Book review: Sean Michaels’ novel Us Conductors hits the right notes

A fictionalised account of the life of the Russian scientist who invented the theremin is full of romance, music and mystery.

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels.
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Sean Michaels has been writing about the affective force of music for most of his career. He first began to explore this interest when he founded the music blog "Said the Gramophone" in 2003. Since founding that site, Michaels has continued to write on this subject for a variety of newspapers and magazines (in 2015 he was appointed music columnist for Toronto's Globe & Mail), and he has now devoted a lengthy, inventive and seductive novel to the same subject.

Us Conductors is ostensibly a fictionalised account of the life of the Russian scientist, Leon Termen, and his invention (in 1920) of the theremin. "I was Leon Termen before I was Dr Theremin," he says at the opening of the novel, "and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theremin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could also have been called a clara, after its greatest player."

It is to Clara — a version of the Lithuanian theremin-player, Clara Rockmore, and Leon’s “one true love” — that the book is addressed, though the mode of address is shifting. As Leon puts it towards the end of the novel: “Sometimes I am writing you a letter, Clara, and other times I am just writing, pushing type into paper, making something of my years.”

We first encounter Leon in 1938, locked in a cabin on board a ship called the Stary Bolshevik, "plunging from New York back to Russia". He has been in the United States for 11 years, having moved there to find a new audience for his beloved theremin — the instrument that, as he describes it, "never strains or falters ... will never abandon you ... is better than any of us".

In this section of the book Leon — equipped only with “a typewriter, just paper and ink, just this story to set down” — reflects on his early scientific endeavours as a student in Russia; on his youthful involvement in Bolshevism; on his life in New York; and on Clara, his great love, whom he met in New York and whom he helped to become one of the most promising theremin players of her day.

These reflections account for most of the first half of the novel, and feature moments of highly appealing writing. Leon, for example, is wonderfully vivid: full of quiddity, foible, candour and a tendency to self-mythologise. As he says in an early address to Clara (lapsing for a moment into the third person): “But Lev Sergeyvich Termen is not the voice of the ether ... I am an instrument. I am a sound being sounded, music being made, blood, salt and water manipulated into air. I come from Leningrad. With my bare hands, I have killed one man. I was born on August 15, 1896. At that instant I became an object moving towards you.”

Elsewhere, Michaels brings Leon’s recollections to life with exquisite deployment of unexpected — and unexpectedly electrifying — adjectives. Accordingly, when Leon thinks back to “a winter night, one of those chill evenings when your vision is interrupted by 10,000 wild snowflakes”, the precision of the word “wild” causes the entire sentence to ignite. Michaels is able to sustain this combination of restraint and exuberance in even the second part of the novel, the subject matter of which invites hyperbole but seldom succumbs to it. Set eight years after the opening section, it shows us Leon as a victim of Stalin’s rule, exiled to a Siberian gulag, consigned to Marenko prison, sustained only by his love for Clara and her exquisite playing of the theremin.

The elegance with which Michaels handles his story makes for a debut that is charming, amusing, often deeply affecting — and atmospherically and thematically reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov's Bend Sinister, a novel that sometimes seems to be concerned with the perversions of political tyranny, but is in fact occupied, as Nabokov put it, with the beating of a loving heart.

But to draw this comparison is not to suggest that Michaels's work is in any way derivative. Like the music of the instrument that holds the story together, Us Conductors has a voice that is entirely its own.

Matthew Adams is a London-based reviewer who writes for the TLS, the Spectator and the Literary Review.