When I first entered her office, I wondered how Bella Brodzki’s bookshelves had not collapsed under the weight of their eclectic cargo. The tomes range from literary criticism to translation theory, from Freud to fairy tales, and all things linguistic and literary in between. Sitting on the floor of this microcosm of academia (because there were so many people interviewing for the class), I decided it would be a great place for me to be a half hour every other week.
I took Bella’s “Memory, Memorialization, and Writing” literature seminar last semester. (N.B., first-years: all course titles are required to be tripartite, convoluted, or at the very least include a pun.) The room was crowded: we had a full class, plus one auditor. Bella took her customary seat with her back to the whiteboard and we plunged head-first into semester with a short story by Jorge Luis Borges and a poem called “Cemetery Plums.”
Bella kept up a demanding pace over the semester, which ran the gamut from articles explaining the inner workings of the amygdala to narratives of exile; from insomnia to genocide. We read works from a geographically diverse set of writers including Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, Marguerite Duras, Toni Morrison, and Vladimir Nabokov.
It’s a huge credit to Bella that everyone in my class was doing wildly divergent conference projects. The last two or three sessions of any seminar tend to be presentations of everyone’s papers/projects, and that time can be a slog when students’ topics are too similar. For this class, on the other hand, Bella allowed us to refine a whole host of ideas through the lenses of literature, memory studies, and/or psychology. Whenever I had an idea, she was always quick to suggest ten things I should know about it: names of scholars, books, countries of origin. When I was doing research for my conference project, one of the distinguished literary critics quoted Bella.
“I found a familiar name in this article,” I said, handing her the library’s copy of Fairy Tales and Feminism: New Approaches.
“Huh!” Bella flipped to the index as I continued talking about how I wanted to approach a certain point in my paper. “They quoted me twice! Sorry, you were saying?”
One time she made someone switch chairs with her so she could have the highest one in the room (pretty sure everyone in the class was taller than her anyway). Bella pronounces all of the French words you’ll come across in class in a perfect accent. She also has excellent taste in cheese, something we discovered during the most gourmet in-class potluck I’ve experienced yet.
In the middle of the semester, we had a field trip to the Graduate English Association’s memory studies conference held at Fordham University. (Yes, you are still allowed to be excited about field trips in college.) Bella put up with a lot of nonsense to get us there— we had to promise to leave right after the keynote address because the conference organizers didn’t want to contribute to Sarah Lawrence’s underage drinking habits. (We all snitched some olives and stuff anyway.) That evening helped illustrate to us, the cynical leaders of tomorrow, how academics can actually work together and address issues in the Real World. Those of us who returned to campus in the SLC van got caught up in a discussion about how we secretly enjoyed Proust and intimate connections among memory and identity, instead of clubbing in Manhattan like real college students.
Bella is a staunch comparatist. If you are lucky enough to take a class with her, come to class and conference prepared to examine ideas via many different approaches. I found my semester with her challenging and rewarding. I am still geeking out about my conference project (a comparative treatment of the female protagonists of Little Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard), which led me to wonderful writers like Anne Sexton, Olga Broumas, and Angela Carter. You should all take her translation course this year; I’ll be in Florence and am trying to stop myself looking at the course catalogue to tamp down my envy.