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Sunday, 24 November 2013

Belated farewell to author and teacher Alex Auswaks

The name Alex Auswaks came up over dinner with friends this week. The context was discontented adults, and I mentioned that I always remembered a friend saying that once you get to twenty one, it's time to stop blaming your parents for your troubles.

That friend was Alex Auswaks, my first linguistics teacher. I hadn't seen him for nearly forty years, so later I googled him only to learn in a brief Wikipedia entry that he passed away in Israel last April. I hadn't known that he wrote detective novels and was shortlisted for several awards.

Alex taught on the Modern Languages degree at the Polytechnic of Central London in the early seventies, along with a band of characters straight out of Eccentric Casting Inc. He was rotund and florid, and taught in baggy hand-knitted pullovers, speaking in posh Australian. He had studied at The University of Sydney, but was born into the Russian community in Tientsin in China.

His instructional style was of the 'pontificate with a sardonic smile' variety, and I do recall somebody telling me in later years that he was an awful teacher. Well, he wasn't: He sparked in me a lifetime fascination with linguistics, and he almost certainly played a part in my getting a PhD and becoming a professor.

His secret was to impart a fascination for seminal books: Malinovski's Coral Gardens and their Magic, Levi-Strauss's Structural Anthropology, Chomsky's Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. He made knowledge look interesting, and I wanted to know what he knew, so I devoured the books that he talked about. We became friends when I joined the circle of students who met him most mornings in a cafe in Red Lion Square to discuss the latest in The Guardian or Le Monde amid clouds of Gauloises smoke. He liked to open a conversation with 'as my uncle Noam Chomsky said the other day ...' but then, perhaps Chomsky was his uncle ...

My other teachers included Edgar Farag, the diminutive wrinkled Copt who wore immaculate suits and smoked cigarettes as if they were scrumptious food. There was a story that this urbane and charming Egyptian had made a good deal of money by translating the Benson and Hedges advertising slogan 'Yes' into Arabic. And there was Gerald Brooke, who had spent four years in a Soviet prison camp until being returned home in a Cold War spy swap. He taught us Russian gulag slang. Professor Peter Newmark, born as he told me in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was a lifelong inspiration. He tore me to shreds at a research seminar in the nineties when I presented a silly pretentious paper at Surry University; good on him. There was a summer term teacher who was supposed to teach us advanced Russian conversation, but instead lectured us on the painter Ilya Repin and showed us how to read between the lines of Pravda. The cast of characters who worked at the Poly deserve their own novel, and I might write it one day. Their like could not be found in the standardised, digitized, industrialised higher education systems of today.

So a belated farewell, dear Alex Auswaks. I'd like to think that you are reading one of your uncle Noam's books in some celestial coral garden.