My troubled relationship with the humanities began early on. In second grade in Brooklyn, the first year I ever went to school (my family didn’t send me to school in Ukraine for fear of death), ancient Ms. Kramer with the bright red lipstick gave us our first assignment that didn’t involve numbers or planets. We were to find a current events story, cut it out of whichever publication we found it in, and answer five questions: who, what, where, how, and why.
I was deeply attached to a copy of Highlights Magazine, obtained for free at the local Y. In it, there was a story about a girl who, if I remember correctly, plays hooky, has a great time, gets punished and learns her lesson. The story came with a cartoon of the girl, which, clearly, only added value. I was ridiculed for submitting the story for the project. Somehow, everybody understood that the assignment called for a true story from a newspaper, not a tale about a nonexistent girl. That’s how I learned that there was a distinction between fiction and nonfiction, and that fiction wasn’t to be taken seriously. Fine with me—I never much liked serious things.
Imagine my shock then, when we began reading novels and taking apart the characters and events as if they were real, trudging laboriously through Steinbeck and Bronte, answering the equivalent of who, what, where, how, and why. My literary identity fractured; I loathed the assigned books and dreaded analyzing them, but loved my secret books, which I’d never defile by deconstructing (or thinking about too hard).
The English class humiliations continued. In sixth grade, we had a test on Anne Frank, which I approached with foolish confidence. I blanked when it came to listing the countries in the Allied versus the Axis powers; I was top of my class and couldn’t afford a wrong answer. Sitting next to me was a dimwitted girl on the verge of flunking, but I decided to cheat off her anyway. I was frank about my intentions, and passed a note that said I was going to copy her answers; she wasn’t very pleased—she was planning to cheat off me. We sat for a long time, waiting for the other to put down her answer so we could be the one to cheat. Everybody else handed in the test. Our face-off continued. We began to bicker and were busted. The teacher dragged us out of the classroom and shrieked so loud it still reverberates in the halls of The Bay Academy. We were sent to the dean’s office; my parents were informed. They didn’t care; cheating was a rite of passage in the Soviet Union.
In high school, I was desperate to bridge the gap between my private passion for literature and hatred for English class. I signed up for Great Books, which everybody raved about. We read The Sound and the Fury, Macbeth, One Hundred Years of Solitude—I knew it didn’t get any Greater, but that didn’t make the class any better. We sat in a circle the way college students did and masticated these masterpieces. The most awful kids spoke the most, which I took as permission to never open my mouth. It was like everybody was eating pizza with a knife and fork, something I was against on principle. But instead of showing them the proper way to eat it, I abstained from the feast altogether, hating both Mrs. Dalloway and myself. I was an idiot, who, shamefully, loved to read.
The first time my private and official reading lives synced up was at Hunter College, in a course I took as a sophomore on Russian literature in the twentieth century. The course was taught by Elizabeth Beaujour, a small, fine-boned lady with a shock of gray-white hair, a pointy nose, and a limitless supply of old-world grace, elegance, and sincerity. Her smile was a squint. She was Russian-Jewish; the Beaujour belonged to a French husband who I had no doubt was handsome and distinguished. This was confirmed about five years later, when I spotted them wandering the second floor of the Met—I was too shy to say hello and sure she wouldn’t remember me. She was what I imagine Vera Nabokov looked like, acted like, shone like—as beautiful, sensitive, and spiritually content.
Which leads to the book that was responsible for the convergence of my furtive reading life with my academic one: Pnin. Before we went home to read it, Professor Beaujour told us that Nabokov had buried a secret image throughout the book. I set out to discover it with unprecedented fervor. After reading the book twice, I decided the secret image was a mermaid. The sea theme recurs often and there are a few mentions of mermaid tails. But I was wrong (at least that wasn’t the image Professor Beaujour had in mind); it was a squirrel, which, as the all-knowing narrator tells us, is a Greek word meaning “shadow-tail.” Nabokov planted belochki throughout the book—into Pnin’s childhood bedroom, the name of his pediatrician, the park where he hyperventilates on his way to the Cremona lecture. Professor Beaujour set about the task of uncovering for us, one by one, the great wealth of secret squirrels in the book—they were practically on every page, unmissable, yet I’d missed them. I became dizzy with joy.
It was a strange reaction, especially since I’m not a puzzle-lover. In hindsight I don’t think it had to do with squirrels, as much as with hands. Professor Beaujour had long, thin fingers—beautifully knuckly—and the more excited she got, the more she waved them around. Those squirrels got her awfully animated. I was entranced. Her hands spoke more than her deep, soft, Jewish, old-fashioned voice. Her bracelets clinked hypnotically. This was the kind of critical thinking I could tolerate—squirrels and hand-waving.
Professor Beaujour loved talking about the books, but she didn’t analyze their entrails. She left room for magic. And Nabokov helped her out by providing a shimmery, patterned surface with plenty to study—a trick, almost, that could allow depths to remain undisturbed. Of course, it is fitting that the book was as much fun to analyze in class as it was to read at home; it’s a satire about a bunch of academics. Nabokov was making fun of this scholarly milieu—why did I have to suffer just because I didn’t conform to it? Maybe I would never learn how to think critically about books, but that was OK, especially if it preserves the hand-waving.
Yelena Akhtiorskaya is the author of Panic in a Suitcase.