- Remarks on Priscilla Meyer's Retirement
Writing about Priscilla Meyer in this forum feels to me like a kind of double exposure. I have been Priscilla's co-author, and we are writing partners; we read each other's drafts and kibitz each other's work in progress. But I am also her daughter. Even writing about her work as part of a scholarly journal, then, I can't completely separate the personal from the professional. I think that's as it should be, because for Priscilla, the line between the two is always blurry, and the better the work, the more personal it feels.
Nonetheless, I'll leave out the stories about Priscilla's prowess at charades or the time she almost decked a six-foot anti-Semite in a Parisian bookstore. But is it personal or professional to describe Andrei Bitov and Joseph Brodsky laughing at her jokes? To reminisce about dinner parties in which seating was arranged by language, with bi- and trilingual people positioned at the borders to translate? (The most frequent languages of my childhood were English, Russian, and French, but I remember Polish, Magyar, Buryat, Uzbek, and Croatian turning up.) As hostess, Priscilla has to be at the foot of the table at these events, but she is always in the middle of the conversation, forging connections between strangers and across continents.
Those dinners do the same kind of work as her scholarship: in three monographs, five editions, and more than fifty scholarly articles, she brings voices from many languages into conversation with each other, introducing, uniting, and revealing. (There are some differences between dinner parties and scholarship. You can't win prizes for dinner parties, although if you could, I'm sure she'd have one to match the University of Southern California Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies, which she won for How the Russians Read the French.) She does this work gracefully, wittily, with an unfailing sense of fun, and at the same time with a sense that the stakes of the game are life and death.
And it isn't just her own parties. In the summer of 2013, Priscilla and I both presented at the Nabokov Readings conference at the Nabokov Museum in St. Petersburg, sneaking up the stairs to take selfies in the Nabokovs' floor-to-ceiling mirrors. After the presentations, we walked along Nevsky Prospekt to Dom Knigi. As we wandered the bookstore, she exclaimed over the changes since the old days: bookshelves moved away from the windows; a café; and most importantly, so many books that had previously been banned. We came to a shelf of twentieth-century and contemporary fiction, and she started pointing out her friends. "Look," she said, "there's Bitov! Aksenov! Gladilin! and Popov!—after Fazil Iskander's fiftieth birthday party at Novoe Cheryomushky restaurant some of us went back to Viktor Erofeyev's apartment, and he wouldn't stop grabbing my ankles. I had to hit him over the head with a board."
That blurring of the line between work and play is one of the things my mother has taught me that I most appreciate learning. She also taught me to smuggle banned books into the Soviet Union. (Pretend to speak no Russian. When the border guard asks "do you have any literature?" pull out the copy of The Tale of Pigling Bland that you brought to entertain your four-year-old on the plane and ask, "Do you mean this?") She taught me how to curse in Russian when I was about fourteen, so that I could harangue Yuz Aleshkovsky. She taught me that just because you're doing something difficult and worthwhile—like being one of the first eleven female graduate students at Princeton, or the first female tenure-track faculty member at Wesleyan—doesn't mean you have to be serious about it. She continues to teach me that passion, intensity, dedication, and focus are, at their best, inextricable from laughter, joy, and revelation.
Priscilla is the kind of teacher who changes lives. I don't just mean mine, although the fact that I've gone into the family business shows how much...