Us Conductors , is a fictionalized account of the mid-section of Termen’s life. Dubbed the “Russian Edison” for his brilliant, wide-ranging innovations with electricity, Léon Termen née Lev Sergeyvich (1896-1993) invented the electronic instrument known as the theremin by chance while working on an early motion sensor prototype. Beginning and ending in the Soviet Union, the novel’s prime focus is the decade Termen spent enjoying the fruits of capitalism in Depression-era New York, where his invention made him, for a time, the toast of the town. Termen lived at the Plaza Hotel, hobnobbed with Einstein and Glen Miller, and — in Michaels’ telling at least — danced and drank till dawn at the speakeasies that flourished during Prohibition. That Michaels has Termen narrate much of the novel from the hold of a Russia-bound cargo ship on which he’s held captive on the eve of the Second World War offers a nudge that the good times didn’t last.
The cornerstone of Michaels’ story is Termen’s unreciprocated love for fellow Russian émigré Clara Rockmore, the theremin’s beautiful foremost virtuoso. (All that’s really known of their relationship is that Termen proposed to her, and was turned down.) Michaels sometimes overplays the geek card here: “It was you I felt in my electromagnetic field,” he moons.
There’s no mistaking the pride in Michaels’ Author’s Note declaration that Us Conductors is “full of distortions, elisions, omissions, and lies.” Most readers, however, won’t know where the truth ends and the lies and omissions begin.
Termen’s biography abounds with enough improbable elements that it hardly requires fictional enhancements. In 1938, he was reportedly abducted from his New York studio by Soviet agents and sent — unbeknownst to his friends and wife, the African-American dancer Lavinia Williams — to perform hard labour in a Siberian gulag as an enemy of the state (which he wasn’t). Later, he was moved to a science prison, where he helped develop espionage technology, including the bugging device known as “The Thing”: a wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States that hung conveniently inside the American Embassy after it was presented to the ambassador by Russian schoolchildren.
Us conductors won the Giller Prize. It is a must read.
I borrowed much of this review from the Toronto Star.