Soviet record-keeping being what it was, there are gaps in the chronology. And yet we can be fairly certain that the Russian inventor Léon Theremin wasn’t an early western adopter of kung fu, nor did he murder an FBI agent while attempting to steal U.S. state secrets. Except, that is, in the pages of Sean Michaels’s Us Conductors (Random House Canada), a first novel that reads like a cross between straightforward biography and an espionage thriller.
This, admittedly, can be confusing. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction isn’t anything new, but ascribing a killing or two to an otherwise gentle soul—and one who died just a little more than a decade ago—just might be pushing the bounds of good taste. To which Michaels simply says, more or less, that all is fair when it comes to the creative act.
“That’s why I want to proclaim everywhere, to make it clear, that this is a work of fiction,” he stresses in a telephone interview from his Montreal home. “And within that context, I feel like I’m free to tell a good tale. If the tale feels compelling, then I’ve done a good job, and if it doesn’t, then I’ve done a bad job.…And I would hope that anyone who’s related to any of the figures who are depicted in this book are interested in hearing a yarn told using one of their ancestors—to enjoy the play of being a part of history, part of the stuff from which humans can make stories—rather than only wanting to see their grandfather represented as a saint.”
So far, Michaels’s argument has been convincing: no representatives of the Theremin estate have tried to contact the Scottish-born author. And in any case, his portrait of the electronic-music pioneer—here identified by the Russian version of his name, Lev Termen—is essentially benign. Yes, Theremin is deluded, both in his fruitless pursuit of the woman who made his instrument famous, Clara Rockmore, and in his support of a Soviet state that was rapidly turning, under Stalin, into a brutal dictatorship. But it’s this willingness to believe, more than the glittering highs and crushing lows of Theremin’s long career, that makes his story nearly universal.
“The thing that I was most interested in was looking at the fiction of true love, although that’s not a good way of putting it,” says Michaels. “This book is very much about looking at a relationship that one person has decided is this kind of mythic true love, and yet it’s a very flimsy thing. Those of us who are outside the relationship, looking at Lev’s feelings for Clara, can sort of see a two-dimensionality to it that doesn’t really quite feel whole.…Anyway, I wanted to look at this kind of untrue true love, this lying true love, and at the way that can be powerful. What happens when the only thing that is keeping a man alive or pushing him through the day is a fiction, is a lie? That’s the story that I first was committed to trying to tell, and then I started looking at other kinds of lies that we tell ourselves.”
Among those lies, he argues, are the “notions of patriotism and duty and loyalty” that keep Theremin bound to the Soviet system even as he sees it beginning to implode. During his self-imposed (and state-abetted) American exile, he’s split between the allure of the New World and the pull of the Old; once he returns (or is returned, forcibly) to Russia he has to put his beautiful music aside to concentrate, instead, on the technology of surveillance. The heart, Michaels implies, cannot be trusted.
And neither can music. “When we hear something and make meaning of it, that is in a sense a lie—but not necessarily a deceiving one or a malevolent lie,” he says. “It’s kind of a beautiful and constructive lie.”
Music provides the bond between Theremin and Rockmore: she’s the most gifted of those drawn to his self-named instrument, played by making elegant gestures in space, and he comes to see her as perfection incarnate. It also provided Michaels with a somewhat perverse entry into life as a writer: from contributing record reviews to his college paper, he founded a popular blog, Said the Gramophone, and is now the North American music correspondent for the Guardian. Yet he was always bent on writing fiction, and describes his music criticism as “just an accidental side project”.
“I never really had any career aspirations, and it was during a long period when I was trying to write a first novel that I suddenly fell into journalism,” he explains, adding that he’s now comfortable in that role. Still, given both his fast-and-loose approach to the facts and his evident storytelling skills, his return to his first love is a happy move, and no accident at all.