Music critic and blogger Sean Michaels won the Giller prize for this debut novel in 2014. I was hoping that All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews would win this Canadian award, but ‘Us Conductors’ is a well written novel with a fascinating subject. The book is a fictional account of the life of Lev Termen, Russian scientist, inventor of the theremin, and often referred to as the Thomas Edison of Russia. You get bonus points for knowing what a theremin is without looking it up. Sheldon plays one in an episode of The Big Bang Theory.
The theremin is a unique instrument because you don’t actually touch it while playing. You move your hands through an electric current between antennas creating an eerie sound. It does look a bit like conducting and of course the title word also refers to the scientist’s love of all sorts of electrical inventions including metal and motion detectors and a listening device used for spying.
The story of Termen’s life is gripping. He travelled America promoting the instrument he thought might be mass produced. He became a reluctant spy, was frustrated by unrequited love, and spent many years in a Siberian gulag upon his return to Russia. Clara Rockmore was the love of Termen’s life, but he never married her. See her in the video below, playing The Swan. She obviously became very accomplished on the instrument. You’d think with all that raw material the author could have made the novel into a page turner, but for me it just wasn’t. Having said that, it was beautifully written and very interesting and in the end I think it does deserve the attention it has received.