EDMUND WILSON ONCE DESCRIBED his Princeton teacher, Christian Gauss, as “a teacher of a different kind — the kind who starts trains of thought that he does not himself guide to conclusions but leaves in the hands of his students to be carried on by themselves.”
Siddhartha Deb, too, is a teacher of a different kind. He is young, for starters, and seems often to stand apart from the academic milieu; though he keeps a formal, professional distance to his students he is really more like an older sibling than one of the customary mid-life antiques one always half-expects. He is well-versed in the latest contemporary writing; he listens to MC Solaar and wears hoodies when not in the classroom; he writes lucid, intelligent criticism for hip New York journals like n+1 and Bookforum.
In other words, when it comes to Deb the generational gap that unavoidably exists between students and professors is pretty narrow. This gap shrinks even further once you factor in the genuine sympathy and interest Siddhartha always displays. My stock image of him in a classroom has him hunched over the desk with his arms in front of him, listening and nodding his head intently, muttering, “Right, right, right, right.” And yet he manages to command respect. While a student of his at Eugene Lang College of The New School I often felt the tectonic plates of my own opinions and tightly-held ideas loosen or shift.
I took Deb’s class “Reading for Writers: Roberto Bolaño.” He had already written at some length about Bolaño for Harper’s and the Times Literary Supplement, and in a 2007 panel organized by n+1 — later published in their pamphlet series as What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions — he added Bolaño’s name alongside W.G. Sebald’s as one of the two of the most important contemporary fiction writers. In that same panel discussion Siddhartha said of his students that they often seemed to lack historical awareness: “They’re very bright, they go to a liberal arts college; they’re very smart. But whatever kind of historical context it is — world-historical context certainly, but even an American historical context — is missing.” The Bolaño class wasn’t narrowly designed to explicate the Chilean novelist’s work, but to consider it in as large and amiable a way as possible. Imparting to us the weight and scope of historical context was paramount.
In his long Harper’s essay, Siddhartha argues that “Bolaño is in some sense working over the unsolved case of Latin American violence,” and part of the thrill of the class was the sense that we, too, were contributing to a case of strong literary and political importance, and that this case (because Bolaño’s fiction and essays were still being translated) was an ongoing one. We were, all of us, discovering and digesting his work in tandem with its appearance in English; with Siddhartha’s guidance we navigated everything from the politics of literary translation to the history of the book review; we considered the decline of manifesto-writing and the rise of the MFA short story; we even looked into odd modern cultural phenomena like Stuff White People Like. This was the thrill of discovery, not just of an individual writer but of the reverberations of storytelling in historical and cultural terms. Bolaño presented a world for us, but it was Deb who helped us explore it.
On the day of our final class I was walking down Sixth Avenue with my friend (and fellow classmate) Alyssa, lamenting the fact that we wouldn’t be spending two days a week in a classroom with Siddhartha anymore. When I casually mentioned the possibility of starting a review or discussion group, she broke into a spasm of excitement and passion. We immediately set about enlisting other students and, privately referring to ourselves as “The Siddhartha Debs,” agreed to meet once a week at Café Loup (eventually we downgraded, for financial reasons, to City Tavern on Thirteenth Street). Over gin or Jameson we revisited class discussions and vowed to uphold the literary flame Bolaño and Siddhartha had kindled. When eventually we put together our modest little zine, Siddhartha emerged as our most vocal and enthusiastic supporter; he invited us to come present our journal to one of his classes, and got us a spot in an impressive faculty reading series at The New School.
This was a gift. For months we had been reading and writing with Siddhartha in mind. His dual role both as an accomplished fiction writer and engagé literary critic was, we felt, something to aspire to.
I realize now that the thrill of discovery was not limited to Bolaño only, but applied in equal measure to Siddhartha’s own writing. In The Point of Return (2002), his debut novel, there is a description of the narrator’s father that invokes Siddhartha’s gifts as a writer and critic:
It was as if, with retirement, the layers of life as a veterinary doctor, as an officer, had fallen away to reveal the peasant who had always lived beneath the suits and ties.
Cutting through many a congealed convention to reveal undercurrents of a political, social, and cultural nature, with a critical eye that is — to use one of David Foster Wallace’s memorable neologisms — “incisionish”: this is the Siddhartha way. The Beautiful and the Damned, his brilliant new book of narrative nonfiction, embodies this method. At a reading at KGB Bar earlier this fall, I was happy and proud to see him greeted with excitement and interest. He deserves it; his writing, like his teaching, is of an altogether different kind.