The No-Man’s Land Between Art and Self: Seth Rogoff’s The Kirschbaum Lectures

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We look for ourselves in literature—for comfort or for guidance—but the page rarely provides a clean mirror. When we say we are lost in a book, we often mean that the glint of that reflection has lured us in through its crevices and pores, and once there we have lost track of the boundary between our lives and the world of the story. To enter that sublime space beneath the text requires a radical vulnerability, a subjugation of the self to the author, a surrender of control in exchange for meaning.

Understanding these alchemical experiments of identity and authority is central to the wayward translator Sy Kirshbaum in Seth Rogoff’s novel The Kirschbaum Lectures. Sy is on the precipice of a neurotic breakdown when he’s hired to teach an Introduction to Literature course at his hometown college. Chased by adversaries real and imagined, he delivers a mind-bending series of lectures—which form the text of the novel—in which he hunts through various fictional texts to understand himself, old friends, and failed lovers.

Sy has spent the previous two decades in Eastern Europe, translating German and Czech poets and novelists, and eking out a life of artistic poverty. Tormented by paranoia and crises of identity, he tells his students, he sought treatment at the Clinic Zelená Hora, where the doctor often used his texts against him to force confrontations between Sy’s sense of reality and his art. These sessions were part of what drove Sy back to the States, although even in the safety of this New England college he is constantly looking over his shoulder for his old antagonist, Dr. Hruška. The man clearly torments, provokes, and propels Sy, as is evidenced in Sy’s introduction to the class:

I… had completed the translation of Jan Horak’s Blue, Red, Gray, which was sufficiently impressive to the dean—or at least he was impressed by my winning of the PEN Translation Prize—for him to offer me a one-semester appointment as a visiting professor of literature. Because he had no proof I could teach, he offered me what he called a hybrid position—one course, this class, combined with a residency stipend to pursue my own work. But I have no other work. The seventeen years translating Horak’s magnum opus have bled me dry. More than that, the translation process, as Hruška and others (my brother, Henry, for example) tell me, obliterated the thin border between Horak’s masterwork and my Preface to it—in other words between my life and Horak’s. And this migratory impulse, so says Hruška, threatened the stability of my “structure of selfhood,” such that the slightest slippage between one zone and another might result in complete collapse. A thick wall must be erected, Hruška told me, and no doubt Henry would agree, between oneself and another, between the life of a novelist and that of the novel’s translator, between that which is inside and that which falls beyond. To the contrary, I responded, this barrier is precisely what needs breaching.

“Literature,” Sy continues, “occurs in the breach.” His therapist and brother want him to fit into the tidy roles they identify for him: translator, teacher, subservient sibling. But Sy’s life continuously spills over its partitions, and he and his contemporaries identify exactly these calamitous zones as the object of their passions.

A woman Sy knows from the clinic named Milena, for example, had to fight to reclaim her identity from the men who lusted over her. A version of Milena was captured in the manuscript of another resident, Daniel Cohen, who reshaped her character and rewrote her experience as a costume designer in Berlin to suit his novel. She stole Cohen’s draft and fled to Venice, along the way battling the novel in its own margins. Sy reads her marginalia in its entirety over the course of three lectures, pausing to recount how he followed Milena, found her, and retrieved the stolen pages. As these multiple perspectives emerge, the shape of the narrative is altered, and new topographies appear to the reader. We (along with Sy’s students) are simultaneously on the train speeding toward Italy; on the page resisting its author’s oppressive hand; in a German theater, falling in and out of love on the edge of ruin.

The twelve-lecture structure is a unique invention of the book, and it allows the narrator’s voice to slip between his precarious present and his own past in eastern Europe, with several forays into dreamlike abstraction. Without a syllabus, tests, or assignments, Sy’s pedagogy might be described as unconventional if not openly hostile toward the institution of higher education. The presentation of his monologues leaves us to imagine the responses of his students as he reads excerpts from his friends’ and mentors’ works and then shouts or weeps about his own history. A great lecture tells a story, and Sy’s lectures are full of ambition, betrayal, desire, and religion. The texture of the prose is varied as he reads fiction, marginalia, and other ephemera to the class. In addition to Franz Kafka and Günter Grass, Rogoff has invented an entire canon of literature for Sy to draw from, and he mines the shelves of these works to great success. Poetry written by expats living in post-Cold War Berlin, novels by Germans emerging from behind the Iron Curtain, the plays of a Persian immigrant adapting Hafez to challenge a world full of “frowning zealots.” What at times early on feels like an anthology quickly coalesces into a tight, interwoven, and multifaceted story.

Whichever students make it to the end of Sy’s final lecture will certainly walk away with a remarkable and profound “introduction to literature”—but one imagines the experience of the semester as it unfolds is nothing short of bewildering. During his eighth lecture, sensing that the dean and his assistant are approaching the lecture hall to assert control over his course, Sy dismisses the class with a war whoop, rallying them to distract the administrators so he can slip out the back. In these absurd moments, Rogoff’s humor leaps off the page, a necessary counterbalance and a release from the existential angst that permeates Sy’s frantic and paranoid monologues.

At several points, Sy expresses his terror and wonder at the wide expanse of a blank page, compared against the order imposed by the writing of the first word. He lives in that paradox, simultaneously thriving upon the creative energy of artistic expression and bowing to its tyranny. We trace a parallel to the Berlin of the 1990s that serves as the setting for many of his lectures, a city straddling two distinct eras, in many ways crumbling under the weight of its past as it rushes to erect its imminent future.

I was living in Berlin—Kreuzberg—and was not much older than you are now. I’d come straight from college, plunging into that rubble-heap of a neighborhood still in the shadow of the Cold War. Can you, who were born well after 1989, imagine such a place, a divided Berlin—an immediate post-partition Berlin, a Kreuzberg of Turks and anarchists, punks, drunks, artists, utopians and dystopians? … When [my roommate] saw that I was broke, he offered to help me out, eventually introducing me to a group of Kreuzberg writers, from among whom I received the job to translate Forest Poems by Ingrid Müller. It was a shattering, destabilizing experience and at the same time a near-total ecstasy, a type of euphoria that erodes one’s sense of self and gestures toward absolute and blissful annihilation. It was a tightrope walk between total love and total desperation. Youth—I’m sure you know the feeling. There’s no way to avoid it, despite all the warnings about propriety from the dean’s assistant. It was about love, sex, dissolution, disintegration, and demise.

In Sy’s Kreuzberg neighborhood, creative energy surged like electricity through an unregulated current—powerful, destructive, awesome. But these were singular moments, which quickly faded under the order established by the authority figures who lined up to levy their will. Sy seeks to recapture some of that energy now in his classroom and channel it into the minds of his unsuspecting undergrads—if only he can hold off the dean until the final week of the semester.

Rogoff’s novel is a map of the no-man’s land between art and self. Along the road we pass characters coming and going, some offering warnings, others temptations. We’re each of us looking for what one of Sy’s subjects calls the “warped mirror of the divine,” behind which Chaos waits to devour us all so that we may live again. Bewildering and intoxicating, The Kirschbaum Lectures is a revelatory exploration of life and literature.

Duncan Whitmire lives in South Portland, Maine and is an MFA candidate at the Bennington Writing Seminars. His short stories and essays have appeared in Quarterly West, Colorado Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Find more of his work at More from this author →