US Conductors by Sean Michaels is inspired by the true story of Lev Sergeyvich Terman, a Russian inventor who led an incredible life. As Leon Theremin, he invented many electronic marvels and was the toast of New York, He was also a Soviet spy during his time in the States and spent time in a Russian prison camp during the Stalinist era.
He is best remembered as the inventor of the theremin, a ghostly musical instrument that can be “played” without touching it. I’m not a scientist so I won’t even attempt to explain how it works although you have heard its eerie strains if you have ever watched vintage sci-fi or horror flicks (usually accompanying the emergence of alien invaders slithering out of a spacecraft); watched Midsomer Murders ( the British TV mystery series – available in North America on Netflix or on DVDs from your local library – uses a theremin in producing its spooky theme music) or have heard the Beach Boys ‘Good Vibrations’ on classic rock radio ( challenging listeners to identify the instrument producing those eerie sounds.) Quoting from the book: “Raise the right hand first, toward the pitch antenna, and you will hear it: DZEEEEOOOoo, a shocked electric coo, steadying into a long hymn. Raise the left hand, toward the volume antenna, and you will quiet it. Move your hands again and the device will sing … that is the secret of the theremin, after all: your body is a conductor.”
The best known and most proficient player of the theremin – apart from the inventor himself – was a New York musician of Lithuanian descent named Clara Rockmore. She first met Mr. Terman as a teen-ager (her maiden name was Reisenberg) and, despite a number of proposals from Mr. Terman over the years, married NYC attorney Robert Rockmore. The book is in part a fictionalized account of the romance between Mr. Terman and Ms. Rockmore and partly how Mr. Terman (in the book) uses his love for Ms. Rockmore to keep his spirit alive during some devastatingly harsh years in Russian prison camps. (“You were wearing amber the night we first saw Duke Ellington. Today this memory is beside me.”) The author also writes about Mr. Terman’s early life in Russia. Throughout it all, the line blurs between fact and fiction. As Mr. Michaels says, tantalizingly, at the front of the novel “This book is mostly inventions”.
Sean Michaels has had a colorful life as well, to judge from the brief bio on the back cover of the novel. Born in Scotland and raised in Canada he has at various times been a blogger, a writer for magazines such as McSweeney’s and The Guardian and toured with rock bands. He is the current winner of the Scotiabank Giller Award, one of the most prestigious and lucrative of all Canadian literary awards.
Mr. Michaels’ musical experience shines through in his description of a Django-like guitarist “strumming his instrument as though he was shaking a secret loose.“
Through the magic of Mr. Michaels’ evocative prose, it is possible to visualize such legendary NYC hangouts as Harlem’s Cotton Club “where there were usherettes in pink hunting coats, and a band with a blind piano player, and coloured girls, dancing as if they had been listening to these songs all their lives.”
Mr. Michaels also take artistic licence with real figures from the New York social scene of that era. According to the novel, Terman`s house became quite a gathering place: “ While Tommy Dorsey explained his recipe for ‘Irish spaghetti sauce ‘, Jascha Heifetz would sit arguing with Mischa Elman about tremelo. Glenn Miller would lean by the stairway’s banister, flirting with every girl. Isabella Marx would use a different insult each time they crossed paths. “You cur”, she said. “You rascal” “You wag.”
Mr. Terman’s time in New York ended under mysterious circumstances in 1938 when he was spirited back to the Soviet Union and somehow ended up in several Russian prison camps, each more brutal than the last. You’ll have to read the book to understand how this could happen under the Stalinist regime. Mr. Michaels depicts this period in Mr.Terman`s life with such harrowing imagery that reading these passages is what I call ‘reverse escapism’ , in other words, I am glad I am not there.
Even in this somber part of the novel, there are memorable lines I like to quote: “As the music rose up, it also vanished. Sometimes, it is like this, listening to music: the steady bars let you separate from your body, slip your skin, and you are standing beside the shuttering slides of memory. Shades of light, skies filled with cloud, old faces.”
Intriguing, romantic, vividly written and impeccably researched, Us Conductors is more than a novel – it is an experience. I wish I could say that I was looking forward to his next book. But I fear that having proved his point with his debut novel Sean Michaels may already be off to his next adventure.