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Sunday, July 20, 2008

COUNTERPOINT

Lemon-picking prof prompts reflection on strange twists of fate


Lately I have been thinking about some wonderful teachers I was blessed with at university. Three, in particular, shaped my life. Had I not encountered them, I doubt that I myself would have become an author of fiction, a translator and a teacher.

Yet I wonder if most of us realize, when we are being taught by truly inspiring people , that they are giving us the greatest good fortune of our youth?

My first such inspiration came from Vladimir Markov, my Russian professor at UCLA in the early 1960s. My understanding of his greatness came much later, yet his passion for the Russian language infected me from the beginning. I didn't realize until two decades later that I had been taught Russian conversation by the world's leading expert on Russian Futurism.

Prof. Markov was born in St. Petersburg in 1920. He lost his father and grandfather in Stalin's terror campaign; and his mother was sent to a Soviet camp, where she remained until after World War II. He himself joined the army, was seriously wounded, and spent years in German captivity. When the war ended, he made his way to Regensberg, Switzerland, where he worked for the United Nations. It was then that he began writing and translating poetry. His are the first Russian translations of the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86).

In 1949, Markov emigrated to the United States. He landed in southern California where he worked as a lemon-picker. He told us this story in class, acting out lemon-picking while speaking Russian. This was the first spoken Russian I ever understood; and the image of Markov picking lemons has remained with me since, teaching me a lesson about the trials of the emigre — in his case, one who went from lemon groves to the University of California Berkeley to gain a Ph.D. before joining the faculty of Slavic languages at UCLA, where he taught for 33 years.

Markov's 1968 book, "Russian Futurism: a History," has had an enormous impact on Russian literary studies both in and outside the former USSR, though it did not appear in Russian until 2000.

In 1964, when I went from UCLA to do an M.A. at the Russian Research Center at Harvard, I wanted to specialize in political science. After all, the towering figures of Richard Pipes and Adam Ulam were there. But I found their classes a bitter disappointment. Both scholars were virulently anticommunist, which was fine in itself, I suppose. But I had the distinct feeling that I was being taught modern Russian history from a Washington D.C. point of view. (Pipes, a stalwart opponent of detente with the Soviet Union, subsequently became a key adviser to U.S. President Ronald Reagan.) The two famous professors turned me off the study of Soviet politics as it then existed in the United States.

By good fortune, however, I also enrolled in Prof. Kiril Taranovsky's seminar on Russian poetry, and I decided to audit Prof. Roman Jacobson's course on the history of Russian prosody. Those two teachers changed my life.

Taranovsky was born in what is now Estonia in 1911. His family left Russia in 1920, emigrating to Yugoslavia. After studies in Belgrade and Prague, in 1958 he left for the United States, eventually joining the Russian faculty at Harvard.

In class, Taranovsky sat behind a desk, lecturing in a dry, calm drone, his eyes looking like teacups behind glasses as thick as the bottom of a milk bottle. His course centered on 19th- and 20th-century poets. He loved Lermontov, Tyutchev and Mandelstam, but his greatest passion was reserved for Pushkin.

Jacobson, on the other hand, was neither sedentary nor calm. He stood in front of the class, moving around as if, at times, dancing. When he spoke in English, it was with a thick Russian accent. (We used to say about Jacobson that "he spoke Russian in 15 different languages.")

Known now as the father of modern linguistics, particularly phonology, Jacobson was born in Moscow in 1896. He moved to Prague in 1920 as a Soviet diplomat, quickly turning to language study. He was a founder of the so-called Prague School of Linguistics that has had such an enormous influence on studies in that field. With the outbreak of the war, Jacobson moved to Scandinavia, then to the U.S., where he joined Harvard's faculty in 1949.

(Most of the great Russian intellectuals who left their country after the 1917 Soviet Revolution settled in Berlin, Paris and Prague — primarily Berlin, where the emigre literary community was vibrantly active. Unlike German refugee intellectuals, who for the most part landed in the U.S. before the war, the Russians generally tended to stay in Europe.)

As for me, I had gone to Harvard all fired up to become a scholar in Russian political studies. But the intense devotion to Russian literature that I saw in my two wonderful professors there became my own. Taranovsky's monotone recitations of Pushkin — to say they were understated would be an understatement — were actually thrilling. The crystal beauty of the language shone through in its full light. Jacobson's telling us about Mayakovsky, whom he personally knew very well, and his readings of Blok, Akhmatova and Mandelstam took my breath away.

Taranovsky died in Boston in 1993; Jacobson, also in Boston, in 1982. As far as I am aware, Markov is still alive. Could he ever know that a young student in his conversation class more than 45 years ago can still see him acting out lemon-picking, and that that simple gesture would start me off on a new path in life?

I am sure there are numerous teachers among readers of this article. If so, please look back to your own life at school and recall the moments of inspiration that you received from your own wonderful teachers.

As American historian Henry Adams said, "A teacher affects eternity."

I can only thank my lucky stars that I was fortunate enough to see why.



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