The Giller Prize-winning novel from 2014 tells the life story of Lev Termen, creator of the theremin, a Russian scientist and inventor that came to the United States on a pretty fuzzy mission that may have been part spying, part propaganda. The novel tells the story from the point of view of Termen, showing speculatively his thoughts on his life, his marriage to his first (Russian) wife, his marriage to his second (American) wife, his ambiguous relationship with his Russian handlers, and his infatuation with Clara Rockmore, a violinist who became a theremin virtuoso.
The book starts this way:
I was Leon Termen before I was Dr Theremin, and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theremin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could have been called a clara, after its greatest player. Pash liked “termenvox.” He liked its connotations of science and authority. But this name always made me laugh. Termenvox — the voice of Termen. As if this device replicated my own voice. As if the theremin’s trembling soprano were the song of this scientist from Leningrad.
The tone, both playful and wistful, foreshadows the drama of the life of this young man, intense and creative, wishing for a better life filled with music and love, but finding himself the instrument of others’ designs.
After a time in the US, where his Russian handler/impresario Pash runs up an astonishing deft, Termen is asked to return to the Soviet Union, where he is alternately imprisoned and assigned to work in a scientific institute. He even spends some time in a labor camp, in Kolyma.
The novel describes in detail the scientific principles that the theremin is based on, its construction, and its playing techniques.
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.
My theremin is a musical instrument, an instrument of the air. Its two antennas rise up froma closed wooden box. The pitch antenna is tall and black, noble. The closer your right hand gets, the higher the theremin’s tone. The farther away, the louder it becomes. But always you are standing with your hands in the air, like conductor. That is the secret of the theremin, after all: your body is a conductor.
Towards the end of his life, Termen is working for the state, electronically spying on the American ambassador in Moscow. When trying to clean up tapes of conversations held within the embassy, he thinks he hears Clara’s voice. He would like to keep the tapes where he thinks he can hear her but they are taken from him.
I hear your voice speaking and I do not know what I am to do with it. Does it mean that we are touching? Does it mean that we are destined? There is no destiny. There is no touch. My unrequited love, speaking across the sky. You cannot see me hearing. This letter will not reach you. These words will not be read.
Still I hear your voice. It is what I have.
The book reads like an extended letter to Clara, trying to make sense of what they had (and did not have). Leon, living a life he did not choose, holds to memories of Clara to the end. Whether that reflects what he lived through we will never really know. That is what can be so beautiful about fictional recreation of someone’s life, speculating about emotions and intentions, beyond the mere known facts.
Michaels, Sean. Us Conductors. Random House Canada, 2014.