Intro to Russian Lit I & II (19th & 20th centuries)

May 2005

One night earlier this spring, reading a sliver of Boris Pasternak's novella, The childhood of Liuvers, in the company of Prof. Irina Reyfman's vocabulary list, I met with an insurmountable poetic phrase. My eyes shuffled hopefully from that text to this list, which revealed, "I will explain in class. To explain this, it is necessary to draw." Indeed, Prof. Reyfman draws. She draws up these lists nightly, and posts them on Courseworks, explaining ambiguities owing to the peculiarities of epochs (slang, outdated articles of clothing, etc.) or ambiguities born of breathless or meandering sentences. She draws on the board to explain a knot of a word: the rim of a sieve, for example. In her two-course sequence, Introduction to Russian Literature, she draws together a motley crew of students. We possess the language with varying grasp: some are but in third-year Russian; others are heritage speakers (although these are the exception rather than the rule). Each of us learns to read slowly, to "caress the divine details," as Nabokov urged. In class, Prof. Reyfman is patient with misplaced accents; she allows for the revision of essays. She deftly ties our response questions " written and emailed to her on the heels of a few pages of reading in the original " into the discussion. She gives us the floor sometimes: we hold conferences in the miniature, thus learning how to present an argument aloud, how to field the questions of peers. Though she is Director of Graduate Study, Prof. Irina ReyfmanÂ’s office hours for undergraduates are abundant. They spill over into the entire seventh floor of Hamilton; nor will she deny us advice on College Walk, should we ask for it there. She wrote my recommendation letter for my year-to-come in Moscow. Russian friends of mine, visiting Columbia during their universities' respective holidays, have accompanied me to Prof. Reyfman's class; she has welcomed them and they have seen what wonders she has wrought, what seeds of interest in literature she has sown and watered, and with what love she has done it all. She is at once serious and funny; critical and generous. She spurred a renaissance in the studies I was poised to abandon at the start of my sophomore year, because she does not believe in following a schedule at the cost of understanding a story; in sharp contrast to others I have known, she is willing to indulge, to exhaust a theme a little. She has made of me a greater reader. She has given no work or student short shrift. This is the loveliest debt in which I have ever been.