Towers and Rivers: Remembering Ilja Wachs

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Video of the Week:
The 19th Century Novel
by Ilja Wachs

Articles of the Week:
The Teacher by Katharine Reece
Sarah Lawrence College Remembers Ilja Wachs by Carol Zoref

Poetry Spotlight:
1. rarely at your grave by Ellen Grace Olinger
2. Trip to the Sea by Christine Goodnough
3. small place by Chester Maynes

The first time I met Ilja, he welcomed me as if he had long been waiting on the arrival of an old friend. He received me in his Andrews House office at Sarah Lawrence College, a corner room with a view of the walled garden that sat behind the building. On his door hung the carving of a sea creature that I later — a semester later, to be precise — realized was Moby Dick. The office itself was essentially a living room: inviting, cozy, and full of papers and books.

Ilja’s reputation preceded him as a demigod on campus. He probably cared for that term as much as he cared for me calling him “Professor,” which is to say, not at all. But I was lucky, and he took a liking to me, immediately adding me to his list of students. It was definitely because of our shared love of Huck Finn. When I told him I’d lost my passion for reading because of how I’d been taught in school, Ilja said, “We’re going to get rid of the British system in you.”

And he did.

Ilja was only interested in how you felt about the book, the characters, the stories, the events, and the settings. Where required, he would support the reading with anecdotes from the author’s life. But he mainly cared about your relationship with reading. And oh boy, his relationship with reading was beautiful. Often he would apologize when he thought he was speaking too much, given that he was teaching a seminar, but none of us cared. If ever the phrase ‘wax lyrical’ was appropriate, it would be for him. Ilja Wachs could wax lyrical. And his lyrics were full of meaning, insight, and love.

Ilja was always laughing. He had this distinctive short but loud and rising “Ha!” He would exclaim, shiver, sigh, and lament in response to sentences, dialogue, and events as if he were reading them for the first time. He knew these novels inside out, back-to-front, upside-down. Nothing escaped him. Now that I think about it, he taught us as if he too were telling a story. He also disliked structured essays. He wanted each essay to be free-form. Each idea had to lead into the next, then all over the place, and back again if necessary. In honour of that, this short-ish tribute will not be edited to be clean. And when he was disappointed in your work, you knew it was because he trusted in your abilities to be better. He never needed to repeat himself because you did not want to let him down. That was the sort of influence he had. 

He was full of joy. He was also attentive and sensitive. On multiple occasions, he brought up observations one of us made during conference (bi-weekly one-on-one meetings). He’d then ask the person in question to elaborate. He basically said: ‘You’ve got something, here’s the floor, so go dance.’

Here was a man who made you want to love the world for all its aches and pains and quirks and dingledodies.

Thank you, Ilja. You were sunshine most always.

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