Wednesday, July 09, 2008

#3 - the grandest inquisitor

this week i'm writing each day about a person, place or thing that has had a big effect on my life. i'm going to be leaving aside parents, sister, husband and daughter because those are a given for having had a big effect and writing about that effect would be way more typing than i should do with the angry nerve in my left hand. 

i have had a lot of fun thinking about this assignment that i've given myself this week and yesterday was quite surprised where the thinking and the writing took me.  let's see what happens today. this is installment 3.

today, i know exactly who i want to write about, but not really where to begin.

time: late 80s-early 90s
place: large university in the midwest

after following the advice of my new age russian teacher in southern california to pursue my russian studies, i went back home to the midwest and enrolled in a russian program at a large state university. having had russian 101-2 as a night course, it wasn't long before i found myself in over my head in russian 201, so thanks to the kindness of two professors, after a few weeks, i was allowed to switch to russian 102. what a relief that was! not least because of the wonderful professor teaching the course, harry weber. his kindness and patience got me through and although i'm not sure i ever fully recovered my confidence where russian as a language was concerned--it was never easy for me, i just loved it passionately--he enabled me to think it was possible to keep doggedly pursuing it.

as is often the case in language departments, the professors teach both literature and the language itself, so where prof. weber came to mean so much to me was in a 19th century russian literature course. under his guidance, we did close readings of pushkin, turgenev, gogol, dostoevsky, tolstoy--all the biggies! and i felt a whole world opening up for me. i had actually read war & peace as a kid, mostly because i wanted to tackle such an enormous book. but harry opened up the whole historical, philosophical expanse of that baggy monster and i learned to appreciate it so much more. 

aside:  actually, i never really came to love tolstoy, he's so preachy and righteous that other than sebastopol sketches, i never really became a tolstoy person. and it might be that i got that from harry as well, because last year he admitted in an email that he never really liked tolstoy much either. i had asked him to help my sister, who was disturbed by reading anna karenina, see the redeeming qualities in that book and he said that he didn't really think there were any. which, in its own way was a comfort because it validated my sister's feelings about the book.

the 19th century lit course led to a course with prof. weber on tolstoy & dostoevsky. the highlight of that course was an intense couple of weeks on the brothers karamazov. i just looked at my dog-eared copy of it as i sat down to write this and just looking at the marginalia and highlighting and underlining i did at that time takes me back. i positively devoured brothers k--even reading 120 pages of it while driving (along a straight, sparsely trafficked interstate) because i simply couldn't put it down. in wanted to BE each brother in turn, tho' ivan was my favorite with his rationality and his intellect. i could relate to the desire to careen around manically following my emotions and obsessions like mitya and some part of me wished i could be good and pious like alyosha. the discussions we had on the course were intense and masterfully led and provoked by prof. weber. which is why i called this posting the grandest inquisitor...he asked questions and pushed us to explore answers and it opened up a whole world for us. or at least it did for me.

i loved reading before that, but in his courses and under his tutelage, i learned to love books and to appreciate them so much more deeply than i had previously. it's something that remains with me to this day and could only have been emparted by a wonderful teacher. i also learned that it was ok not to like some of the books. before that i had been intimidated into thinking that you MUST love all of the classics. harry taught me that that wasn't necessary.

there are two more books which harry opened my eyes to:  mikael bulgakov's master & margarita (where there is another encounter with the inquisitor, hmm, i might have to explore the implications of that another time) and andrei bitov's pushkin house. that was later in a graduate literature course. 

i'd already read master & margarita in 20th century russian lit, so the graduate course reading was a repeat. each student on the course had to present a book in turn and i was sure i'd get stuck with something i didn't want. i sat there, crossing my fingers that i'd get m&m and couldn't believe my luck when it was still available when it came to me.

i spent weeks preparing my presentation--fear of humiliation before my fellow graduate students overruling my normal inclination towards procrastination. i researched everything i could get my hands on that had been written about it and in the end settled on a bakhtinian reading of it as menippian satire. it was my first intense research project and i learned so much from it. i went in several times for guiding discussions and always came away feeling i'd been pushed by harry to find my own answers and thoughts. socratic method used subtly on me to help me grow as a scholar. only a fantastic teacher is truly able to do that.

bitov's pushkin house was the final book of the semester and it somehow spoke to me. it fit with the postmodern theory i was reading in another graduate course that semester, so i could read it through the lens of kristeva (arguably not postmodern, i realize, but a transition figure between structuralism and postmodernism, as i read her) and derrida. but perhaps it was simply a main character who felt fragmented and unreal in the face of the world around him was just something i could relate to as a 20-something graduate student who was struggling to come into her own. i wrote an essay on the book for the final exam and received an A+ from harry. it was one of those times when the pen was simply a conduit directly to my thoughts and my brain was in the zone. the question must have been a perfect one for me (i no long remember exactly what it was), again, the perfect question posed by the grandest of inquisitors.

harry is retired now, but i always go and visit him and his wife nellie when i'm back in the US. they are the kind of people, living the kind of life that husband and i aspire to when we reach their age. they are engaged with the world, well-traveled, thoughtful, wonderful conversationalists. we play cards with them when we're there. we laugh and laugh and tell stories and laugh some more. they are a joy to be around. i feel privileged to have had harry as my teacher and mentor and most importantly as my friend. 


d smith kaich jones said...

Wow! My best friend teaches a foreign language & literature & is head of the Foreign Languages dept. at her school, but I always felt that, DESPITE THAT, I was just as smart. Now I'm not so sure! :)

What a wonderful tribute this is & what a wonderful idea.


Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

I too love this idea, what a great way to pay tribute.
Interesting- I bought Master & Margarita about a month ago from Amazon, having wanted to read it for a couple of years.
It's next on my list to read. I've just finished 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' and- I'm sure you understand- one of those books that forces you to leave a gap before the next one you pick up. I'm still thinking about it daily and for the moment no other book will be good enough.
I always enjoy stories about mentors, teachers and friends that made a difference.

julochka said...

debi--thanks. it's really been fun writing these and almost as much fun thinking about which things/people/places to write about--i guess so far they've all been people in a way.

elementary--for me one murakami just led to another. i'm on kafka on the shore at the moment, it's probably my second favorite thus far. but you'll love bulgakov. it's almost a bit magical realist.

polona said...

this was an inspiring story about an inspiring man... i wish there were more like him out there