Professor, author, translator, traveler, collector, mentor, and—yes, artist. Welcome to the protean career of Lena Lenˇcek, pictured here at home with a series of watercolors she painted on a sabbatical visit to Tuscany.

Professor, author, translator, traveler, collector, mentor, and—yes, artist. Welcome to the protean career of Lena Lenˇcek, pictured here at home with a series of watercolors she painted on a sabbatical visit to Tuscany.

Books, Film, Music

The Uncharted Geography of Lena

Chekhov. Odysseus. Frankenstein. Swimsuits. You just never know where Professor Lena Lenček will turn up next.

By Romel Hernandez | December 1, 2012

Fifteen freshlings sit around a square table in a Vollum classroom improvising a symphony of anxiety—cracking knuckles, clicking pens, flipping pages in their copies of the Odyssey—awaiting the arrival of the professor and the beginning of their very first conference of Hum 110. “I guess she’s going to make us squirm a bit,” someone mutters with an uneasy glance at the clock on the wall, and a few students snicker.

At precisely 10:33 a.m., Professor Lena Lenček [Russian 1977–] materializes in the doorway, a vision in ivory down to her fishnet stockings, eyes round and bright behind the oversized frames of her chic eyeglasses. Three minutes late, her timing allows her to make a grand entrance. “Good morning,” she announces, a trace of Slovenia in her accent. She drops her books on the table and grins. “I believe you are my class!”

Convinced that a classroom is a community, Lenček begins with what she calls “rituals of welcome and hospitality.” She asks the students to take turns introducing themselves (or rather, to answer the deeper question: “Who are you?”) and to describe their expectations of the course. She scribbles her own name on the blackboard. “The mark above the c is called a haček—sounds like ‘hot chick.’” And about the course she says, “I’m excited, I’m nervous, and I’m willing to trust that somehow we will all work it out.”

Next she asks students to rise and promenade clockwise around the room, making eye contact, shaking hands, and greeting each other in an adaptation of a traditional Native American greeting circle. She reminds them of the importance of using both the left and right sides of their brains, of listening to their guts as well as their minds. By the time they get around to Homer, the students are primed to talk about Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus.

For the next hour, Lenček runs the conference with virtuosic enthusiasm, throwing out questions, urging students for “more, more.” As students make their points, some confident, some tentative, she jots them down on the blackboard, editing as she goes, clarifying and sharpening, making connections, spinning the observations into a tapestry of ideas—a narrative. “Let’s see,” she says, “if we can make what we’re saying into a story.”

Since 1977 Lenček has written her own extraordinary story at Reed. She has built the Russian department into one of the most rigorous and respected undergraduate programs in the country. She has also made her mark as a prolific author, penning critically acclaimed books on a vast and idiosyncratic range of subjects, from a cultural history of beaches, to a survey of Portland architecture, to How To Write Like Chekhov.

She has spanned the globe with her voyages, sailed the Nile on a felucca, and chronicled spring break in Panama City, Florida. She is a painter, pianist, epicure, equestrian, and connoisseur of kitsch. She speaks Slovene, Russian, Italian, French, German, and Serbo-Croatian (“The number contracts or expands,” she notes, “depending on fatigue and alcohol consumption”) and is proficient in both Latin and Old Church Slavonic. 

“She is so brilliant and worldly, and she has such a generosity of spirit,” says former student Mara Zepeda ’02. “Her passion and personality really are a model for how to live life.”

Famed for her style—designer dresses and scarves, glittering silver jewelry—she adds a dash of glamour to a campus better known for jeans and flip-flops. “Lena doesn’t just come into a room,” says her longtime colleague Evgenii Bershtein [Russian 1999–]. “Lena enters a room.”

Alenka Helena Maria Lenček entered the world in 1948, born in Italy to Slovene parents who had fled the civil war in what was then Tito’s Yugoslavia. She was born on February 29—Leap Day, her excuse for being what she calls “dyschronic.”

While she was still an infant, the family moved to Trieste. Her father taught at a Slovene gymnasium and moonlighted as a radio commentator; her mother hosted a children’s radio program while raising Lena and her older sister, Bibi. In her book The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth, she writes about those idyllic days swimming in the sapphire waters of the Adriatic: “Almost every day of summer during my childhood in sunsplashed Trieste, we made a pilgrimage from our urban apartment to the beach . . . . Virtually every phase of those endless days—especially, the shifting temperament of the beach, the tides, and the moods of the sea, sequentially unfolding from dawn to nightfall—remains indelibly fixed in my mind.”

At the time, however, the family was effectively stateless (Trieste was then a divided “Free Territory” similar to Berlin), and the political and economic uncertainty prompted the family to set sail across the Atlantic. Lenček was 8 years old. That journey was, in many ways, the most pivotal trip in a life shaped by travel. She vividly recalls a moment on that voyage—aboard the U.S.S. Independence, no less—when the ship set off a jaw-dropping fireworks display midocean on the Fourth of July.

“That experience of being an immigrant, the instability of those years—there’s a sense of insecurity,” she says. “That’s why I’ve always felt like an outsider, someone distrustful of institutions.”

Once in America, the family lived a peripatetic life, moving between Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York. Lenček’s father, Rado, earned degrees from the University of Chicago and Harvard and went on to teach Slavic studies at Columbia University, where her mother, Nina, worked as a librarian. The family home was always open to intellectuals and artists, and Lenček was mesmerized by what she describes as a “relentless seminar” around the dinner table.

Lenček attended Barnard in the late ’60s, when the campus and the country was in upheaval—Vietnam, civil rights, feminism. Although she was by no means a radical activist, she honed a distrust of institutions which often put her at odds with her conservative father. She considered anthropology and oceanography, but her love of literature—Crime and Punishment, in particular—led her to Russian. After Barnard, she went to graduate school at Harvard. When she went on the job market, she looked to the West Coast, in part to explore a new part of the world, but also to escape the shadow of her formidable father. 

“It was a big adventure,” she says. “I expected Reed to be in the middle of the woods!”

At Reed, she found the opportunity to create a Russian program almost from scratch. The department had just undergone a complete turnover, so she and colleague Asya Pekurovskaya [Russian 1980–81] revamped the program, with an intensive emphasis on language and linguistics, plus a unique three-semester overview of Russian letters from the medieval period to the present. That framework is still in place today, more than three decades later. 

“She brings a sense of intellectual excitement to everything she does,” says her colleague Bershtein. “She understands that to ask a good question is more important than the answer.”

Lenček is firmly fixed in the pantheon of the greatest professors at Reed, says former student Michael Kunichika ’99, now a Russian and Slavic studies assistant professor at New York University. “Lena has this capacity to push you to these ideas you didn’t realize you could have.” She cares about her students as people, encouraging them to pursue their passions wherever they might lead. “She was so incredibly supportive and helpful,” he notes, “regardless of whether you wanted to become an academic or a fashion designer or anything else.”

“My conviction is that we all actually have a sense of what we need to be doing in life, but too often we obscure or deny that consciousness,” Lenček says. “My job as a teacher is to help my students tune into their passion—why they’re here in the world.”

Lenček’s first venture into popular culture was Frozen Music, a critical analysis of Portland’s architecture and architects ,which she wrote with emergency room physician and entrepreneur Gideon Bosker, whom she met at a Reed party in the early 1980s. The dynamic couple share authorship of their daughter, Bianca, now in her 20s and working as a writer and editor in New York City, as well as a string of books on a dazzling range of subjects. The pair are now separated personally and professionally, but remain good friends.

Frozen Music is written in a precise style that is at once erudite, with its descriptions of “machicolated parapets” and “delicate quoining,” yet expressive and accessible in its prose: “As an art form, architecture has much that it holds in common with sculpture, but even more that is shared with music: a structure that intelligently apportions light through a three-dimensional space can radiate all the magic and passion of the perfect musical phrase.”

From that point on, the pair just kept writing. Lenček says her approach was more academic and Bosker’s was “more rock and roll,” which made for excellent chemistry. “One of the great joys of our relationship was our ability to collaborate—there were always creative sparks flying,” Lenček says. The pace was remarkable, considering that she was also teaching fulltime and raising their daughter (she reckons she was among the first women faculty members to take a maternity leave). 

Although the subjects sometimes seem obscure—salt and pepper shakers, wallpaper, swimsuits—the books are always intelligent and insightful. Of her obsession with kitsch, she explains, “It’s a miniaturization of the world you see in salt and pepper shakers, in drinking glasses, in snow domes [all of which she’s collected at one time or another]. It’s about the ways we package this bewildering, massive world and bring it indoors, take it and hold it and control it. We’re creating these tiny shrines to our vision of the world.”

Lenček chose these projects with a maverick disregard for what her academic colleagues might think. She writes about what excites her: “You know how it is—you get an idea, you start a project, and you’re like, Wow! Yes!”

“Lena’s such an original thinker,” says Bosker. “She has a passion for research and discovery, for seeing the world in novel ways—and that’s all part of her work in the humanities.”

Her signature book with Bosker, published in 1998, is The Beach, which the New York Times Book Review praised as “engagingly eccentric.” The authors are pictured in swimsuits on the back cover in a photo taken by their daughter. The Beach is both a scholarly history and a philosophical meditation on the myriad ways beaches have shaped human experience over millennia. Moving at a breathless pace, diving from idea to idea, the book covers subjects from swimwear to spirituality to sex.

It comes as no surprise that Lenček’s favorite place in the world is her cottage near Neakahnie Mountain on the Oregon coast—a cozy place with knotty pine walls and an ocean view. She makes the drive west most weekends to escape the city and recharge her mind and spirit in solitude. “I feel I’m at the place where the elements come together, forever changing,” she says. “There’s so much drama going on—the surf, the sun, the rain, the wind, the fog, the mountain itself—that it makes me feel quite at peace.”

The package from Italy has finally arrived. Lenček grabs a kitchen knife to slice through tape and starts unwrapping dozens of watercolors she painted during the sabbatical she spent in Tuscany last year. Her toothless toy poodle, Dylan, scampers about the living room in her home in northwest Portland, where landscapes by the acclaimed Oregon painter Harry Wentz and his students, Arthur and Albert Runquist, gaze upon whimsical sculptures by her friend, Margarita Leon, and childhood artwork by her daughter, Bianca.

Lenček unrolls the striking watercolors of olive orchards, the head of a pig at a butcher shop, the marbled ruins of Pompeii. “Ah,” she says, clapping her hands together. “I’m so happy!”

The paintings set the scene for one of her most ambitious projects yet: the translation of Pavel Muratov’s epic The Forms of Italy. Muratov (1881–1950) was a modernist polymath—a writer, intellectual, art historian, journalist, soldier, and ladies’ man. The British social critic Clive James wrote that Muratov “shows just how brilliant somebody can be and still be a forgotten man.” Exiled after the Revolution, Muratov spent the rest of his life wandering Europe. He wrote novels, essays, and plays, but his exhilarating travelogue of Italy—banned in the Soviet Union and rediscovered only recently—is considered a masterpiece.

According to Lenček, Muratov was a master of sprezzatura, a term coined by Renaissance writer Baldassare Castiglione (1476–1529), which she defines as “the art of artless artfulness”—a studied nonchalance that masks one’s true feelings.

The project is a perfect fit. Muratov’s interests mirror many of her own: travel, architecture, art. “It seemed like a good way to synthesize the two branches of my work—my writing on cultural phenomena, and my teaching on the literary heritage of Russia,” she says. 

The project will also serve as an intellectual bookend for her story at Reed. She calls it “the long goodbye.” She is not certain exactly when she will retire, but she is committed to teaching two more years. There’s no doubt, however, that she will leave an indelible mark on Reed.

“Lena has an imagination that allows her to be inquisitive about virtually everything, and she’s full of surprises,” says her longtime friend and colleague Roger Porter [English 1961–]. “She is dazzlingly brilliant, but she has an inspired outrageousness about her, and she doesn’t take herself too seriously.”

If “life is handed to us as an empty vessel,” Bosker says, “hers is a vessel well-filled, with an overflow she has shared so graciously and generously to nurture others who eventually take their own path.”

Lenček certainly has taken her own path. Like Muratov, she is a perpetual traveler, both geographically and intellectually, chasing her passions to remote corners of the map. The thread that binds everything and everyone together is her passion for stories—the stories of Homer, Dostoevsky, and her own students. 

“Stories are the most intimate way in which we as a species can leave our mark in the universe,” she says. “They do so much work—they delight, they stimulate, they teach, they provoke, and . . . what’s the word? Ah, yes—they enchant.”

Tags: Books, Film, Music, Professors