A Ton of Tolstoy


Through the Past (Darkly)

Episode II

In which we join Aaron Sommers on his epic journey across the uncharted waters known as M.A.L.S.

A tale in nine parts.

In this episode, Aaron Sommers  Voyages to the Remote Island Inhabited by Tolstoy and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.

ack in 2001 I had the pleasure of enrolling in a class taught by a Russian Literature professor[1]. The class was called “Core Seminar” and was part of my UNH M.A.L.S. program.[2]

The professor’s name (for the purposes of this blog) was “Mikhail”, looking and acting Russian[3] was his game.

Just how Russian did he look?

He was short, burly, had a big bushy white mustache, and wore lots of black along with a perpetual scowl on his face.

This guy didn’t come from the old school—he came from the school they tore downto build the old school.[4]

I’m not implying or suggesting anything here, but try to picture, if you will, an image of Stalin crossed with Woody Allen[5]. That was him. As unlikely as it is bizarre. Professor Mikahil looked grim, worn, surly, scrappy, ready to pounce on deserving (or undeserving) students he perceived as slackers[6]. But he was also bookish, neurotic and insecure.[7]

On at least two or three occasions, during some intense criticism he was in the middle of[8], it became obvious to me he needed a hug.

Not that you could have paid me enough to do that (well, I was broke back then, eating lots of Ramen and scamming my way into movie, so the price might have been right, but…)

This guy was not only my professor, I also had him late at night (7:45pm class!), in a seminar[9], with only two other students[10].

Oh, and he chose the subject of the seminar.

Because he was a full professor who essentially memorized Dostoevsky[11] (as well as personified many of the authors’ themes) he got lots of respect and authority on campus.

So what subject did he choose? What was our theme for the semester?

Well, keep in mind this was a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies seminar. This was humanities on steroids. So the potential topics are only as limited as your imagination…

The topic could have been: Inspiration and the Muse in 18th Century Literature[12] or Lyrics of Bob Dylan as Post-Modern Poetry[13] or Creativity as a Universally Attractive Feature in Men as Ranked by Women Throughout Time[14], or Zen in the Work of J.D. Salinger[15] or even, Time in a Bottle: Representing Memories in Memoirs[16].

Did Mikhail choose any of these? If not, anything close?

No and no.

His topic, our topic, was Sex and Food in Art[17].

Why did he choose this? What interest did he, a Professor of Russian Literature, have with Sex and Food[18]?

I have no answers to these questions. I don’t even want to guess what kind of disturbed storm rankles inside his head.

But–if it helps you understand what I was dealing with–here is what he taught that Semester (and every semester before or since 2001. Welcome to the demanding, unpredictable life of a tenured full professor at a large university!):

RUSS 425: Contemporary Russian Society and Culture
RUSS 500: Humans, Robots, and Machines[19]
RUSS 521: Devils, Deities, and Madness in Russian Literature[20]
RUSS 522: Morality, Sex, and Revolution in Russian Literature[21]
RUSS 593/693: Myths, Visions, and Issues in Russian Literature an Society[22]
RUSS 795-796: Independent Study
RUSS 797-798: Special Studies in Russian Language, Literature, and Culture
HUMA 650: Humanities and the Law: The Problem of Justice in Western Civilization
HUMA 651: Humanities and Science: The Nature of Scientific Creativity
INCO 650H: Study Abroad Seminar: Encountering Oneself/Encountering the World[23]
INCO 651H: Study Abroad Seminar: Returning Home

Professor Mikhail handed us the syllabi with the emotion of a waiter dropping menus onto a table.

We were going to watch movies. Films. They had food in them. We would read stories. Russian stories. These also had food in them.

Mercifully, he did not mention sex.

But he did write this book, which sounds like the perfect beach book you’ve looking for:

Slavic Sins of the Flesh: Food, Sex, and Carnal Appetite in Nineteenth-Century Russian Fiction(UNH Library)

We watched The Cook, His Wife, The Thief and Her Lover[24], Soul Food[25], Waiting to Exhale[26] and Like Water for Chocolate[27].

The only assignments professor Mikhail gave us were to write “synopsis.” We weren’t to write papers, he asserted, nor essays, nor reports. No. These were synopsis, see? These were the things made of…I have no idea what they were. To this day I have no idea what he meant.

Because he never did explain what they were, give us an example of one, or provide any guidance on how to write one we never knew what they were. This, of course, gave him plenty of room to tell us What We Did Wrong[28].

And he did make it clear when I didn’t write one correctly. Or fail to write anything well at all, for that matter.

Mikhail lamented how little writing skills graduate students of today had. He said it to us, of course, but also said it to the director of the M.A.L.S. right in front of us.

This was great, really, because that approach blamed the undergraduate professors for not teaching those skills. Then they’d blame High School teachers for leaving all these kids behind in English class

. But High School teachers would follow suit and complain about those tender-hearted Middle School teachers forgetting to emphasize writing skills as they wipe tears from the eyes of those pre-pubescent kids.

Those Middle School teachers would point to the Elementary School teachers for neglecting to work those important composition skills into those impressionable youngsters when they had the chance.

But the Elementary teachers would quickly emphasize the fact parents of those students lack any writing skills or talent so what do you expect us to dohere we can’t work miracles.

Then the parents would look at each other then to their DNA and say, yes between the 50% from you and 50% from me we didn’t have any writing skills or talent, but what happened in the past life of this being/consciousness that makes writing now so hard for them?

Then the past life would maybe point to some time when the current life threw a sharpened pencil at a rabbit and injured it, ruining its chance to be part of a window display at Macy’s during Christmastime so what goes around comes around.

It’s a long blame game, one played by the uninspired and bitter teacher who loves passing the buck.

Because, if it’s someone else’s fault, what’s there to do?

Thankfully, I’ve encountered only a few of that kind in my school years.

Mikhail was one of them. Here’s one example to illustrate what I’m talking about.

I’ve still got one of the synopses he returned back to me.

Like any writer, I’m a superstitious pack-rat. Anyway, as I look at it now, over a decade later, the writing teacher in me, the special educator side, focuses on the impressions he made.

I mean literal impressions.

The kind you get when someone writes, bearing down with force, on a piece of paper. Happens a lot with kids with ADD, emotional disabilities (mostly anxiety), and overconfidence in skills (the force on the paper a maladaptive compensatory strategy for the lack of fluency). All these years later, bold and authoritative, there are more red marks on my paper than a face in a dermatology textbook.

His “comments” run the gamut of: “you misread Tolstoy here,” to “no, you’re way off here,” or “awkward,” and last but not least, “This sucks.”

Yeah, Mikhail actually wrote that. About a paragraph. Now, to be fair, it very well might have sucked. I wasn’t exactly bringing my A-game to his class on a nightly basis. Thus, anything I produced for him was more obligatory than inspirational.

My point is, if was a piece of writing bad enough for him to write that it sucks, then I’d have liked some feedback on how to improve. I doubt I’d have listened, or ever used it, but I’d have liked to hear it nonetheless.

The one time I did see Mikhail smile (more of a grimace, really), he was talking to a coed about Tolstoy.

I’d arrived early to class that night—I don’t remember why—and professor Mikhail sat in that creaky wooden chair, right next to his samovar, and there was this thin, buxom, Ukrainian-looking young lady talking to him, asking him something. He kept nodding and looking furtively at her chest. At one point I heard they talked about music. Mikhail mentioned he liked the B-52s and Los Lobos[29].

I don’t believe Mikhail knew the B-52s from the B-12s. I think that was a ruse to sound “hip” to her. Back in the 80s, he probably said Debbie Gibson.

This is what I believe the professor listened to:

When Professor Mikhail spotted me standing in the hall, his face lost all color and his eyes narrowed in hate and his grey mustache grew steely and I thought he was going to bludgeon me with an axe just to prove to this girl he was still virile and although I was younger I was only a skinny and sickly Semite[30] and moreover one without any ability to write a synopsis.

We argued a lot during the last couple classes. We were so different. Here he liked Los Lobos and I liked music like this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbvxP08FlMs

Correction: loved music like that.

I grew increasingly quarrelsome as his criticisms grew personal and he took this “your pathetic and I have no reason why or how you got here in my class” stance.

I think he was used to having these students who loved all things Russian and maybe they loved Soul Food too, or just pretended to for him, and they admired him just because he was this bad-ass comrade, this guy who was going to tell you How Ivan Illyich Died (probably because he killed him) and sip from that flask of his which I think had some type of ultra-strong Vodka that was technically more of a serum than an alcoholic beverage.

But I didn’t buy any of that.

If this was supposed to be some kind of class, with some kind of discourse and thus a give and take, reciprocity, or whatever, he had to meet me half way—or at least admit he was wrong. Right?

Wrong.

During the last class, I noticed he returned a paper[31] of mine with a semi-positive note on it. I think it was his way of saying “good job”[32] but it was just something I wrote to please him and get a good grade. I just did what all writers do when desperation takes over, inspiration has long died, and you’re perspiring from all that angst/caffeine/amphetamine/etc.

I wrote it to please someone else. Someone I had no respect for, yet the one reader that mattered because he was the only one who was reading it.

It was like working out and getting in great shape not for your health but so you can have someone with a better physique tell you how flabby you are.

At the end of the semester, I walked out of the Core Seminar looking forward to my next class, “Literature in the Later 18th Century” if only because I Knew I Would Never Have to Write a Synopsis.

That, and I wouldn’t have to sit uncomfortably, awkwardly, tortuously, across from a part-man, part-bear, who resented every atom of my being and held it against me I read Hemingway (though Mikhail laid off of Salinger. It might have been the fact Salinger was a decorated soldier. Mikhail loved veterans. Particularly those of bloody wars who never talked about it.)

The next chapter of my M.A.L.S., Literature in the Later 18th Century , proved to be the opposite of the above experience—including who I sat across from (or next to, for that matter…)

Indeed, every dog has its day. Every graduate student, too…

But I’ll save that for another blog post.

Disclaimer:

The latter part of a wise person’s life is occupied with curing the follies, prejudices and false opinions they contracted earlier.

Jonathan Swift

 

The above quote considered, the above text written by Aaron Sommers is a mix of hazy memory, colorful reminiscence, remarkable recollection, transient psychosis, unforgettable remembrance, induced mania and hyperbolic narrative.


[1] Technically he is a “Professor of Russian” but this is my blog so it’s my rules.

[2] See previous blog post for explanation.

[3] Not the kind of Russian you are thinking as you read this. The Not modern-day, bare-chested, alligator-wrestling Putin type. I’m talking about Gorby on steroids, riding a tank. Scary Soviet Old School.

[4] Not an exaggeration. Mikhail was said he could never have a High School reunion, because “the Germans destroyed my school.”

[5] Although I doubt Mikhail was a hypochondriac, because he viewed that disorder, one of many I have, as laughably weak and a reflection of my flimsy physical stature.

[6]Student, really. Basically. Me.

[7] I feel safe now giving him those traits. I feel safe now behind this computer monitor many miles from him.

[8] He couldn’t stop mocking me for reading Hemingway. He said it was “light reading” and instead he suggested I read Turgenev.

[9] See this http://www-ssg.sr.unh.edu/preceptorial/Summaries_2001/outline8_2001.html for clarification (or obfuscation) on the term.

[10] Originally. One dropped out, so it was just me and some middle aged lady who never said anything in class.

[11] A fact he didn’t have to tout. It was obvious he knew Russian Literature better than anyone else on campus, and he didn’t need to quote War and Peace to prove it. Mikhail looked like he walked out of War and Peace.

[12] Sounds boring.

[13] After the second class it would be a borefest.

[14] I think this is true. I have no research at hand to back it up, but my gut says it’s true.

[15] Been done before, but I’d have loved to see Mikhail try to clap with one hand.

[16] I actually like the sound of this one.

[17] Not to be confused with Sex in Food, Sex with Food or, my personal favorite, Sex While Eating an Ice Cream Sundae as Performance Art.

[18] Not worth trying to answer. Way too gross to picture.

[19] When I read this I picture a giant Robot Monster, part vacuum cleaner, part shark, battling an army of Russians flying big attack helicopters all the while there’s some little girl who is the last human born in this post-apocalyptic world named Bella who has the gift of precognition along with a weakness for Curious George movies. But that’s just when I read this. Professor Mikhail’s course syllabus for RUSS 500 probably doesn’t include Curious George.

[20] This one sounds cheery, doesn’t it?

[21] Mikhail once said to us, about Tolstoy’s “wild days” as a youth, “the best sex is the immoral kind.”

[22] Should be “and Society.” Just thought you might need to know about that typo, professor Mikhail.

[23] Now, I know, you know, we know, what a study abroad program is. Or what it’s supposed to be. But I take issue with the title of this class/program/opportunity. Encountering Oneself/Encountering the World, huh? Phooey. Case in point: a young woman, brunette, bookish, prefers to dress in black, Spanish major and resident of the mini-dorms heads out to Spain during her junior year. She meets a young man before this and they become close in a cosmic and physical sense and it is prelude to her trip across the Ocean. Where she visits, lives in old places like Madrid and Barcelona. She meets swarthy men with deep tans. They have muscles and accents and bad karma. She meets families, big families with uncles who never talk and instead stare into nothingness. She finds gazpacho tastes better when she’s not homesick. She finds, on her flight home three months later, she’s got a couple spiral notebooks full of observations, a Tears for Fears song stuck in her head, a bad case of shingles on her leg, a wedding band without meaning and a bag of peanuts in front of her. She hasn’t “encountered herself” nor “the world.” She end up like all of us—back to that familiar place called Your Mind. No one needs INCO 650H to tell them that.

[24] A piece of art-house trash. A real waste of reel.

[25] Awful.

[26] I think Professor Mikhail had the hots for Whitney Houston.

[27] Overrated and overwrought. But the lead actress is easy on the eyes.

[28] Mostly what I did wrong. He went easy on the other student. She came to the class after work and talked about her sick husband and her philandering unemployed son and she hadn’t read any book by any Russian author ever and although I think Mikhail didn’t care about her problems he looked at her as already wounded whereas I was young and single and well-read so therefore it was happy hunting as far as he was concerned.

[29] Part of me believed he danced to “Love Shack” after work, by himself, to relieve stress. Or anything by KC and the Sunshine Band.

[30] Depends on who you ask.

[31] Synopsis schnopsis.

[32] I remember one time asking him how he was. Not because I cared, but, you know, it was like a “so how are you doing” small talk. And he goes “I like the nighttime. It’s…when ideas come to me. But the demons come too.” So when I say, his way of saying, that’s the kind of stuff he was saying.

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