Us Conductors by Sean Michaels : Review

The book is the fictionalized story of the tumultuous and eventful life of Lev Termen one of the first people in the world to create an electronic musical instrument.  Termen is the inventor of the no-touch instrument, the theremin, which used those antennae to probe electrical fields for melody.  He also invented the first drum machine and espionage machinery he named ‘the Thing’. The theremin, named after its inventor and now no longer in common use, provided plaintive and even eerie music in several movies, was used by many composers and even, famously, used in pop songs such as “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys.

Though the novel is a work of historical fiction, neither Termen nor the theremin, the world’s first electronic instrument, is!

So, Lev, known as Leon in America, a scientist, who achieves fame through his wonderful invention- even Charlie Chaplin buys one-is sent off to Manhatten as a Russian spy. His brief is to find his way into society by using the instrument and once he’s in a position of trust to make deals and negotiations. However, Lev would prefer to be a man of pure science and an inventor rather than a spy. While in America he falls in love with the gifted American violinist, Clara Reisenberg, who became famed as the star performer of the theremin.  While their love is never quite completely fulfilled, it is intense and lasting (“It was you I felt in my electromagnetic field”). Even though Lev marries two other women at separate times – Katia, in America and Lavinia in Russia, it is Clara who runs in his bloodstream. Indeed, the narrative in the book, in the form of a letter, is addressed to Clara, who is not likely to even ever read it. “This letter will not reach you. These words will not be read’. But till the end of his days finds her “in every recording.”

Leon creates a home for himself in America, making friends and designing new and wonderful machines. It’s a glitzy world and a glamorous one and Lev is enraptured with it, living in The Ritz and rubbing shoulders with Glen Miller and Albert Einstein.  However, he must maintain his fidelity to his Motherland, forced to become more involved in the occupation of spying. The time period captured in the pages is possibly one of the most significant in recent American history, spanning the prohibition period to the post Wall Street collapse. The excitement of performing before thousands of appreciative people dies out with the onset of the great depression.

Inevitably, his position in USA becomes unsafe and he must return to Russia that has changed beyond recognition.  Here he is consigned to the prison camp in Kolyma on the charge of being a foreign agent  where he must suffer ignominy and intense hardship and made to pay for his delight in American profligacy.

Termen’s is a strange and varied life.  A gifted inventor and scientist, he lived many lives and played many roles. He was a spy in a foreign country, a performer par excellence, a stowaway on a Russia-bound cargo ship on which he’s prisoner  on the eve of the Second World War, a murderer and even a Kung Fu master. Most of all, he was the lover of Clara, his “one true love” with whom he is in constant and unending mental conversation.

The novel spans many times and many places- the imagery used for each setting is realistic and the language, sometimes lyrical and sometimes unembellished, befitting the situation.  Though Michaels says in the postscript that the credit of original research on tremens does not go to him but other authors (Albert Glinsky, Gustav Herling and documentary maker Steven M. Martin to name a few) but the book he has written is wonderful for the richness of prose and sensuality of expression. Coupled with the magnitude and scope of  Léon Theremin life, the makes for a wonderful read.


This review appeared under the name : Odysseyof a Scientist Spy in the Tribune


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