19 April 2008

Barbara Monahan

These people are not reading Lermontov.

The sign on Barbara Monahan’s office door read: “I can teach you to speak Russian in 37,000 easy lessons. If that fails, I can teach you to speak English with a heavy accent.”

Alas, despite her best efforts, I am better at English with a heavy accent.

And yet there are moments, primarily when I am jet-lagged, inside Russia, and drinking vodka, when I can speak Russian rather well, spasibo. The trouble is that, although I know what I’m saying, actual Russian people have considerably larger vocabularies than mine, and I seldom know what they’re saying. Nevertheless, it’s a happy ending to a story that must have disappointed both me and Barbara Monahan.

I was, after all, a promising debutant. The first day of Russian class, my freshman year at Brown, Professor Monahan announced that we were to call her “Babushka.” The word means “grandmother,” I knew that much. The good lady was no more a grandmother than she was mayor of Moscow — and I drew inspiration from her example. She went around the room, asking each student, “Kak vas zavut?” as we figured out that she meant, “What do they call you?” When she came to me, I proudly answered, in English, “Eugene Onegin.”

“Pravda?” said Babushka. “Gdye Tat´yana?” (“Where is Tatyana” — the heroine of Onegin’s tale?)

It took her a minute to persuade me that there is no such character as “Eugene Onegin,” that the hero of Pushkin’s poem and Tchaikovsky’s opera is really called “Yevgenii Onyegin.” But once informed, I took the news to heart, and became, in my own mind at least, an ironic Romantic anti-hero.

Yeah, yeah — whatever.

Never mind that the Russian language was at the time far more concerned with increased tractor production than with poetry, or with any other literature more exalted than the minutes of Supreme Central Committee Meetings (a disappointment that doomed my studies and from which I still haven’t recovered): I was determined to be Yegenii, or what Yevegnii ought to be. I even borrowed my roommate’s fencing foil and the shirt he wore to play Hamlet in prep school, and made my entrance in costume one morning — through the classroom window.

Now that I’ve been a teacher, I’d probably throw the knigo at any student who attempted a similar stunt, but Babushka took it in stride. The real Yevgenii used a pistol, not a sword, and he was a dandy who wouldn’t have worn Paul’s Hamlet shirt for all the kopeks in the world, but I didn’t read the book for a few more years. (And then, need I say so, in translation.) Nichevo.

Babushka’s own classroom style was physical — dramatic — startling. Years later, when I was at CBS News, I told one of our Russian consultants I’d studied with Barbara Monahan. “She’s the recognized authority on Russian gesture!” the consultant exclaimed. I hadn’t known this, but I wasn’t surprised. Babushka was constantly in motion, not merely gesturing but acting out concepts with her whole body. She’d grab us out of our desks and throw us around the room if it meant the chance of teaching us the position of a single myak iznak.

Perhaps as a result, she had back trouble. Friday mornings were more sedate — and sedated — than lesson days. She led conversation hours, liberally sprinkled with Stolichnaya, which she’d smuggled back from the Soviet Union. (And that, children, was the only way you could get the stuff in those days.) She doled out the vodka in little styrofoam cups, and when we had colds, she’d make poultices of it on paper towels. In further deference to her back, she spent her office hours reclining flat on a sofa.

Do svedanya, Sasha: A portrait of Pushkin

She was reclining just that way when she summoned me to discuss, second semester, the fact that I was in immediate danger of flunking her course. Was I aware of my predicament? Konechno, I was.

She smiled and said, “Love problems?” — in Russian, which I understood primarily because the Recognized Authority on Gesture tapped her heart as she spoke. (Yet when I recollect the scene, I hear her saying it in English — with a heavy accent.) I marveled at her perception, although in hindsight I realize that a freshman with “luff prrroblem” was a phenomenon she’d encountered many times before. Probably we lovelorn lads were no rarer than ivy on campus, and she knew what needed to be done with me. Before the interview was out, she’d granted me an extension. I took the final exam in October, and passed by the skin of my zubi. I didn’t push my luck, and thus ended my study of the Russian language.

My accent was good, however. At least, I thought so. One of Babushka’s teaching assistants, a redoubtable Leningrader named Ina, despaired of me, because “You sound like you are from Novgorod!” Apparently, Novgorod is the equivalent of Hickory Holler, but hell, it’s within the border. I exulted.

The downside, however, is that when I do try to speak Russian, people think I know more than I do. I get in the worst trouble, and lately I try simply to observe the advice Babushka often gave me: “Luchshe malchit´” — “It’s better to keep quiet.”

She’s still at Brown, or back again, and I calculate therefore that she can’t have been much older than I am now when she declared herself to be my “staraya Babushka.” I’m hoping to track her down over Reunion Weekend. I’d like to tell her — in English — that some of her lessons stuck. There are even days when, here in Paris and without the influence of vodka, I eavesdrop on the Russian tourists. So far, they haven’t said anything worth hearing. But you never know.


Kristen said...

When did you take Russian with Babushka? I studied with her from 1980-1983. You describe her teaching style so well. Do you have any recent news about her?

William V. Madison said...

From the sound of it, Kristen, you started taking Babushka's class around the time I made my exit. I'm sorry to have missed you.

I keep meaning to drop Babushka a line, perhaps with a copy of this essay, if I could get a printer to work, but I haven't been organized enough yet to do so. (I also keep thinking that somebody else will see the essay and bring it to her attention — much as it happened with Bruce Donovan, just before my 25th reunion in 2008.)

James Pannozzi said...

I was a student of Professor Monahan in 1965 when she taught Russian at Cranston East. We were in our third year of that program. She was oustanding, one of the best teachers I've ever had.

Some measure of her success can be found in that after nearly half a century, I can still converse in Russian, read it and understand a good deal of it.

Certain Russian authors and scenes from the novels stay in my mind, indelibly impressed because of the intensity of youth... the description of the small town in "Hero of Our Times" by Lermonotov, or the scene in which the Prince decides to shoot or not shoot Napoleon in "War and Pease" or the wonderfully revolutionary contempt displayed by the moderator in "Notes from the Underground".

If there is one thing to be inferred from her teaching, it is that you cannot understand the language or the culture without reading books like that and understanding what they are saying. Their message haunts me to this day and is made even more relevant by the shambles in which our socio-political and yes, even cultural milleau have fallen.