The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr: A theremin reprise

Cover imageBack in what passed for a summer here in the UK, I read Sean Michaels’ Us, Conductors which told the story of Leon Theremin, inventor of the strange musical instrument that bears his name. Thoroughly enjoyable, it has what remains one of the best lines I’ve read in fiction for some time: ‘I had never been so hopeful as when Lenin played the theremin’. Much to my surprise, barely six months later, another novel featuring the theremin popped up: Tracy Farr’s The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt which tells the story of the eponymous virtuoso theremin player. Leon Theremin makes a cameo appearance but other than that, as far as I can tell, it’s entirely a work of fiction.

Invited to play at an electronic music festival, eighty-year-old Lena cuts an elegant figure on stage,  holding the audience spellbound with the ethereal sounds her instrument produces as she moves her hands over it. Lena plays rarely these days and is more than a little irked by a poor review after the concert, so much so that against her better judgement she decides to co-operate with the woman who has asked if she can make a documentary telling the story of Lena’s life. Rather than a conventional retelling, Maureen wants an extemporised version, an improvisation, and that is what Lena gives her, picking up the manuscript she began many years ago. Hers has been an eventful life. Her first four years were spent in Singapore until the diagnosis of a leaky heart resulted in her parents sending her ‘home’ to Australia where she’s met by her delightful Uncle Valentine who heads off to war for four years leaving her at boarding school. It’s Valentine who later encourages her musical talent, presenting her with an aluminium cello when she’s summoned to join her parents in Malacca, aged sixteen; Valentine who teaches her to swim, a lifelong habit and solace in times of trouble; and Valentine who opens her mind to modernity and all its exciting new inventions, paving the way to her theremin playing. After a stultifying year in Malacca, Lena makes her escape, taking herself off to Sydney where she’s introduced to the instrument that will make her name and meets the love of her life. Music, swimming, walking and solitude – these are the constants in a life that will encompass love, tragedy and a great deal of opium.

Lena neatly unfolds her story, punctuated by visits from Maureen who gently prompts her subject, opening her up with details of her own life so that Lena divulges far more than she ever intended. Farr has a sharp eye for location. Bali, which Lena visits on her way to Malacca, is particularly strikingly described – colourful and vibrant – as is the construction of the new Sydney Bridge which Lena loves to watch, seeing it as the embodiment of modernity. Grief – of which there is much – is handled with a light touch, poignant but never cloyingly so. Lena’s voice is a strong one, carrying her story through her eventful life convincingly and engrossingly. So convinced was I that I spent some time googling her but the only thing I came up with was Farr’s novel. Not the equal of Us, Conductors for me but it’s an absorbing and enjoyable novel nevertheless. And if you want to know what Lena’s extraordinary instrument sounds like, pop on over to YouTube where you’ll find a demonstration by its inventor. Once heard never forgotten!.

22 thoughts on “The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr: A theremin reprise”

  1. Who’d have thought a theremin features so prominently in two novels that same year? Must be the age of the theremin. My younger son is obsessed with the water drums, so I wonder if there will be a fashion for those in literature at any point…

    1. A piece of synchronicity! I’ve never heard of water drums but will be heading off to YouTube after this to see what I’ve been missing.

    1. Music comes to the fore at various points in the book but it’s more about Lena and her eventful life. If I had to choose between this one and Us, Conductors I’d go for the Michaels, I think.

  2. Fascinating, never heard a theremin but popping over to YouTube now. Your mention of Lenin and music however reminds me of the novel I’ve just finished, Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time about Shostakovich.

    1. I love that quote! I hope you enjoyed the Barnes, Anne. Have to admit I’m not a fan but I know I’m in a small minority there.

      1. It certainly fits the novel very well, Susan. I discovered I hadn’t read many of his previous novels at all (with someone so famous, I kind of assume I had done) but, yes, this was a hit for me, perhaps less about the music specifically but about creativity under a totalitarian regime.

  3. Oh… your quite right about once heard never forgotten! How bizarre, almost vocal in parts rather than musical – if that makes sense? Couldn’t quite understand how he was ‘playing’ it so off to investigate as never heard of a theremin…

    1. I would love to see one played on stage, Poppy. I imagine it’s quite strange – somewhat ethereal sounds produced by the player waving their hands over the instrument.

  4. Ha! I was about to start googling Lena Gaunt until you said that you already had. I did love Us Conductors, so this one has me intrigued, but one of the things I liked about Us Conductors was that it was based on a true story. Lena’s story sounds good too, though, so I’ve added it to the list!

    1. I think it was the surprising coincidence of two novels featuring the theremin published here within a year of each other that made me sure that Lena must have existed – it’s not as if it’s an anniversary year for it, after all. It’s well worth reading, though.

  5. Yes, very definitely once heard never forgotten – and not quickly sought out again, either, I’m afraid. I know that I have heard a radio programme about the theremin at some point during the last couple of years. I wonder if that was sparked by the earlier novel or if there has been a growing interest that for some other reason.

  6. This book was a pleasant surprise for me. About half way through I couldn’t put it down. I also learned a lot about music, never even heard of a Theremin before this book!

    1. I have a dim memory of hearing something about theremins years back but only really found out in detail about them when I read Michaels’ novel. I have to admit I might well have ignored Lena Gaunt if it hadn’t been for that theremin coincidence but I’m very glad to have read it.

  7. I loved this book and was captivated by Lena Gaunt, as if she was a real character. I too went searching for Tracy Farr’s inspiration and while Lena doesn’t exist, she is in part inspired by the Lithuanian virtuoso theremin player Clara Rockmore. I wonder if she features in the book you read about Leon Theremin, as it appears he proposed to her more than once.

    In other respects, I believe the book is inspired by the authors own family, but funny how it seems to create an expectation of it being a real person, perhaps its in the title, I don’t know, I wanted her to be real!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Claire. Clara is very important in Us, Conductors. Leon becomes besotted with her despite the huge age gap between them – she’s little more than a child when they meet – and never gives up hope that they might marry. She’s very different from Lena, though.

      Lena’s such a convincing character, isn’t she – perhaps that’s why we both wanted her to be real – although, for me, knowing that Michaels’ book was written as a fictionalised biography made me wonder if Farr might have taken the same route.

      1. As soon as they enter into the minds of a character and leave factual research, it becomes fictionalised, but often it can be so much more engaging, when an author makes that jump. I wonder sometimes why authors make those decisions.

        I just read an older review of February, the Lisa Moore novel, which has a fictionalised character, Helen, set against a historical tragedy, the sinking of the Ocean Ranger, that criticises her for not making it about a real victim of the tragedy – she chose not to interview any of the real victims of that tragedy, however lost her own father a few years before and so writes from that perspective.

        I think Tracy Farr does something similar, takes a new and fascinating instrument in its historical era and creates her own characters around that, partly using her own family history and familiarity with different locations and inspirations.

        Sometimes our own curiosity gets in the way, in the case of the February review I read, the reviewer wanted to know the story of the tragedy, but it’s really a novel of the aftermath, the grief. Lena Gaunt is something of a springboard to Leon Theremin’s story, I love that they’ve both come out at a similar time, I think they both need to be read!

        1. It’s strange how some readers do take a very literal view of fiction. Like you, I read February as a book about grief and how we cope – or fail to cope – with it.

  8. You wait years and years for a novel about a theremin to come along and then….

    I’d seen this reviewed elsewhere (maybe last year?) and thought it sounded interesting. Wonderful review as ever, Susan, and a novel that I may well add to my wish list for reviews.

    1. Thank you, Victoria. Having read Us,Conductors I had to give this one a whirl, too. It’s not often you come across a theremin in any context let alone a literary one, and I couldn’t resist the chance to give that wonderful YouTube clip another airing.

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