism, oppressive state control and intrusion, and the compromised covert lives led by gay men in both the USA and USSR.

A Simple Scale by David Llewellyn

A Simple Scale is, at its core, a book about personal freedom, and the ultimately crushing impact upon the human spirit when those freedoms are either removed or repressed. The author’s expert handling of the key strands that act as a 20thcentury secret history of what it meant, and in many cases still means, to be a gay man are both deeply personal and inherently tragic and when a snatched clandestine liaison culminates in a bloody motel-room tragedy it tellingly does so in the searing white-heat aftermath of a nuclear test explosion. The world turned upside down, the personal and the political colliding with devastating consequences for all concerned.

A haunting sense of fatalism abounds throughout. Fleeting moments of hope and of raw human connection are clutched tightly and treasured as rare gifts as we are taken on a winding historic journey of love, death and deceit that displays no let up in either its intensity or preponderant sense of injustice. The impression of history being compelled to repeat itself pervades the novel’s concluding chapters and as the manipulations and betrayals at the centre of Sol and Sergey’s lives act as the defining elements of its 21st century denouement we arrive at two pivotal acts of self-determination and a blisteringly remorseless declaration:

The past is the past and the dead are dead and this is your life, so fuck every last one of them.

Llewellyn’s dialogue is underpinned by a vivid authenticity, and though this might be expected from an author who has previously turned his hand to scriptwriting these are conversations that positively crackle with life, invigorated as they are by the frailties and wonder of the human condition. The cat-and-mouse exchanges that populate Conrad’s personal and professional travails through an increasingly paranoid 50s Hollywood are deftly attuned to both the period and its location and I find myself still quietly applauding a smashing Montgomery Clift-themed flirtation that culminates in a line so mischievously perfect that it will make your heart skip a beat.

A Simple Scale is a work of self-assured persuasive power, and the resounding artistic statement of a writer who has truly arrived. It is bold, it is brave, and it is the real deal.

 

 

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