When the rest of the class returns, we read Nabokov’s short story “Razor,” where a Russian named Ivanov finds himself working as a barber in Berlin. When a newcomer appears for a shave one summer day, Ivanov shaves him and tells him a story, reminding the newcomer how one slip of the razor could mean instant death.
Dakota drums a finger lightly on the desk and Meredith plays with a short piece of red hair and frowns as she reads.
Mano finishes last, closes his book and says, “What happened?”
We piece together how Ivanov had been a captain of the White Army who escaped from Bolshevik rule.
“Escaping what exactly?” I ask.
Paige reads the line, “What do you think would be suitable atonement for all that? What is considered an equivalent of a sharp sword?”
“Torture!” Bob calls out, eyes lighting up.
Nabokov has their attention. We discuss the binaries of the text: the sharp profile of Ivanov versus the round pate of the newcomer; Ivanov is upright and lively, the newcomer reclined and deathly; and how Ivanov tells a story but the newcomer is speechless.
“What’s the pivotal moment?” I ask.
“When he lets him go,” Paige says. “When he says ‘I’m satisfied. You may leave.’”
“Yes,” I say. “Let’s tease out the connotations of the word ‘satisfied.’”
“Happy… content… pleased,” they call out.
“Your debt has been paid?” I ask. “Like a bank loan that has been satisfied.”
A few students nod.
“Earlier Ivanov asked the newcomer what ‘atonement’ would be ‘suitable’ and then he told him a story.”
“In the meantime scaring him shitless,” Mano adds.
“And then Ivanov was satisfied. The debt was repaid.” I pause. “I would argue this is Nabokov’s modus operandi as well. He’s lost his homeland to ‘a dull buffoon’ and he’s going to tell his story. This is why he writes—to make atonement, to write a world in place of the ‘splendid homeland’ he lost.” I pause again. Paige is smiling. Dakota stares at me.
I think I’ve made it over the first hurdle.
For homework, I assign the novel Mary. It is the first novel Nabokov wrote and, apparently, the first novel at least one of them will read. I wonder if this student will drop the class, or if they will all drop the class, and I will be standing here alone tomorrow, doodling pictures of horses.
Growing up on a ranch was the only childhood I ever wanted. In the spring, there was branding, fencing and irrigating. Cold water from a tin cup straight from the side of a mountain. The acrid sizzle of hair on a branding iron. Summer found us weaning, herding, and haying. The pungency of freshly-cut alfalfa falling beneath the swather. Fall was time for gathering, sorting and shipping. Riding light in the stirrups on slippery grass. Rattlesnakes and wild irises rattling in the dry breeze. Winter was longer: feeding, doctoring and calving. Frosted fingers and toes. Beer bread and chili. Getting bucked off and getting back on.
I loved every minute of my childhood, even the minutes I hated.
I’d never expected to return to Dillon though. My parents made it clear I should go to college, find a good husband, have kids. I did. My husband, an architect, is from Dillon as well. We’ve been married fourteen years and have a twelve-year-old daughter named Angelika. Before we were married, I often returned to the ranch during my college vacations and worked on the hay crew or jumped on a four-wheeler and flood irrigated the meadows.
But it was plain there was no permanent place for me there.
To my great surprise, Russia became my ranch. I made my first visit in 1994, just three years after communism crumbled. I was in college and eager to explore the world. When a young couple I knew offered to let me stay with them for the summer in Kiev, I accepted.
Later, after we married, Kreg and I spent a summer in Vladivostok studying Russian and other trips, I attended writing conferences and visited friends in St. Petersburg and Moscow. One memorable spring, I helped host a camp for orphans outside of Vladimir.
When my husband and I decided to adopt, we didn’t think twice about where the child should come from. Most of 2007, I lived alone in Tver and battled the court system to formalize the adoption of our daughter, Angelika.
Russia required the same hard work, focus and fortitude as growing up on a ranch. I partook in a nude banya with the female university president, landed in jail after accidentally bribing a militsia, and boarded a bus to a remote village instead of my favorite shoe store. I also committed all the normal faux pas that comes with second-language acquisition like saying the word “peeing” instead of “writing” to a prim instructor and buying a birthday present for the wrong person.
I was never required to read an entire novel in one night at an open-enrollment college though.
Return tomorrow for the next installment of “Teaching Nabokov to Cowgirls.”
Dr. Danielle Jones teaches writing and literature at the University of Montana Western. She has a Ph.D in Poetry from SUNY-Albany and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University. For the 2012-2013 academic year, she has been awarded a Fulbright Scholar Grant to Russia, where she will teach literature and work on her memoir, Mother Russia, Father Time.