Archive for October 20th, 2013

Back in the U.S.S.R.: Carl Proffer, Ardis, and an “eleven time zone prison”

Sunday, October 20th, 2013
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The basketball player who bootlegged books … with Brodsky and Ellendea

Last month, the University of Michigan commemorated two of the most remarkable people to cross the campus threshhold: the late Prof. Carl Proffer and his wife Ellendea Proffer Teasley, founders of the exuberant and trailblazing Ardis Publishers, which published the best Russian literature at a time when the Soviet government wouldn’t.  I’ve written about them here and here and here and here, as well as many other places over the last few decades, ever since the time I met them in the erstwhile Ann Arbor country club they had turned into a publishing house (as well as a family home with four kids).  I wasn’t at the September symposium, except perhaps in spirit.  Fortunately, the event left a welter of videos in its wake.  In one of them, Ellendea described, in 27 minutes, the intrepid  venture that was Ardis.

The young Carl Proffer was a longshot for a Slavic scholar, she recalled – a teenage basketball player who was more likely to become a lawyer rather than scholar, someone who never ventured beyond the required reading list. He discovered Russia through a casual interest in Cyrillic, which led him to a mentor – a distinguished Byzantine historian émigré who had been tethered to teaching a first-year Russian language course for the university.  “Then this man, meant for other things, this basketball player with a fancy prose style, fell in love with the literature,” said Ellendea.  That was sophomore year – junior year gave him the Scottish enlightenment and the gifts of persuasion.  He attended St. Andrew’s in Scotland, which runs on a tutorial system, and discovered philosopher David Hume.  “This was an amazing awakening. The basketball player became an intellectual, but not a normal one.”

“He was a person of high risk – captain of the team. … He was afraid of nothing. He could control his temper and his indignation. The rest of us could not; we were very young,” she recalled.  “Everyone he came into contact with went into Russian, too, because he spread the word. His philosophy was spreading the word … He was the first PhD candidate from Michigan. They built the program around him. He became the youngest full professor in 1972.”

ardis

Carl and Ellendea at Ardis

Perhaps the biggest chance he took was with a pretty girl in a miniskirt. “It was easy not to take me seriously if you didn’t know me well,” said Ellendea, who was six years younger.  “He not only took me seriously and married me, but he made me a full partner.”  Every decision was made jointly, and she continued Ardis after his 1984 death until 2002, when Overlook Press acquired Ardis.  She received a MacArthur “genius” award in 1989.

“Carl could type 110 words a minute – that was important. Ardis was built on our bodies.  We used up our energy, and his energy was phenomenal.”  The venture was a dangerous one, and bootlegging manuscripts risked arrest and worse. They faced other dangers in the U.S.:  “We got no money from anyone. We lived on a knife edge – mortgaging our house every year.”

“We walked a razor’s edge, and he was cool,” with an important exception – “and this is where we get to the ‘why’ of Ardis,” she said.

The plight of their friends, the literary heart of Russia, left Carl in “absolute cold, angry outrage – destructive outrage.” She continued, “Our people, they wanted one book, they were writing a monograph and wanted one book on Toulouse Lautrec, they wanted one book on Shakespeare. … They knew so much, so many languages but never left this damn country, which was really an eleven time zone prison … We saw people like us, behind bars, and sometimes they were having to kiss their own chains and say, ‘It’s nothing. It’s great.’ It was no kind of life.  … This was our mood when we come back. We were enraged at what has happened to these remarkable people. Nadezhda Mandelstam with four locks on her door. It’s 1969, but she’s still afraid.  She said, ‘Don’t bring young people to me because they are the worst. They are the informers.'”

She described Soviet-era Russia as “a thin crust over a big volcano of peasant emotion, under the control of the gun and the whip. And that thin crust was a deep, rich, powerful culture to us.  Not just literature – music, art, dance.”

The Proffers dressed up to meet their Russian contacts, but they choose to dress as Americans, not to emulate the proletariat or the Russian intelligentsia, since they were neither.  “We would be American, because the Russians were starting to think, ‘Oh, the whole world is like this.’ Visually, we would contradict that idea.  Because it’s easy to go into despair when you’re in jail for 70 years.”

“I want you to consider the daring, the nerve of him. He had daring, but he never said, ‘Now I’m going to jump from the high dive’ –  he just did it.  We were people of action, that is certainly true. … We were moving very fast because Carl, like [Joseph] Brodsky, did not think he had a long life ahead of him.”

I was there in spirit, and you can be, too – videos of the event are here.