Winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize
A beautiful, haunting novel inspired by the true life and loves of the famed Russian scientist, inventor and spy Lev Termen – creator of the theremin.
Us Conductors takes us from the glamour of Jazz Age New York to the gulags and science prisons of the Soviet Union. On a ship steaming its way from Manhattan back to Leningrad, Lev Termen writes a letter to his “one true love”, Clara Rockmore, telling her the story of his life. Imprisoned in his cabin, he recalls his early years as a scientist, inventing the theremin and other electric marvels, and the Kremlin’s dream that these inventions could be used to infiltrate capitalism itself. Instead, New York infiltrated Termen – he fell in love with the city’s dance clubs and speakeasies, with the students learning his strange instrument, and with Clara, a beautiful young violinist. Amid ghostly sonatas, kung-fu tussles, brushes with Chaplin and Rockefeller, a mission to Alcatraz, the novel builds to a crescendo: Termen’s spy games fall apart and he is forced to return home, where he’s soon consigned to a Siberian gulag. Only his wits can save him, but they will also plunge him even deeper toward the dark heart of Stalin’s Russia.
Us Conductors is a book of longing and electricity. Like Termen’s own life, it is steeped in beauty, wonder and looping heartbreak. How strong is unrequited love? What does it mean when it is the only thing keeping you alive? This sublime debut inhabits the idea of invention on every level, no more so than in its depiction of Termen’s endless feelings for Clara – against every realistic odd. For what else is love, but the greatest invention of all?
“Michaels’ book is based on the life of Lev Termen, the Russian-born inventor of the Theremin, the most ethereal of musical instruments. As the narrative shifts countries and climates, from the glittery brightness of New York in the 1920s to the leaden cold of the Soviet Union under Stalin, the grace of Michaels’s style makes these times and places seem entirely new. He succeeds at one of the hardest things a writer can do: he makes music seem to sing from the pages of a novel.”
—Giller Prize Jury Citation