Michael Heim: An Appreciation
Boris Dralyuk, UCLA
Published: Thursday, October 04, 2012
When I applied to UCLA as a high school senior in 1999, it was with the express intent of studying under Professor Michael Henry Heim, one of the nation's best known and most accomplished translators. On the first day of classes, clutching a stack of poems I had translated from the Russian, I timidly knocked on Michael's office door. Michael led me into the room, sat down at his desk, and asked me to sit across from him. Haltingly, I managed to introduce myself and explain my reason for coming. As soon as Michael heard that I was interested in translation and had brought samples of my work, his eyes lit up and he moved his chair to my side of the desk. For the next hour, we sat side-by-side and went over every one of my crooked lines. The lessons I learned then still serve me today. He taught me how to improve my translations, yes, but also how to treat those around me, how to foster a student's enthusiasm, and how to conceive of the university. He made this big campus seem intimate, but reminded me that the opportunities it offers are limitless. For the past eleven years – throughout my career as an undergraduate, graduate student, and now lecturer at the Slavic department – Michael has been my teacher, my mentor, and my friend. Now Mike is gone, and I don't know how we'll get along without him.
Like his beloved Chekhov, whom he translated and taught, Mike was a profoundly humane and egalitarian man. Indeed, when I think of the Humanities – and here I mean both the set of disciplines to which Mike dedicated his life and the UCLA building in which we occupied adjacent offices for the past year – I see Mike. His visits to campus in 2011-2012 weren't as frequent as they once had been, but when he was at his office, he was rarely alone. Lines of students formed in the hallway, as they had before, and Mike gave his all to every one of them. There was never a moment during Mike's office hours when a student felt pressured to cut short what she or he had been saying, to get up and leave. His commitment to his students knew no bounds.
Last fall I taught a course on Chekhov – a course that Mike had taught for thirty years. I knew I couldn't fill Mike’s shoes. I would never approach his mastery of the subject, or his artistry as an instructor. My only comfort is that I learned from the best – and my hope is that I am passing along even a fraction of what he has taught me. This quarter, the Chekhov course is being taught by another of Mike's former students, Professor Yelena Furman. The other day she and I spoke about teaching without Mike's guidance – we couldn't believe that he wasn't just a phone call away, as he had been for all those years.
The last conversation I had with Mike was about a Chekhov story that had somehow escaped our attention. He was compiling a collection of stories that would reflect Chekhov's idiosyncratic spirituality, and I suggested an early piece called "Art" (1886), in which an entire village rallies around a bitter and abusive drunken peasant on one day a year – the day when he practices his art of carving an ice altar for a wintertime religious ceremony: "They all smile at him, they sympathise with him […]; they all feel that his art is not his personal affair but something that concerns them all, the whole people. One creates, the others help him. Seryozhka in himself is a nonentity, a sluggard, a drunkard, and a wastrel, but when he has his red lead or compasses in his hand he is at once something higher, a servant of God."
Art, sympathy, salvation – this was Mike's Chekhov. This was Mike.
Our loss is unspeakable and unthinkable, but Mike would never have wanted us – his students, his colleagues, his friends – to stop thinking. Those he had mentored will continue his work. As Chekhov reminds us at the end of "Lady with a Little Dog," we still have a long, long road before us, and the most complicated, the most difficult – and the most rewarding – part of it is only just beginning.