Bildung 4

At the university, I was initially excited to find out that I’d have to take 4 years of World Literature and even attended lectures (which was a highly unusual thing for me to do). It turned out, though, that literature courses consisted of an old, inarticulate woman reading aloud from a tattered textbook. We were supposed to take notes and also copy long passages from Bakhtin into our notebooks. The exams consisted in presenting your notebook with quotes from Bakhtin to the professor. People with the prettiest, most organized notebooks got the best grades.

As you can imagine, I soon lost interest in this course. I was working a lot at that time and my time was expensive, so wasting it on lectures that explained the deeply Communist nature of Euripides and Rabelais would be a strange thing for me to do.

In my fourth year, there was to be a real exam in World Literature. We were supposed to come to the exam and talk to the professor face to face about what we’d learned. I hadn’t been to any lectures for years and didn’t even know that we now had a new professor who was young and very enthusiastic.

The exam was to start at 9 am. I had been working on an urgent translation all night long and arrived at the university at 1 pm only to discover that my entire group was hovering by the professor’s office, looking terrorized. It turned out that nobody had dared to enter because there was a rumor that the professor was an animal and liked failing everybody.

Every ten minutes the angry professor would come out of her office and implore people to enter and take the exam, promising to fail everybody on the spot if they continued wasting her time. The students shook their heads with the steely resolve of a Ukrainian WWII partisan interrogated by the Nazis.

I had two more urgent translations waiting for me at home, so I volunteered to be the first to take the exam.

“Don’t!” everybody whispered. “Stay here with us, it’s safer not to go in.”

I shook everybody off and entered the professor’s office.

“Who are you?” she asked. “Have you been to a single lecture of mine?”

“No,” I said. “I hate literature, it’s completely useless.” Then I delivered a passionate monologue about Balzac, Zola, and the Impressionists.

For the next hour, the professor and I yelled at each other, quoting, interrupting, waving our hands, and arguing about pretty much the entirety of Western literature.

“OK, I have to let you go now. Tell the people outside that you get the highest grade and I’m not angry any longer, so they can start coming in,” she finally said. Of course, it couldn’t have occurred to me at that point that I would soon start to dream of becoming a professor of literature myself.


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