Saturday, April 25, 2009

Serendipity or shape

Today at the bar and bat mitzvah of two friends from synagogue, a married couple, former professors at UCI's music department, I sat down alone at a table and was soon surrounded by people I didn't know at all. Most everyone was from the University, so I had probably seen them along the way somewhere, but there were also former students and parents of former students of one of the celebrants, since she used to give piano lessons. One of these parents sat next to me and began asking me about myself. I asked him how he knew the bar and bat mitzvah couple and he told me his son was a former piano student of the bat mitzvah celebrant, long ago.
After a circuitous route in which he quizzed me about my dissertation (a rare thing these days; no one cares what I wrote... perhaps not even me). I told him I wrote about Nabokov, and after trying to explain what I talked about (the game of authorship in some of Nabokov's novels and why people want to play along with it in the first place), we got into a discussion of Russian literature and HIS dissertation, on Hamlet in modern Russian verse. Turns out the guy used to teach Russian language and lit at Indiana University, one of the foremost programs in Russian in the country. I spent a summer there in 1986 in the Russian Institute.
He was surprised to learn that I knew as much as I did about Russian lit and had made something of an effort to study the language and tradition, though admittedly, I was unable to pull off the effort to single-handedly study the topic by myself, without a department capable of making this fully possible at UCI. I know the political rift between the Formalists and Structuralists who taught Russian in the recent past (up to the last few years, probably) and the Post-Structural Comparatists is an immense, vast, and contentious one, having gotten mired in these very tiresome politics during my orals.
He studied at Cornell in the 60s, well before this stuff happened, so probably he was a bit unclear on that topic. He didn't know very much about critical theory, post New Criticism, and had just missed Nabokov, who was leaving Cornell when he arrived, having gained enough fame and money with Lolita that he was able to quit teaching for good.
But what was so surprising is that two days in a row--yesterday with Carol Davis and today with this fellow--I ran into enthusiasts of Russian literature. That really happens very very rarely.
One ignores such accidents at her peril. Perhaps I should think about what it means.
I studied Russian in high school, using the natural method (Guspodin Smit govorit pa russki), and after that, in undergraduate school with two White Russians of the old school who reminded me very much of Nabokov's character Pnin, though one was female, and made of sterner stuff, and tried to study it at UCI, with very limited success.
I am not a talented student of language, though I enjoy it. I forget words easily and became frantic in the Indiana Institute when I could not communicate freely. I am a talker, as those who know me will attest. But Russian literature is very attractive to me and after all, at least half my family came out of Russia (the other half out of Lithuania, via South Africa and England). Though many Russians would contest that I am in essence Russian in heritage, since I am a Jew, I feel myself in some way to be Russian-- more indeed than Middle Eastern. Although I was almost born in Israel, the child of pioneers from the 40s, I identify with Russia more, I think, than with Israel, while detesting its anti-semitism and ugly nationalist fascism (and though this may not be popular with some of my readers, I don't much care for Israel's politics either). But it's easy to say that. I have never been there. Never been to either place, actually. Maybe someday I will be able to travel.


Lou said...

I would say the world is small, but that would be a Russian thing to say,and you might think me putting on airs. As I've told you, sometime in the early 80s when I was in need of work and money, I served as a reader for a professor of Russian at UCI, a woman who I did not like much. I read the course materials as the students read and wrote. And now, the great image of those readings is, for me, an empty train station in the rain.

Robbi said...

The Russian professors at UCI were not very likable, with the sole exception of a young assistant prof who was there for a while, did all the work, and was not given tenure. He quit the academic biz and became a computer expert. He was a genius linguistically, and could pick up almost any language in a trice.