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My Russian Professors

Actually there was only one; but he contained such echoes – of Nabokov, of Brodsky – that I attribute his lessons to a larger culture, to a lineage of Russians. Alexander Dolinin announced his fastidious standards in the first lecture. He was skeptical of group identity (“individual genius is all that counts”) and refused to teach verse in translation (“Pushkin in English is not Pushkin”). Dolinin’s survey of Russian prose fiction was my first class at the University of Wisconsin. Outside – the crisp and glittery end of summer on an elm- and maple-wooded isthmus dividing a pair of algae-green glacial lakes. For the next nine months I would always be reading some Englished classic of Russian prose. We followed Dolinin from the faro tables and winter balls of Pushkin’s prose Petersburg to the lustily mown acres of Levin’s estate; from the crowded Crimean pier where Anna Sergeyevna lost her lorgnette to the Arctic reveille of Denisovich and the zeks. The Oxford World and Penguin Classics provided only the silhouettes of Russian writers, and we were yawning undergrads in an early-morning elective, and Dolinin couldn’t go very deep – but nonetheless he was able to model an intellectual sensuousness, an impassioned relation to tradition that I did not encounter elsewhere.

Dolinin’s was a tall frame, usually bagged in a big sweater and loose cords. Boris Grigoriev’s portrait of Alexander Korovin, seen in a traveling Mir Iskusstva exhibition, once prompted me to recall his face – the half-haired head, the light eyes, the mouth held in a seemingly pained, tight-lipped sneer-smile that displayed, I thought, the contest of scandalized disgust and patient pedagogy.

Grigoriev, Portrait of A.A. Korovin, 1916
Grigoriev, Portrait of A.A. Korovin, 1916

I saw the sneer when he riffed Humbert-like on a local mattress store (“The Happy Sleeper? The sleeper has no fears, no regrets?”), and when, reaching for some contemporary specimen of Gogolian poshlust, and finding the beloved Titanic, he provoked the howling protest of the entire class. He smiled during forays among us. Despite Pushkinskii Dom and the glasnost editorship of an illustrious émigré he did not hold himself aloof behind podium and pre-typed remarks. Holding a ragged reading copy he would step down and wade out into the hall, darting neo-Platonism, James Joyce and Horatian tags at heads being covertly supplied from a single earbud or bent over an issue of the student newspaper folded many times to isolate the daily crossword in a small, stashable square. Neo-Platonism was for the Silver Age poets; Joyce for the resemblance of Leopold Bloom to one of Babel’s narrators; and Horace’s commonplaces – for centuries pass phrases among the learned – for, well, everything. These digressions or self-annotations held one as much as the testable topoi for traces of which, however garbled or fleeting, the grad student graders combed our Blue Books. Dolinin brought his erudition to bear. His digressions were pitched slightly above our heads – the connections to books beyond the syllabus graspable, but only just. The refusal or inability to completely cut the material to our teenage range was notice of our novitiate status, a subtle spur to further reading.

So spurred, I read Joseph Brodsky’s Less Than One in the lamp-lit afternoons of the long winter break. I penciled “Dolinin” next to Mandelstam’s definition of Acmeism: “nostalgia for a world culture.” Mandelstam’s attitude is not, as Brodsky would have it, “distinctly Russian” – Europe’s unity is a mirage common to the intellectuals on its fringes – and as a scholar Dolinin was at home in many literatures as a matter of course. But the passage did strike me, even if it did not explain him. I thought of Dolinin again – recalled his age and his manner – when I came to Brodsky’s elegiac evocation of his 1960s cohort of book-burrowed internal émigrés, “poorly dressed yet somehow still elegant,” with their love for the “non-existent (or existing only in their balding heads) thing called ‘civilization’” – “the only generation of Russians that had found itself, for whom Giotto and Mandelstam were more imperative than their own personal destinies.”

Brodsky's bookcase in his Leningrad apartment.
Brodsky’s bookcase in his Leningrad apartment.

Learning as a personal imperative was precisely what made Dolinin a distinctive teacher. One day, lecturing on We, he asked to whom Zamyatin was alluding when he named a character “Mephisto.” No one answered (or was willing to raise a lone hand). “You all live in a cultural vacuum,” he sneered. To us the idea of being educated to a canon was inconceivable – when not an ideological anathema. And few professors, among the statistically inevitable number of instructors required to staff the nation’s many colleges, would have dared scold us.

 

All I possess are eight slim volumes, / And they contain my native land.

(Khodasevich, on his Pushkin set)

In 1939, Vladislav Khodasevich – for Nabokov “the greatest poet Russia has yet produced in this century” – died of cancer, penniless in Paris. (I see too readily the flat where he was too ill to receive visitors, and the dingy tiles and flimsily screened separate agonies of the municipal ward Nina Berberova after visiting him called “a hell on earth.”)  A decade before his death Khodasevich ceased to write verse. He situated his personal tragedy in a general twilight of Russian literature, as Pushkin’s “long, life-giving ray” (Nabokov, in The Gift) dimmed over the diasporic cities and the younger émigrés. In an obituary Nabokov reminded the émigrés that whatever Khodasevich’s tribulations he was “safely enshrined in timeless Russia.” “Timeless Russia” sounds like an Orthodox iconostasis of the gleaming sainted, but I now picture, after years reading Nabokov (in 1939 poised on his career as a Russian professor), the comprehensive stacks of a North American research library. A miraculous mirage of Russia, a monastic repository untouched by war and upheaval, is how the Waindell College Library appears in Pnin. Timofey Pnin, so awkward in his American milieu, finds refuge in the library where he has his “scriptorium in the stacks…his paradise of Russian lore.” Despite its remote location and warehouse-like steel shelving, Waindell’s Slavic collection is an enchanted portal through which “dewy-eyed Timofey” re-enters his father’s library and handles the same Russian classics in “horrible and pathetic cameo bindings, whose molded profiles of poets” – “Pushkin’s slightly chafed side whisker or Zhukovski’s smudgy nose” – he had idly palpated as a child.

The gratitude announced in Pnin, and obliquely mentioned in Lolita (Humbert’s “nympholeptsy” is quelled, though not cured, by “the solace of research in palatial libraries”), appears again in Nabokov’s 1964 Playboy interview, in which he names “great libraries and its Grand Canyon” among America’s wonders, and says he may return to roam the nation’s “library stacks and mountain passes.” He told the Paris Review that a “first-rate college library with a comfortable campus” was a “fine milieu for a writer.” In a letter to Edmund Wilson he called Harvard’s libraries “wonderful,” and while researching his Eugene Onegin translation and commentary, marveled at finding in the Widener stacks a copy of the eighteenth century dream manual Tatiana consults in Canto Four.  John Updike said it is pleasant to think of Nabokov working on his Onegin “in the libraries of his adopted land,” “laboring with Janus-faced patriotism” on a bridge “whereby the genius of Pushkin is to cross after him into America.”

In the Slavic stacks of the UW Memorial Library I followed up lecture hall glimpses of this “timeless Russia.” I loved Silver Age memoirs, the necropoles of the Symbolists; and I came to inhabit, alongside the Boston and Bloomsbury of my declared major, Ivanov’s Tower, the Stray Dog Cabaret, and the House of the Arts. Not quite believing I was doing so, I opened a first edition of Nabokov’s first novel (Mashenka, Slovo: Berlin, 1926), a jewel in the general stacks. Its title page was stamped with a little Bronze Horseman – the émigré printer’s nostalgic device.

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I examined editions of Pushkin, some handy and demotic, others monumental, shrines of scholars. Scanning his stanzas I knew that under my ignorant eye the alien Cyrillic signs “reflected and renewed one another, shared each other’s heat, sheen and shadow” – and each line was alive with a secret, hieratic iridescence.

The Pushkin bardolatry is a more ardent tradition of criticism than the one modeled by my excellent English professors who, dwelling in the different centers and centuries of the empire of English, rarely projected the focused, scripturo-tribal intensity I found in the Pushkin criticism of Nabokov, Khodasevich, Tsvetaeva and Ahkmatova. I obtained a good literary education eavesdropping on Russian scriptural debates. The critical functions of allusion and parody; the innovations of remembering; the writer’s selection of his sponsors from the mass of predecessors – all first demonstrated to me by Dolinin or by the reading he spurred.

 

My high youth! The great roads in every weather, a supernatural sobriety, a disinterest matched only by the most accomplished beggars, and such pride at having no country, no friends—what idiocy that all was! I’m only realizing it now!

(Rimbaud,  A Season in Hell)

 I finished high school in schiolistic raptures over Pale Fire. For graduation I got every Nabokov book, except Strong Opinions – and so checked into the dorm with a stack of pastel paperbacks; many old emotions are pressed in those pages.

“In hospitals there is still something of an eighteenth century madhouse,” Nabokov told an interviewer. The all-male dormitory is another vestigial Bedlam. There was often shit on the bathroom walls, in childish smears and swoops. My neighbors lounged in grimy underwear, their doors open, swigging gin – Hogarthian tiple! – from plastic bottles, amid the din of video game gunfire. Early one morning my roommate twitched awake, wobbled to his feet, and pissed all over the floor and the small fridge. The water fountain sometimes held a puddle of puke – hearty and stew-like, with burrito bits, or foamy and thin, with a yeasty tang. Whatever this was – and I still don’t know – it was not a place for the fastidious. And I was fastidious.

Because this hive of country boyhoods – let’s call it that – surpassed my experience of squalor, I didn’t believe it was real. The metaphysics of Invitation to a Beheading – the grotesque sham world in which Cincinnatus is imprisoned ruptures and dissolves just before his execution, and he makes his way “in that direction where, to judge by the voices, stood beings akin to him” –  became mine. I even typed out and pinned to the bulletin board of my dorm desk this passage:

Not here! The horrible ‘here,’ the dark dungeon, in which a relentlessly howling heart is encarcerated, this ‘here’ holds and constricts me. But what gleams shine through the night, and what—. It exists, my dream world, it must exist, since, surely, there must be an original of the clumsy copy.

But the book usually open on that desk was The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. I re-read again and again the wistful urban suites of the early 1920s – “A Letter That Never Reached Russia,” “A Guide to Berlin” – in which Nabokov celebrates his place of exile with the curiosity, optimism and receptivity he would retain through a further half-century of geographic and linguistic displacement. The night-strolling narrator of “A Letter That Never Reached Russia” delicately registers “an aged Great Dane whose claws rap on the sidewalk,” and locates happiness

in the moist reflection of a streetlamp, in the cautious bend of stone steps that descend into the canal’s black waters, in the smiles of a dancing couple, in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness.

City dogs, wet pavement, and dancehalls also appear in Khodasevich’s embittered final collection, European Night (1927) – I encountered a handful of these late poems in David Bethea’s biography of Khodasevich – but not as sources of enchantment: “another [dog] will scratch with its sharp-clawed/paw the well-worn granite”; “the orchestra blares, the ass sings”; “And my rage and grief seethe/ and my walking-stick incessantly taps/ on the alien granite.”

I felt like Khodasevich – but imitated Nabokov. I compiled “A Guide to Madison,” a group of sketches – gratefully lost, entombed in a defunct computer – with which I pushed myself to record, in that awed, wistful tone that grates if at all forced, such delicate trifles of my surroundings as I thought might be redemptively, Nabokovianly “enchanting.” I recall something about a city bus stripping a shower of dead leaves from a low bough; and sparrows wheeling and dipping against a gray-gold winter sunset. But the tone was forced; and the liveliest images of those years are lively from spleen. Of the beery provincial waste that is the setting for Sologub’s The Petty Demon a sneering Dolinin said: “sounds like here!”

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “My Russian Professors

  1. Omigod, Eric, I’m having some kind of nostalgia freak out about my Russian profs. They are such an odd mix! My high school Russian teacher was a reedy Swede, who let off the flop sweat of the long closeted in a military manner. He’d been military intelligence in his youth. The wall fell sometime mid-high school for me – as luck would have it, I was in Germany at the time – and Donald Carlovich was tireless as mid-level bureaucrats at forming bridges to the (then) USSR. Which then imploded while I was there (again, bad timing, I guess) on one of the exchange trips he set up. Which is another story entirely.

    My Russian prof in college had been poor Irish in Chicago, oldest son of a single mother and (I imagine) a brawler and a hood. He joined the merchant marines at some ridiculous age – 14? 15? – and enacted a series of adventures, although most of these stories have a patina of bullshit on them. He claimed to have met a vampire in Romania, for example, a black-cloaked aristo who appeared while he and his group were navigating the desultory road signage of Eastern Europe. The vampire invited them back to his crumbling manse where they took tea. It was all very Angela Carter. I don’t disbelieve them, I guess. They are stories.

    He had beaten leukemia the year before – barely – and was livid that the doctors had saved him with their medicinal disapproval. He smoked so much that his fingers and the edges of his gray mustache were yellow with nicotine stains. When he exhaled, he always sent it straight out his nose in two furious columns. We read Ivan Ilych that year, and he’s pretty much become Ilych in my mind, his feet up on a desk instead of a serf’s back, angry, mired in a Midwestern college with its tragic bureaucracy, smoking like a dragon. He hated us. Once he remarked on my perfume in a way that was both wistful and censorious; you damned lithe girls with your blonde hair.

    Anyway, I’m rattling. This is so amazing!

  2. “Which is another story entirely.”

    Woah, do tell! And holy shit what diptych you have here! We should start a Soapbox series: Russian or Otherwise Cranky Professors. Did anyone we know study German?

    1. I have written about it a little, as that trip was this huge turning point in my life, but it’s almost so monumental I can only come at it in bites.

      We should – that would be amazing. My Russian professors were maybe the most interesting, but I had a couple folklore profs who rivaled them for weirdness.

  3. Great review. (If there are like buttons on this site I don’t see them, so I am left with inane compliments or nothing.)

    I should ask my mother about her Russian profs, see if she remembers any names…

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