Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Remembering Elkin

There's always time for an Elkin-the-cranky-professor story:
There’d be the usual shuffling of all our body language as Elkin lifted another story from the desk and adjusted his glasses to read. He had a way of deconstructing our sentences even as he spoke them, revealing the flaws in the rhythm and vocabulary via barely discernible shifts in inflection. Carol Sklenicka, whose biography of Raymond Carver comes out in 2009 and who recalls that Elkin referred to his classes as “tutorials,” tells me that he once read one of her entire stories aloud to her in private conference, making “every infelicity…show up like a smashed bug on a windshield. This method was brutal and effective,” she says. After much revision, that story became Carol’s first publication.

“Since when is humility an idea??” Elkin might ask, wobbling a little before finally slumping into his seat, his cane choosing that moment to drop with a clatter onto the floor. His wasn’t a studied irreverence; when he got down to the grit in things, we understood he knew it personally. “Will someone tell me what this story is REALLY about? I’ll tell you what it’s not about. It’s not about some loser asshole sitting around pondering the idea of humility. It’s about some loser asshole who is going to die,” he’d say. “You know how I know that?”

Nobody spoke, because we knew he wanted to be the person to tell us the answer.

“I know that this story is about some loser asshole who is going to die because we’re all loser assholes who are going to die and that’s what every halfway decent story is ever about. Should be, anyway.”

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