The Pedagogical Provocations of Lev Vassilynikov
The first Lev Vassilynikov book club meeting was quickly approaching and I realized it had been a while since I discussed literature in a group setting. I finished my M.F.A. last year, and since then, still being pickled from grad school lit-speech, such as “to piggyback off of what she just said . . .” and “intertextually I found the work fascinating . . .” I avoided talking about books and read for my own stimulation and enjoyment.
But now I was potentially having a round table (my coffee table’s fairly round) discussion about one of my favorite authors, with my absolute favorite author (whom I think, and I know this sounds crazy, but, maybe, just maybe, left a message on my voicemail, which is why I said to Masha, “I got Bobbins!” I can’t wait to play her the message!), and I had to practice. Which is why I sent this email to my 200-level composition class, Writing for the Sciences, at 1:37 a.m. on a Tuesday.
I know this is last minute, and I also know we’ve never discussed literature before, and for both of those things I can only offer my most sincere of apologies, but I’d like you to read, for Wednesday (yes, tomorrow, not next week), “The Delusional,” a short story by Lev Vassilynikov. I’ve pasted the link below, but please, print it out and read it on paper. Not on the screen. I hope you enjoy it.
And when I entered that classroom on Wednesday I swear I had this moment of euphoria. I had the privilege of sitting down with twenty-five intelligent people to talk about one of the most creative, strange, and wonderful writers the world has ever known. Throughout the semester we spoke about space exploration, quantum tunneling and thermodynamics, human evolution (hence, Writing for the Sciences), all of the possibilities that exist in the world—and now, Lev Vassilynikov. And I was getting paid for this.
I walked in a few minutes late like I usually do and only ten out of twenty-five students were there. And they weren’t the smart ones.
I dropped my bag at my desk and stared at them. “Where is everybody?”
They all stared forward with that absent “It’s 9:33 in the morning and I’m hungover or really high” look. I looked at the clock and thought, Only an hour and twelve minutes to go . . . Rain clouds were forming outside.
“Is there a calc test today?” I asked them.
One kid smiled.
“Is that it?” I said.
“Yeah,” he told me, “and a Physics III test too.”
“Alright,” I said, “well, let the band play on.”
I told them to take out their Lev Vassilynikov story. The one that I had asked them to read. A few students rummaged around their bags and all the others had confused looks on their faces.
“Guys,” I said, “don’t tell me no one brought it.”
“Which book?” one kid said.
“Don’t tell me you guys don’t check your emails. I know you live on your iPhones and your computers.”
They kept faking that disoriented look.
“I emailed you the story. You were supposed to read it for today.”
“Ohhhhhhhh, “ a few of them called out.
“Oh, I didn’t check my emails,” one student said, not to me, but just so the room could hear, and they all echoed similar “Yeah, me too” or they started laughing.
“So who actually read the story?” I stared for some seconds and the only thing I could hear was whispering in the halls. “Nobody? Nobody read the story?”
“How long is it?” a girl said. “I could read it on my phone right now.”
“It’s too long to read right now.” I noticed this student in the back who was looking all around. He had papers in front of him. “Gabriel,” I said, “What’s that you got there?”
“Is that the story?”
“What? Oh . . . yeah, I guess it is.”
“Did you read it?”
“Uhmmmm . . . uh . . . yeah, yeah, I did.”
“Holy shit!” I called out, “somebody read it! Gabriel tell us what it’s about.”
He started explaining the beginning of the story while a few students pulled out their iPhones, and I thought to say, “Hey, put your phones away,” but I knew they were just looking at the story while he spoke.
“Well, it’s really weird,” Gabriel started saying, “and I didn’t get most of it, but this guy is on his way to work, but all of a sudden, he doesn’t know where he works, even though he’s been working there for seventeen years.”
“Why doesn’t he know where he works?” I said.
“Because he lost his briefcase,” a girl said.
“Wait a second. Amber? Did you read it too?”
“Uhmmm . . . Yeah, I did.”
“Holy shit! Looks like we can have a conversation! Gabriel, keep going, and by the way guys, you don’t need to be ashamed of doing your homework.”
Gabriel continued to describe the plot of the story—the main character, who didn’t have a name because he never could remember it—as he walked around his village, in all of the places he had been in all of his life, yet he couldn’t place what he knew about anything. Gabriel described what happened, but he didn’t give any analysis, or any insight into the psychology behind the story. “Then he started talking about clouds,” he said, “and I didn’t really get that.”
“Yeah,” Amber said, “it was really weird.”
“It was weird, wasn’t it?” I told them, and just then four students ran in, all of the ones I considered to be the brightest students in the class. They must’ve all been in that physics class together.
“So what’s this guy’s deal?” I asked them, “Why did he lose his briefcase? Why doesn’t know who he is?”
“I don’t know,” Gabriel said.
“Maybe he has post-traumatic stress,” Amber said.
“It’s pre-existentialism,” a girl called out, one of the students who had came in late. Her name was Anzhela, and I knew she was some sort of Russian. I wasn’t sure if she was from Russia though, and I was always afraid to ask.
“What do you mean?” I said to her.
“He’s having an existential crisis,” she said.
“What’s existentialism?” I asked her.
She looked around at the class, most likely wondering if she was acting appropriately, but then continued. “It’s a philosophy about the individual’s loneliness in the world. We’ll never understand each other, and because we’re all inherently selfish it means we’ll always be alone. The man doesn’t know who he is because he has no sense of self. He just doesn’t see the point in existence. So why even know your own name?”
I saw the astonished looks on all the students’ faces. I wanted to bring them all back into it. “Can you show me evidence of that in the story?”
The room was silent for awhile. Anzhela was kind enough to give everyone a shot at it. Then, after I became uncomfortable with the silence, I looked at her, giving her the sign it was okay for her to answer.
“On page seven, middle of the page, “ she started, “he’s looking at the clouds and thinking about how they all appear to have different shapes. No one cloud is ever replicated. But then, he says, it’s all an illusion, that clouds are all the same because they’re composed of the same gases. And they’re not even real because they’ll disappear in seconds and never return, or at least change their form so the previous form didn’t ever matter. It’s like they never existed at all.”
“What is that? When you compare something to something else?” And again I looked around for someone to answer, but they all looked at Anzhela.
“It’s a metaphor,” she said.
“Right,” I said, getting up off of the desk. I started pacing back and forth across the room. “What happens at the end of the story, Gabriel?” I didn’t want to play favorites.
“I’m not sure,” he said, “he’s by this bridge and he’s thinking of jumping, but I don’t know what happens.”
“Me either,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter what happens,” Anzhela called out, seeming empowered by the day’s discussion, and almost even frustrated. “Everything is always in a state of transition. The man, like the clouds, will form and re-form, or disappear, whatever it will go through, it doesn’t matter. Because death is the end.”
I stared at the class and saw several people playing with their phones. I knew they weren’t looking at the story anymore. I had lost them, or perhaps even worse, I had allowed one of their peers to lose them.
“This was where Sartre first got the idea for Being and Nothingness,” Anzhela said.
“Really?” I said, then thought, Screw the class, I can get something out of this.
“Yeah,” she said, “Sartre traveled to Moscow to meet Vassilynikov. He wanted him to edit another book he was working on.”
“Which book?” I said.
“Nausea,” she said.
I tried to think of something smart to say, but I had never read it. Instead I nodded like I knew she was talking about.
She continued, “When Sartre got to Moscow Vassilynikov was already in hiding. Sartre sent out messengers all over Moscow. He stayed there for over a year, living with random poets, and ducking the police.”
“But he never found him?” I said.
“No,” she told me, “he never did. The day that Sartre finally found out where Vassilynikov was hiding out—he did a great job at keeping it a secret—Vassilynikov was captured and shipped out.”
“To where he died,” she said.
“And where was that?”
“You don’t know where Vassilynikov died?” she said.
With great shame I looked around at my students, and admitted, “No.”
Her eyes moved to the window. She gazed outside and I realized this was very personal to her. She probably had family members that went through this, and I started to feel to petty for having grown up in New Jersey, where the greatest hardship is losing a little league game.
Finally, she said, “He died in the GULAG.”