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He Lived History; Now He Teaches It

 

For a man whose past is riddled with risky, anomalous behavior, his voice reveals little: it is soft, strained, well-worn. It soothes, sounds of stability. “What often comes after a war?” he asks vaguely.

 

Two students burst from their seats at the same time, eager for the chance at five bonus points on the European History final. “Baby boom” and “nihilism,” they shout at once.

 

Klimenko silently ambles to the whiteboard and, beneath the students’ searing, anticipatory gazes, draws tally marks — for both teams. It’s a draw.

 

In the quiet, historic town of Sleepy Hollow resides a man with a squarish face, bushy eyebrows, and many stories to tell. He lives with his wife, Cynthia, and Obi, their fluffy white Siberian arctic Spitz.

 

His counterparts come to Hackley School in button-downs, sweaters, blouses, but Klimenko inhabits a different time, always clad in richly-patterned and -textured vests. He is scared of little, least of all sticking out: a byproduct of a life woven of adventures.

 

He is engrossing, but wandering. He’ll speak in tangents and forget the beginning. Oftentimes his eyes will fix on something, or nothing, in the distance — when he’s teaching on Russia or answering a question about his family — and there seems to be something red and wretched stirring in his eyes.

 

1960, Manhattan — Vladimir Klimenko was the first of his family born in the United States. He was a calm baby, whose only aversion was to penicillin. Raised by Russian and Latvian refugee parents on the Upper West Side, he and his two younger brothers shared a squished bedroom and a quirky sense of humor. At nine years old, during the watershed year of moon landings and Woodstock, Klimenko moved to suburban New Jersey, where he lived in a small house with his parents, his brothers, and ghosts — his alcoholic father’s memories that the family carried like a burden. They were kept hidden, unseen, but found a way of showing themselves nonetheless and would eventually cleave the Klimenkos into parts.

 

In New Jersey, Klimenko achieved a semblance of normalcy in a typical American suburban existence, going to public school, riding a bike to the store like a comic book boy — but he was unlike his classmates; his minority ethnicity and craving for knowledge set him apart. He was precocious, an acute observer of the world.

 

At eleven, he began reading the New York Times. By twelve, he was handing out George McGovern leaflets to his neighbors. When he was thirteen, he spent hours engaged in political arguments with his adamantly racist conservative grandparents over dinner.

 

A dully-colored image of Klimenko portrays him in August 1984, open-mouthed. Facial hair sprouts over his chin and cheeks, free as the overgrown, expansive layers of tall grass and trees behind him. He’s in a flannel and jeans, guitar strap slung around his shoulders. A sign reads HAINES in bubble letters, the N, E, and S squished, as if he had spatially miscalculated — perhaps a metaphor for his overeager, impulsive nature. A second sign spells out PLEASE. Klimenko is referring to Haines, Alaska — he’s hitchhiking, en route home from a random, adventure-driven summer in The Last Frontier. He spent his July Bush flying — one of his many odd jobs, which ranged from fish processing factory work to house renovations.

 

This image is not the Mr. Klimenko I have known. It is Vladimir, romantic and unafraid. If he is one thing, he is free.

 

After graduating from Harvard College, when his peers went on to Wall Street and law school, Klimenko went off on an unscripted journey with nothing but his guitar, a small backpack, and handmade signs, diving headfirst into peril. He stood in the wind and rain, worrying about nothing but the next car to roll down their window, the next freight train to hop. Next, next. He was intentionally nearsighted, living in instants.

 

One summer in Canada, he jumped onto the back of a moving train, laughing with adrenaline, with fear, with other young people he had met yesterday. If his parents and grandparents could endure bombing raids and ugly discrimination, he thought, he could cause a stir in a way much more benign.

 

Klimenko holds onto a collection of volumes, containing lengthy ramblings sketched in a drunken scrawl: his father’s — a troubled, messy man. Hidden in these intoxicated rantings, however, are disturbing narratives and memories that explain the volatile, sad manner he possessed before he died: acts of violence committed before his young eyes, his own father’s random execution.

 

One day in his twenties, Klimenko went to see the Holocaust movie “Sophie’s Choice” with his dad. His parents had recently separated. After the film, the two sat in the parking lot, quiet for a long while.

 

“Pop,” Klimenko finally mustered. “Are you ever going to tell me what happened to you under the Germans?”

 

His father looked at him and took a long breath, as if he’d anticipated his son’s prying. He began to speak, first slow, hesitant, until a river of words began to flow from his mouth.

 

He spoke about the random acts of violence committed on the streets under occupation. Teenagers were lined up and hanged.

 

His voice was hoarse, tired. “At least the camp was better than occupation,” he told Klimenko; he and his mother had been held in a forced labor camp.

 

“Why?”

 

“Because in the camp, they fed us.”

 

Klimenko grew nauseous. His father revealed another vignette from his time in the camp: the Germans had lined up a group of French prisoners and publicly shot them before his — a nine year old’s — eyes.

 

“Why?” Klimenko asked again. Perhaps they had done something unagreeable, or broken a rule; that wouldn’t excuse their deaths, but would at least explain them.

 

But, as if it were the punchline of a joke, his father spurted a bitter laugh and said, “They’d complained about the food. Of course, the French.”

 

In 1990, Klimenko returned to Eastern Europe, the very place that had marked his family indelibly, that his ancestors had fled, to report on the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era, close to its collapse. He and his wife worked as freelance journalists, flirting close to lethal danger on multiple occasions.

 

“Take the January 6th insurrection, for example,” he told me. “And imagine that type of earth-shaking event being commonplace.”

 

On the walk from their apartment to the metro, Klimenko and his wife, Cynthia, had an agreement: Cynthia would not speak; her Russian was accented. Knowledge of the couple’s American identity would make them targets to their neighbors. Klimenko, however, being in touch with his Russian roots, could act as a chameleon. If he felt like a visitor growing up, here Klimenko was at home in many ways.

 

The work was not lucrative, but their paltry earnings didn’t prevent them from snagging twenty-four dollar plane tickets two time zones away to the “stans” of Central Asia for last minute mountain-climbing adventures and reporting opportunities, where he witnessed political activism and keenly beheld “the crazy-quilt mix of urban liberals, Muslim activists, and bearded village elders dressed in long, blue robes and pointy boots.”¹ He covered the political ascent of Vladimir Zhironovsky, in close contact with the ultra-nationalist politician whom he called “the man who would be Fuhrer” in a Los Angeles Times article.² Zhironovsky predicted his country’s effort to take over Ukraine.

 

Klimenko’s most interesting discovery was one very close to him — a tangible artifact from his grandfather. As a factory owner and “enemy to the proletariat,” his grandfather had been imprisoned and then executed when Klimenko’s father was a child.

 

Through meetings, phone calls, and investigation — he was a journalist —  Klimenko uncovered old files from the Stalinist secret police. The penmanship on these pages was messy, almost illegible, not unlike the rantings of Klimenko’s father. Rather than intoxication, however, the sloppiness was due to fear, anxiety, and knowledge of a fast-approaching, inevitable death.

 

Klimenko’s grandfather was forced to pen false confessions, most probably at gunpoint. The last thing he wrote was a signature, a disturbing scribble, before he was murdered.

 

Klimenko held these papers in his very hands and cried. Here was another piece of his family’s story. He grew up an outsider, part of an unpopular minority, but this discovery shaped his identity into something colorful, textured, and slightly haunted.

 

In 1993 his wife became pregnant with their only daughter, and they returned to America. So began the next chapter of his life, where he used his life-based historical knowledge along with his academic historical education to become an impressive teacher. His character has mellowed, but he remains exciting. His decade of adventure informed the way he teaches and embraces his identity. He impassions students to chase passion over lucrativeness; to explore lesser-traveled spots over tourist vacation destinations; to only use awesome when something really is; to live history and chase adventure.

 

He has some frustrations with the sugar-coated nature of several discourses — feedback, worldly outlook — in high school education. To him, our sphere is negligent of America’s road towards doom.

 

He sees disaster in a way that many of his colleagues and students do not: it is imminent, unavoidable, and to him, unscary — because to him, it has always been close, whether in the violence he witnessed in the Soviet Union, the memories that were as much a part of his family’s identity as their language, the thrills of his mid-twenties’ hitchhiking and freighthopping days, or the eruptive alcoholism of his father. Danger has always been proximate.

 

“Do you know the myth about Daedalus and Icarus?” he asked me, looking away with that familiar stare that held his memory of darkness. We were talking about America’s troubles: climate change, anti-intellectualism, school shootings, artificial intelligence. Daedalus creates wings of feather and wax so he and his son Icarus can escape captivity, but he warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun. His son ignores him, taken by the bliss of freedom, and his wings melt.

 

Klimenko told me, with an almost amused smirk, “We are Icarus.”

Notes:

1. Klimenko, Vladimir. “A tale of two countries.” Mother Jones. July/August 1993 Issue. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/1993/07/motherjones-ja93-tale-two-countries/

 

2. Klimenko, Vladimir. “Perspectives on a Changing Russia: A Window on a Troubled Soul: A preemptive Marshall Plan could save us from having to confront andother Hitler in Zhironovky’s demagogic ascendancy.” Los Angeles Times. Dec 17 1993. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1993-12-17-me-2634-story.html

She Lives On: On Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

 

Rebecca’s Virago eightieth anniversary edition book cover is a rendering of white fabric, embroidered with a loopy iron-gate pattern and a cursive “R,” enlivening the titular character through her famous “tall and sloping” lettering. Upon first glance, the white, gold-threaded cover is beautiful, but post-read, the image becomes something else: haunting. The ghost of the late Rebecca de Winter is a chilling presence throughout the pages of du Maurier’s masterful work, and is further revived in this image, which refers to a found monogrammed, azalea-scented handkerchief from the novel.

 

Indeed, in several classic eponymous literary works, the named character is not the narrator, but rather a character the narrator idolizes, worships, and fears. The difference, however, between Rebecca and, say, The Great Gatsby, is that unlike Jay Gatsby, Rebecca de Winter never appears on the page.

 

Working as a lady’s companion in Monte Carlo, Rebecca’s nameless protagonist chances a meeting with Maxim de Winter, the wealthy owner of the famed Manderley estate on the Cornish coast. Their romance is swift, and in some time the second Mrs. de Winter is invited to the stately Manderley, but she is not welcomed. The specter of Maxim’s first wife seems to linger in unaltered rooms and between the bedsheets.

 

In 1971, Daphne du Maurier said in a BBC interview that Rebecca just “happened” to be her most popular work, but is not, to her, her most mature or skillful novel.

 

After being utterly entranced by Rebecca, I read three titles off du Maurier’s backlist: My Cousin Rachel, a dramatic, twisty novel of suspense; Jamaica Inn, an unsettling tale of darkness and corruption; and Frenchman’s Creek, her most romantic novel—a love story between a high society English woman and a pirate. While I found myself immersed in these stories, they failed to affect me in the profound, propulsive manner of Rebecca.

 

Rebecca is a novel I come back to again and again, though I hesitate to call it a “comfort book;” it is anything but comforting. So, what is it about Rebecca that makes the novel seminal and enduring?

 

In many ways, Rebecca is characteristic of Gothic literature; the dark, disturbing exploration of psychological states is the quintessence of the genre. What is somewhat novel about du Maurier’s most popular title, however, is the role of the imagination. The anxiety and suspense these pages evoke is due to the agony of invented pasts—an imagined epic love story, a conjured image of perfection. The new Mrs. de Winter is the antithesis of her predecessor: timid where Rebecca was commanding, gauche where Rebecca was “the most beautiful creature.” What is most disconcerting and observable about Rebecca is the legacy she left behind: the most important character of the book—not a person, but a place—Manderley.

 

Though Maxim is Manderley’s owner and patriarch, Rebecca tended to it, making it something to exalt and celebrate. Rebecca de Winter was a woman of elegance and repute. Everyone seemed to love her, and following her death, the tragedy was common knowledge among polite society of England.

 

As sinister events unfold and new truths emerge about Rebecca and her fate, the novel becomes penetrating and breathless, and an artful sense of foreboding persists and crescendos.

 

Besides the propellant nature of du Maurier’s narrative, Rebecca endures eighty-five years later because it transcends temporal boundaries. Particularly, the theme of femininity as performance is timeless. The second Mrs. de Winter is observed and critiqued by all those around her—Rebecca, the same, though she was admired.

 

The notion of womanhood as an act of exhibition is no more paramount than in a scene that occurs at around the midpoint of the novel: the second Mrs. de Winter ambles down the staircase done up for a costume party. After the suggestion of Mrs. Danvers, the eerie housekeeper, the narrator is clad in “a dress fit for the Queen of England” and a rich wig to cover her “mousy hair.” Her new, temporary, invented identity is met, however, with a silent, ashen white Maxim. Rebecca had worn an identical costume when she’d been alive.

 

Much of the novel concerns the second Mrs. de Winter’s exploration of her own self: how she chooses to present herself, what she chooses to wear, and how she chooses to act. She constantly measures herself against her imagined Rebecca. The concept of comparing oneself, especially to a significant other’s ex-lover, is something to which most can relate today.

 

Rebecca is many things: a complex portrait of obsession, a study in jealousy and bitterness, a romantic and tantalizing journey. Daphne du Maurier seduced me into her world of shadows. She birthed something immortal.


Rebecca, like its titular character, lives forever.

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