I am not sure when I first decided to go to graduate school to get a master’s degree in history. But it must have happened when I was waiting tables in Washington, D.C.. Perhaps the moment of crisis came when I was so burned out on waiting tables that I actually followed a smug customer out into the street to inquire whether it was on account of poor service that I had been left no tip on a bill of several hundred dollars.
Of course, as a dean of arts and sciences at a community college, I still have occasion to use my experience as a waiter in my day-to-day life. For instance, just yesterday I apologized to an esteemed colleague, a biology faculty member, for not giving her more information about a decision I had made the previous week. What else could I tell her but that I had been “in the weeds”?
At any rate, I did go to graduate school, escaping to Montreal where I hoped to get some semblance of a feeling that I was living the life of an adventurer and expatriate. Once there, I did lead an interesting life, but academically I did very little more than read several hundred books. These books fell into a bifurcated but extremely predictable pattern. First, I read dozens upon dozens of incredibly outdated biographies and memoirs of completely irrelevant British politicians of the 19th and 20th century. It’s “ghastly” (to coin a British phrase) to contemplate how similar these books were: everybody went to Eaton and Oxford, adopted one of two (or perhaps three) political philosophies, and then exploited aristocratic and business connections in order to accept a long series of political and diplomatic appointments.
Although I picked up a few wonderful turns of phrase, and still call people “damp squibs” or refer to easy teaching assignments as “rotten boroughs,” I learned very little of substance from my early years in graduate school. However, my autodidactic tendencies extended to another form of biography, that of poets and authors of the twentieth century. So my readings in Castlereagh (“I saw death on the way, he had a face like Castlereagh”), Palmerston, Gladstone, and Disraeli, were closely shadowed by parallel readings in Kerouac, Genet, Gide, Joyce, and Burroughs.
If I had a split personality, I once tried to reconcile these opposing trends by writing a dissertation proposal that rather pretentiously and unrealistically claimed that I would one day apply the tools of literary theory to analyze political rhetoric as if it were the modernist prose of Virginia Woolf. Of course, British political figures were closely aligned to their artistic counterparts: The Bloomsbury Group included John Maynard Keynes, for instance, and he was not without political juice in the Interwar years.
At any rate, the project of unifying my own interest in politics and arts was a failure, which is why I appreciate Rachel Polonsky’s new book, Molotov’s Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History. Molotov’s Magic Lantern is a strange but pleasant mixture of travel writing, history, literary theory, unbridled Russophilia, and autobiography. The premise of this work of creative nonfiction is that Polonsky, living in Moscow, once gained access to the personal library of Stalin’s evil sidekick and onetime Commissar of Foreign Affairs, Molotov. By gaining this access, reading widely in Russian history and literature, and travelling to cities such as Vologda, Archangel, Ulan Ude, Novgorod, Rostov-on-the-Don, and Taganrog, Polonsky breathes life into the whole sweep of (mostly) modern Russian history, a history that is alive in interlocking and tragic political and literary drama.