11 December 2018
A Man from the Soviet Epoch
10 December, Syktyvkar people had the pleasure of meeting American professor of Slavic studies Irvin Weil in the National Library of the Komi Republic.
Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University, Illinois, Irvin Weil is visiting the Komi Republic by the invitation of his longtime friend. He delivered his improvised public lecture before quite a vast assembly. Those who wished to see and hear the man-epoch (16 April Mr. Weil turned 90 years old) started to show up an hour in advance.
When the special guest entered the room, everyone stood up, as if on cue, and met the man with a generous applause, like an actor. Indeed, Irvin Weil’s lecture in a way resembled a performance. He spoke about his enchantment with the Russian literature and language, his academic years in Chicago University and Harvard, his first visit to the USSR in 1960, and his encounters with K. Chukovsky and D. Shostakovich (he was Shostakovich’s personal interpreter when the composer was visiting the Northwestern University). He compared easy Tolstoy with difficult Dostoevsky and American writers with Russian writers emphasizing the superiority of the latter. Professor Weil acted out the dialogues, imitated people’s voices, and made just the right pauses to let the audience laugh. It was obvious to see his students loved his charismatic style of lecturing.
Settlling himself down at the microphone, first, the speaker took off his watch and put it aside I front of him. Fifty something years of teaching have developed the habit of respecting the time limit and not holding the listeners after his lectures. However, the allotted 45 minutes had passed and the public wanted more.
Irvin Weil told about his chief scientific work – the book about proletarian writer Maxim Gorky, presenting his own interpretation of the author's biography in the context of the Soviet time. He also shared the story of his polemics with Vladimir Nabokov whom he unambiguously characterized as the man with a bad temper. Nabokov retorted: "in criticism Mr. Weil values only good-naturedness and this is all one can say about Mr. Weil". At the same time, when Irvin Weil spoke about Nabokov’s novels and translations to the students of Moscow University, to his surprise, they knew Nabokov’s texts from samizdat although he was a banned writer at a time.
Speaking in an admirable Russian language with a slight overseas accent, a couple of times the professor used old-fashioned Russian words reminding of the Russian classic literature.
Irvin Weil apologized for his mistakes cursing his memory and the ‘awful’ Russian Ablative Case that, if made the dictator of Russia, he said he would abolish
“There is a poet named Pushkin. Have you heard of him?” – Professor could not help teasing the audience and then went off reciting a verse from Evgeniy Onegin:
Like rose-red lips without a smile,
Russian without such faults is vile...
Their incorrect and careless chatter,
Their errors of pronunciation,
Still add emotion to the matter,
Stir the same old sweet sensation.
I’ve not the strength for repentance,
French still entrances in a sentence.
“Well, it is not French, but English in my case.” – corrected himself Mr. Weil.
Mr. Weil delicately avoided all the sharp corners of the uncomfortable topics – the Stalin years, the sour Soviet-American relations of the Cold War period, the critic-author relations – maneuvering between the desire to stay honest with the audience and the concern not to offend anyone alive or dead. His stories cast a bit of irony on the harsh years of the past, without dragging the audience into a political debate, but staying within the realm of literature and culture.
Presenting his book of memoirs to the library readers, he explained the idea behind the title – From the Cincinnati Reds to the Russian Reds. In fact, Cincinnati Reds was a baseball team that his father used to own. Being a child, growing up in the baseball fever, he did not know then that there were a different kind of reds than the colour of their baseball team – the Russian reds. His book shows his path from the one to the other.
Irvin Weil's memoirs bring together a lifetime of experiences, from his childhood in Ohio to the time when he rubbed shoulders with most prominent Russian writers, thinkers and musicians. The narrative recreates closely the professor’s easy-going, good-humoured style of speaking making it a delightful page-turner.
After the lecture, Professor Weil had some time to ask his own questions. He was interested in the Komi language and asked whether people still spoke it. He was pleasantly surprised that the Komi language uses the Cyrillic Alphabet and so he read a few lines from a poem by the first Komi poet, Ivan Kuratov. Trying to fix the new name in his memory, Professor Weil wrote it, in his neat calligraphic handwriting, on the copy of the poem translated in English. This is how we have obtained this unusual Russian autograph.
Of course, we asked the professor of Russian literature whether he read the modern authors. “I was recommended Zakhar Prilepin, - said Mr. Weil, – but I could not cope with a single page. I do not understand it. And it is only my fault – I am a man from the Soviet Epoch”.
From the Cincinnati Reds to the Moscow Reds. The Memoirs of Irvin Weil
This book, published in 2015, brings together a lifetime of experiences told by a beloved member of the field of Slavic languages and literature - Irwin Weil. During the Soviet era, Irwin frequently visited and corresponded with outstanding Russian cultural figures, such as Vladimir Nabokov, Korney Chukovsky, and Dmitrii Shostakovich. His deep love of the Russian people and their culture has touched the lives of countless students, in particular at Northwestern University, where he has taught since 1966. It is these stories of an unassuming Jewish American from Cincinnati, Ohio who rubbed shoulders with some of the most prominent thinkers, writers, and musicians in the Soviet Union that are presented in this volume. The book is available in Russian