To my ears the Theremin, which is at the centre of this novel, is a very odd sounding musical instrument. I cannot imagine sitting through an entire concert of the eerie electronic music it produces, (think of the theme from Star Trek). Luckily I didn’t have to like or listen to the Theremin to enjoy this novel. The author, Sean Michaels, has borrowed from the events of the life of Leon Termin, the Theremin’s inventor, to construct this story. Leon was a Russian physicist and the Theremin, was his most famous invention. The electronic sound of this instrument was controlled by the musician’s hands moving between two antennae. One hand controlled the volume and the other the pitch. The musician playing the instrument had the appearance of someone conducting an invisible orchestra or, as the author has Leon say very early on in the novel, conducting the ‘ether’. This is where the title, Us Conductors comes from. It is a metaphor for creativity; two hands waving in thin air creating something out of the invisible imagination. Leon’s love interest is Clara Rockmore who was acknowledged in her lifetime as the Theremin’s most proficient player. The first part of the story is told in the form of a long letter addressed to Clara that Leon writes while held prisoner on a ship bound for the USSR. The letter is never sent to Clara and is more of an internal meditation on the joys of scientific discovery, music and love.
Leon was born and grew up in the latter years of Imperial Russia and lived through the Russian Revolution. He came into his prime as a brilliant inventor during the early days of the Soviet Union. As a young man he was offered opportunities to develop his ideas in a laboratory in Leningrad. Between the two World Wars, at a time when only a fraction of the world was hooked up to an electrical grid he had already begun working on the blueprint of the television and improvements to wireless communication. In the 1920s his country thought it might be a good idea to send him to the United States to promote his inventions and to carry out some industrial spying. It was a time when the USSR was America’s ally and thus Leon had no trouble in obtaining a visa. He set up his workshop in New York where he entertained the celebrities of the day with his curious musical invention. The Theremin allowed him to make his way into the social circles of the very wealthy such as the Rockefellers and the Morgans and to attract the attention of celebrities the likes of George Gershwin and Charlie Chaplin. He enjoyed the nightclubs, the dance halls, the speakeasies and all the sparkle that was New York. Then he fell in love with a young violinist, Clara Rockmore ten years his junior. Their relationship started out as that of teacher guiding pupil and then became platonically romantic. During this time Leon was living the double life of a spy and used his business connections to gain access to the private documents of companies developing important new innovations in the industrial world. After the stock market crash of 1929 Leon suffered financially as his Soviet masters abandoned him. Eventually he is spirited back home, against his will by the KGB. He finds the Soviet world has become a much more sinister place under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin than it ever was when Vladimir Lenin was in charge. A series of blunders on Leon’s part results in his being transported to a Siberian Gulag where he is plunged into the depths of misery. Throughout his stay in this terrible place it is his indomitable intelligence and his love for the woman who could never share his ardour that sustains him and gives him the will to live.
I could add a few more sentences here and reveal the whole story because it does not have a lot of movement. The novel is about three hundred and fifty pages in length and is plotted out economically. The only character that the reader really gets to know is Leon who is telling his own story. The other characters make brief appearances and are left behind never to appear again. But the lack of action does not detract from the fact that this is an immensely engaging book largely due to the internal monologue that charts Leon’s life through the good years and the bad. Even during the darkest times of deprivation and suffering Leon’s brilliant, creative mind is his salvation.
Her is a very fine novel that vividly describes within its covers the excitement of a new industrial age and the whole Pandora’s box of modern communication based on the hum of that invisible electrical current. The driving force behind the story is the lively mind of the author, Sean Michaels who has imagined his protagonist into being out of the broad strokes of the real Leon Termin’s life.