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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Review of "Us Conductors" by Sean Michaels

I’m ending this month with a review from my archives.  This book, which I read in January of 2015, is currently on the longlist of the 2016 Dublin Literary Award and won the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize.  As my review indicates, I’m not on the same page as the judges and nominators. 

2 Stars
 
Not being knowledgeable about physics and not being a lover of electronic music, I did not find this book’s subject matter appealing and so read it only after it won the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Though I have not yet read the other books on the award’s shortlist, I must admit that this novel did not strike me as being of the quality I would expect for one of Canada’s foremost literary awards.

The book is very loosely based on the life of Lev Sergeyvich Termen, the Russian inventor of the theremin. He is sent to the U.S. to showcase his musical instrument and, by extension, the greatness of Mother Russia. As he meets with famous and influential Americans, he gathers contacts and intelligence for his homeland and falls in love with Clara Reisenberg, a theremin virtuoso. The novel is written as a long letter from Termen to Clara, “a letter that will never be read” (218) because he is a political prisoner.

My objection to the novel is what lies at the heart of the book: Lev’s love for Clara. He becomes obsessed with a girl who at eighteen is fifteen years younger. She periodically spends time with him, but there is no evidence of romantic feelings on her part. She seems to see Lev as a “dance partner . . . a diversion” (83) though Clara herself remains opaque and elusive; perhaps she could best be described as ethereal, like the music of a theremin. In fact, Lev’s love seems ethereal, in the sense of “tenuous” as opposed to “celestial.”

Lev remains emotionally distant with and ambivalent about other significant women in his life (Katia, Lavinia, his sister), yet we are to believe that he is capable of such an undying love for someone who does not return his love and even rejects him? Besides not being consistent with his detached personality, his constant mooning over the much younger Clara becomes annoying and is unbecoming if not a tad unsavoury. The novel may have been intended as a paean to love; its message seems to be that even unrequited love can help one survive. Unfortunately, Lev’s love seems more like obsessive infatuation, not genuine love, and a middle-aged man who is such a slave to an unrequited love is just pathetic. And after Lev’s last conversation with Clara, which we learn about only at the end, I could only shake my head in disbelief.

For an intelligent scientist and inventor, Lev seems very naïve, if not delusional. He thinks the theremin, because of its simplicity, is an instrument of public good: “Because it trusts the worker’s own senses, not the knowledge locked away in the lessons and textbooks of the elites, the theremin becomes a revolutionary device – a levelling of the means of musical production” (28). After being held as a prisoner on board a ship forcibly bringing him back to Russia, he still believes the Stalinist government will allow him to “build new wonders” (214)?!

The first part of the book, 214 pages, I found rather tedious. It reads like a dull journal: I did this and then I did that and then I met so and so. Events like marriages which should receive more detail are glossed over. Given the intended audience of Lev’s letter, one would expect more honesty if the depth of his love is to be convincing. He is certainly not given to self-examination and only in the end seems to fully realize that he has been a useful instrument of the state and admits, “What did I know of conducting” (293). He concludes, “I was in play. I was Lev Sergevich Termen, conducted” (301).

All this is not to say that the book has no merits. Its depiction of life in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s is marvelous. Likewise, life in a Siberian gulag is described in vivid if disturbing detail. And the writing is beautiful; lyricism is found throughout.

I will conclude by stating that perhaps the fault is not in the book but in my cynicism. Surely all those who have found the book to be a literary masterpiece, including the judges of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, could not be wrong.