Extract > from Madonna from Russia by Yuri Druzhnikov
Pulling the auditorium door closed behind me, I went to the blackboard, wrote out the day’s topic and began speaking, when I noticed that this old man was once again sitting right in front of my lectern. Sprawled in his seat, he was looking me straight in the mouth, drawing in everything I was saying with his noisy breath through a nose that looked like a worn-out baby bootee. It’s not every day that you come across such enthusiastic students.
These lectures of mine, on Russian poetry of the Silver Age, were at eight o’clock in the morning, in conformity with a schedule drawn up by some mindless computer, indisposed to differentiation between poem and theorem. The students came in late and sat there sleepily, slowly coming round. Even worse was that the lectures were mainly in Russian. Comprehension among my American listeners was never the best, and when they were half asleep it was even worse than later in the day. If a question came up, a short clarification in simple English was always necessary.
Today’s class was on the sources of symbolism, specifically three collections of Bryusov’s that exemplified this emotional topic. I myself hadn’t become emotional about it for a long time. I can emote on the subject, true enough, but it’s just superficial, out of habit. I talk away entirely automatically, without any notes – something that comes from years of well-worked-out professionalism. Slowly, somewhat histrionically, I read out Bryusov, with pauses in between:
I am bothered by a single dream:
To die, my dreams unbelieved in,
But before death to press a kiss
To your dear, pale lips.
An old, sprawling fig tree was taking in the class as well. It grew right outside the window, and it pressed its fretted, clammy leaves against the window’s panes so as to hear better. Under the tree shone a bronze memorial tablet saying that some lady had planted this fig as a gift to the University of California. Because the fig tree grew as high as the roof, sunlight never penetrated into the auditorium, but I had no wish to turn on the lights: they were neon lights, and one of them, the one directly over my head, always buzzed.
I had several well-rehearsed witticisms in readiness. The students – except those who were sleeping off a night’s boozing – would always laugh whenever I came out with the next joke from my bag just to see if they had their wits about them. To keep from getting bored myself, I would scrutinize my seated students one after the other.
I could tell by some of my students’ eyes that my words were
burbling in their ears like bubbles in a boiling kettle or hissing like the surf on the Pacific Ocean not so far away. Two-thirds of the class were girls, some of them attractive, with cute knees and that sort of thing, but even those weren’t in the best of form that early in the morning. They brought their breakfast with them and ate it there, sucking up their coffee through straws from paper cups, and then combing their hair. One of them half reclined, draping her legs over the back of the chairs in front of her like someone on a gynaecologist’s couch. To my left a young single mother took out her breast and put her nipple into her infant’s mouth. The mother was white, the little baby was black. He made a face, spat it out and squinted his eyes at me: evidently the baby was more interested in the problems of Russian symbolism than he was in milk.
Right beside the nursing student – now I was slowing down my gaze again – sat the elderly man with a thin goatee and a mane of bright-ginger hair round his bald, tanned pate. His bronzed face was weatherbeaten and fissured with deep wrinkles, his skin peeling. Like everyone else, he was dressed in shorts and a tank top, and his seriously hairy legs terminated in sandals without socks. His tank top had a picture of a cow on it, a speech-balloon with the words ‘Non-fat only!’ emanating from its mouth.
In general the various students’ ages had ceased to give me pause a long time before. People of middle years would suddenly decide to change their profession and showed up at the university. An ageing woman, escaping into retirement after smiling herself nearly to death for twenty years at her bank cashier’s window, would dream of spending her time at something more romantic, like ceramics.
I remember a seventy-year-old former Marine who had sailed into Murmansk during World War II. This guy had come to some lectures of mine several years ago on the history of censorship. He’d been tormented all his life, he explained, by some expressions that he’d heard from Russian sailors but had been unable to find anything like them in the dictionaries. These expressions were something that I understood, as you might suppose, but there was no way I could have translated them properly into English.
A postman by the name of Bob had registered for a seminar for young writers the previous year. For twenty-seven years he’d gone from house to house delivering mail, with a high-frequency sound generator around his neck to scare off dogs. In order to make the time go by faster, he’d taken to mumbling to himself, and he’d managed to rhyme himself into thinking that he should take up poetry in his retirement. Unfortunately, according to his ID, his name was Robert Frost, and that was something of a trap, as you can appreciate. Not long ago an Alexander Pushkin published some of his poems in the New York magazine Novy Zhurnal, but he was a real-live descendant, at least. At first he proudly signed himself Alexander A. Pushkin, but then he gradually came to the sensible conclusion that it was quieter to live life under a pseudonym, one that I have no right to divulge.
In a word, the pressing advice for my older-than-he-should-be student Robert Frost was simple enough: to adopt a pseudonym of his own, even if it had to be something like ‘Bob Postman’. Not long ago I ran across some verses in The Potomac Review, the prestigious literarymagazine, with the signature ‘Bob Postman’ underneath. So the postman hadn’t been mumbling in vain while delivering his letters.
The symbolism of the Russian Silver Age meanwhile continued its exposition, partially flying off into nowhere, partially being drawn in by the ears of my students and the nostrils of the elderly gent sitting in front of me. He howled like a vacuum cleaner! How old was he, anyway?
The calendar stops entirely for some Americans of a certain age. Surely he was over seventy-five, though. But he looked to be in thoroughly good health, his eyes weren’t closing with fatigue and he laughed when everyone else did, although with a little restraint. He got to the lectures in good time, in order to get a nice spot, fresh as a daisy from his shower. He would sit with his bicycle helmet strapped on, hugging his knapsack on his knees, and his lips would move, as I soon understood, muttering everything I was saying to himself word for word, like a prayer. Devotion like that to Russian symbolism isn’t often come across among students.
In California there’s a vast multitude of things more diverting, pleasant and – most important – more practically useful than these lectures of mine, anyway. What the hell did he need the Silver Age for? But even this question just fleeted by me while I was coming out with my closing remarks. An hour and a half had passed; the gaunt figure of Prof. Pete Hayter, the Hemingway specialist, was already looming in the doorway.
Coming outside I found myself in an anthill. From all sides and in every direction students were tearing along on their bicycles. Alongside me someone braked sharply, asked me something, disappeared. On the way I lingered a moment at the snack stall to get a cup of coffee – caffeineless, sugarless, tasteless. Sucking the slop through a straw as I walked, I hurried back to my room for office hours.
Students were already sitting expectantly in a line along the corridor to one side of my door; I’d been trudging along on foot, while they were on their bikes. The red-haired elderly man was sitting on the floor as well, at the very end of the queue. Everyone came in by turns. Briskly sorting out all their problems, I managed to gulp some of my coffee. Now the old man leaned against my door jamb and froze.
‘ I’m not interrupting anything?’ he asked hoarsely. ‘I really like your lectures, sir. They’re most diverting!’
It was obvious that this dutiful praise wasn’t what had brought him. After shaking his hand, I gestured towards the chair. He introduced himself.
‘ My name is Ken. Ken Stemp.’
And he sat down, snuffling, putting his helmet down on the floor and squeezing his knapsack to his belly with both hands. What had earlier seemed to me to be a cross hanging from a string around his neck was actually, when I looked at it, the key to his bicycle lock.
‘ How can I help you?’ I asked mechanically, picking up some letters that needed responding to from the heap on my desk.
‘ I have to learn Russian right away.’
Dear Lord, how often you get to hear that ‘right away’! And not from stupid people either. How come they always came to me and not the linguists?
‘ The language?’ I elaborated. ‘Easy as pie! For that, it’s not even necessary to be a student at the university. Check out the campus bookstore: I just recently came across a textbook called Russian in 15 Minutes. Open it up, and . . .’
‘ I did open it, sir,’ he said disappointedly, wrinkling his nose. ‘It
didn’t work in fifteen minutes.’
‘ What’s the date you need the Russian by?’
The joke went over his head.
‘ It has to be as quick as possible.’
I sighed. The conversation was proceeding entirely in English. However, the lectures that inspired him so much were in Russian. In class his reactions were entirely animated, though; so, naturally, I had to be curious:
‘ Isn’t it hard for you when the lectures are in Russian?’
‘ Quite the opposite – it’s really easy,’ he said, smiling politely. ‘Since I don’t understand a thing.’
‘ Well, why don’t you ask me to translate the parts you don’t understand?’
‘ You still don’t get it,’ he amplified. ‘Except for what gets said in English, I have absolutely no idea what you’re on about.’
At this point, if not surprised, I did have to look on him with a certain curiosity.
‘ Not a single word?’
‘ How could I?’ he’d taken offence. ‘I know pee-rosh-kee, toh-vah-reesh, nee-yew ladnah . . . and toap-toap. Toap-toap is what my mom used to say to me when I was little. She spoke Polish and Russian. But for some reason you don’t use any of these words.’
‘ Listen, my dear Ken! I’m giving this very same course in English, only it’s next quarter. Why don’t you come to that one?’
‘ Not a chance! I’m drinking in the music!’
‘ What music?’
‘ The music of the Russian language. Not a word of which I can catch, yet, unfortunately. However, there is one thing: who’s that Katory? You keep coming back to that fellow. Is he some famous Symbolist poet?’
He wasn’t being modest about the level of his understanding; that much was clear.
‘ It’s a pronoun,’ I squeezed out, gloomily.
Ken looked sad.
Why some Americans suddenly take an interest in Russian things is always a mystery: their motives are as various as from big-business necessity all the way down to sheer boredom. One of my female
students crammed Russian proverbs for two whole years and would spout them out whenever she got the chance. And why did she bother with them, considering that no one these days expresses himself in these folksy sayings? ‘It’s so when I’m at a disco I can rattle things off that nobody understands,’ she explained. ‘It blows the guys’ minds.’
We don’t ask why students want to take Russian. Sooner or later all of them come to explain their craving themselves, in the hope of getting some advice. Even Ken was bound to crack some day. Not some day, as it turned out, but right here and now.
‘ I need your language right away, sir – it’s vital to me,’ Ken repeated. ‘My new girlfriend is Russian, doesn’t know any English at all. I need to be able to talk to her.’
‘ And how do you propose to tackle Russian?’
He gave it a moment’s thought.
‘ Do you know how children pick up a language? From the air.’
‘ Forgive my rudeness. How old are you?’
‘ Eighty-four.’ Ken looked himself over and smoothed his goatee. ‘So what?’
‘ Well, you’re no longer a child.’
‘ But I’m in great shape!’
‘ I don’t doubt that for a second. So here’s the thing: we have
good instructors here and wonderful programs to use on talking computers. You’ll have to cram away at vocabulary, grammar, dialogue, translation and all the rest, like someone at hard labour. Then in three
years . . .’
‘ Three years! Yeah, but I’m in love with her right now, and I can’t tell her about it.’
‘ Hire an interpreter, then, damn it!’
‘ I’ve already thought about it. But it wouldn’t be very convenient: in bed with my girlfriend, and the interpreter underneath the
‘ That’s true . . .’
‘ And that’s why I’ve decided to kill two birds with one stone at your lectures: drink in the language and the poetry at the same time!’ He demonstrated his method by drawing in the air through his two huge nostrils. ‘In the situation I’m in, a knowledge of Russian poetry is exceptionally important, even drastically necessary!’
Since I was worried about several urgent things that I had to do right away, his last phrase didn’t register, to my regret. Everything in this sublunary world repeats itself, surprising us less and less. Even young Americans spend years of boring labour at the acquisition of this foreign language, with the intention of making it their profession: they travel to the Russian heartland for experience, where they learn how to drink vodka in order to understand the local lexical irregu*larities. And this eighty-four-year-old Ken Stemp wanted to gain command of the language on the fly, out of thin air. He had to be able to chat up his new girlfriend, you see.
‘ So she’s a recent émigré,’ I said, stating it more than asking it, looking at him and trying to estimate her possible age.
‘ Good guess!’
In this modern day and age this Russian woman could even be an eighteen-year-old – nothing strange about that. Or even younger – but in America you get put in gaol right away if you mess with a nymphet, and you don’t get out again until she’s retired. Russian
émigré girls, though, in contrast to American ones, hardly ever run off to the police after the deed is done.
‘ Of course, she’s only just here from Russia!’ Ken exclaimed, proudly. ‘And, by the way, she’s the most outstanding poet of the twentieth century as well.’
Oops! The fellow had managed to surprise me after all.
‘ A distinguished poetess? What’s her surname?’
‘ I don’t remember,’ he said, embarrassed. ‘My memory’s worn out from all the work I’ve done, so names don’t stick so easily. Her first name’s Lily. She r-r-really looks sexy! A genius of pure beauty, as one of your poets said. Which one, if you have to know, I’ll try to remember later. But the most important thing, of course, is that she’s the girl of my dreams!’
‘ I have no doubt, since you’ve taken to her so quickly.’
‘ Taken to her? Hey, if you want to know, I’ve flipped my lid over her! I’ve even decided to give my sailboat to my eldest son, so it
doesn’t distract me from Lily. I feel like I’m getting younger by the day. Pretty soon I’ll be able to chuck my diet. But I’m going to speak the language – I’m digging my heels in!’
Throwing his knapsack over one shoulder and his helmet over the other, the old man made his way out of my office, disappointed at my scepticism. I honestly didn’t know how to help him. Maybe you do?