Montreal based writer Sean Michaels has been writing about music for over a decade on his popular and influential blog Said The Gramophone, so it only seems fitting that music be the muse for his debut novel Us Conductors.
In Us Conductors, Michaels takes the life of Russian scientist and inventor of the theremin, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, and does some major inventing of his own. Using the blueprints of Lev’s life as his starting point, Michaels skillfully builds him up to near epic proportions, until this ‘invented’ Termen takes on a life of his own and becomes real.
At the novel’s outset, Termen arrives in Fitzgerald’s New York, and is swept up in the glitz, glamour, and decadence of the last years of the Roaring Twenties. Yet, all the while he must remain faithful to Mother Russia, as he is on a mission to showcase the greatness of his country and promote his fascinating new musical instrument, the theremin. Termen is a man obsessed with scientific advancement, yet his preoccupation wavers when he meets Clara Rockmore, his one true love. At the novel’s heart, amid the bustling city, the music, and the shadow of Russia, is Termen’s unflinching love for Clara.
The tale is told from Termen’s perspective and he writes the entire story for her and her alone. In this way we get to know the many sides of Lev Termen. As scientist and inventor. As spy and murderer. As traitor and prisoner. As lover and lovelorn. And even as kung-fu master.
Michaels’ prose is exacting yet poetic. He writes his best narrative in pithy sentences stacked neatly on top of each other, his descriptions written with the exactitude one would expect of an observant scientist. But it is love which propels the story, and Termen’s obsession with Clara seems to only grow in intensity after she rejects him and he hears her play his theremin for the first time. Clara’s skill is unrivalled. Nonpareil. Which leaves the reader to ponder if in the end Termen truly loves her for her or because she’s the finest conductor of his marvelous invention?
The second part of the novel switches gears a bit, yet is no less satisfying, as Termen returns to a post-Lenin Russia and spends some time in the Gulag. One can’t help wonder if Michaels was reading a lot of Solzhenitsyn for inspiration here, but this section is well crafted, inventive, and the scenes are written with stark clarity.
Since Michaels is a proud Montrealer, several subtle nods to la belle ville can be found throughout. Termen and Clara visit clubs with names like Nouveau Palais and The Green Room (RIP) for dancing. A character has the name of ex-Montreal musician and “it” girl, Grimes, and one of Termen’s fellow prisoners shares his name with the Habs resident Russian defenceman, Andrei Markov. In fact, he even goes so far as to have Lev Termen envision his one true love playing the theremin in Quebec. He writes: “I imagined you played the theremin in Canada, on tour, in a city where they speak French. They said to you: “Bravo, bravo!” and “Enchanté,” and you marveled that somewhere so close could be so different.”
Michaels takes his readers far and wide in his first novel Us Conductors, and is sure to receive many a “bravo!” of his own in the coming year as more readers get tuned in to his debut. Check it.