The Uncharted Geography of Lena (continued)


Lena and Dylan

Traveling companions: Lencek and toy poodle Dylan. Photo by Bob Libby: Citrine & Blue photography

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.”