My Russian Professors

by Eric Byrd

PninActually there was only one, but his lectures contained such echoes – of Khodasevich, Nabokov, Brodsky – that in retrospect he seems the voice of, if not a “culture,” then at least a certain lineage of fierce and fastidious exiles who cut strange figures in the literary communities of Western Europe, and in the comedy of American campus manners. Alexander 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 two deep glacial lakes. Dolinin announced his standards in that first lecture; he was skeptical of group identity (“individual genius is all that counts”), and refused to teach verse in translation. For the next nine months I would be reading some Englished classic of Russian prose. We followed Dolinin from the faro tables and winter balls of Pushkin's Petersburg to the lustily scythed acres of Levin's estate; from the crowded Crimean pier where Chekhov's lady 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 could not muse as he might have – but nonetheless he was able to model an intellectual sensuousness, an impassioned relation to tradition like nothing else I would encounter in the next four years.

Display_image.phpDolinin'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, made me to recall Dolinin's 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. I saw the sneer when he riffed Humbert-like on a local mattress showroom (“The Happy Sleeper? The sleeper has no fears, no regrets?”), and when, reaching for some contemporary specimen of Gogolian poshlust, and finding the then-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. With 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 so as to isolate the day's crossword in a small, stashable square. Neo-Platonism rose from the Silver Age; Joyce from the resemblance of Leopold Bloom to one of Babel's narrators; and Horace's commonplaces – for centuries pass phrases among the learned – from, well, everything. These contextual digressions or self-annotations held me as much as the testable topoi for traces of which, however garbled or fleeting, the graduate student graders combed our Blue Books. Dolinin brought his erudition to bear. He pitched his digressions 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” – the mirage of Europe's unity is 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.”

Learning as a personal imperative was precisely what made Dolinin a distinctive teacher. One day, lecturing on We, he asked to whom Zamyatin alluded 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 his audience 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, the flimsily screened separate agonies of the municipal ward Nina Berberova after visiting him called “a hell on earth.”) In the late 1920s Khodasevich ceased versing. He situated himself in a general twilight. The traditions of Russian verse had suffered a loss of spiritual prestige – in diasporic Paris, where the leading critic Adamovich insisted Pushkin had little to teach the deracinated young, and in the futurist Soviet Union, where Mandelstam experienced a similar though temporary crisis of confidence, just before his “terrifying acceleration” (Brodsky) and confrontation with Stalin. In an obituary Nabokov reminded the émigrés that whatever Khodasevich's tribulations he was “safely enshrined in timeless Russia.” “Timeless Russia” suggests an Orthodox iconostasis of the gleaming, gold-leaved 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 safe from war and upheaval, is how the Waindell College Library appears in Pnin. Timofey Pnin, so awkward in America, finds a home 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.

738567The gratitude announced in Pnin, and 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 among America's wonders its “great libraries and its Grand Canyon”; from a Swiss perch he says he may one day return to roam the “library stacks and mountain passes.” He told the Paris Review that a “first-rate college library with a comfortable campus” is 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 that 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 University of Wisconsin's Memorial Library I followed up lecture hall glimpses of “timeless Russia.” I loved Silver Age memoirs, the necropoles of the Symbolists; and I tried 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. 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 was 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, scriptural-tribal intensity I found in the Pushkin criticism of Nabokov, Khodasevich, Tsvetaeva and Ahkmatova. I obtained a good literary education eavesdropping on Russian critical debates. The critical functions of allusion and parody; the innovations of remembering; the writer's selection of 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 entered the dormitory with a stack of pastel paperbacks; 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 crazy smears and swoops. My neighbors lounged in grimy underwear, their doors open, swigging gin – Hogarthian tiple! – under the din of video game gunfire. Early one morning my roommate twitched awake, wobbled to his feet, and, reeling about, splashed his stream of piss on the floor, on the small fridge, on the copy of Speak, Memory beside my bed. The water fountain sometimes held a puddle of vomit – 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 – Cincinnatus is imprisoned in a grotesque sham world which, just before the headsman's stroke, ruptures and dissolves, and he makes his way “in that direction where, to judge by the voices, stood beings akin to him” – became mine. I 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 celebrated his place of exile with the curiosity and optimism 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) 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!”