Simone Turbeville, who died on 27 December 2009, was a long-time Associate Professor in the English Department at UTA – though it’s a measure both of the ephemerality of life and the huge turnover here in the past decade that few reading this obituary will remember her. It’s important to mark such passings – maybe more important to mark them than those of academics who get awards or professorships or buildings named after them.
Simone Turbeville taught at UTA for over 40 years. It doesn’t violate the principle of nil nisi bonum to say that Simone was a difficult colleague. In fact, if I were to write that her tenure here was one of sweetness and light, she would read that, raise her eyes to the ceiling, and say “Hmnph!” or words to that effect. No, Simone was a difficult colleague. She feuded endlessly with everybody over the most minor issues, leading one of our colleagues to muse that academic disputes are so very bitter because there is so very little at stake. Simone complained incessantly about her working conditions (something I of course would never do). She was easily and monumentally offended, and her character note was how little the world appreciated her. When she won the Gertrude Golladay Award for teaching in 1999, she remarked, “Too little, too late.”
Still, though she spent about ten of our 13 years as colleagues not speaking to me for one reason or another, it was impossible to stay mad at Simone forever. You always had the sense that if she took everything too bitterly, she chose the right things to be bitter about. Simone had a formidable education. She earned a PhD from Bocconi University in her native Milan in 1951 (a date that doesn’t square with her being born in the 1930s, as her obituary claims; much about her will remain mysterious). Upon arriving in the United States, she was told by somebody that a “foreign” doctorate wouldn’t cut it in America. So she set about earning a second doctorate, from Indiana University. Simone was thus one of the few people I’ve ever met to have two earned PhDs – real PhDs from major research universities, not a European summer school where you direct your own dissertation, or the On-Line University of Nowhere, or something like that.
Simone’s field was comparative literature of the Renaissance. She helped edit the journal Allegorica for much of its existence. She taught the high canon from Dante to Thomas Mann. She was fanatically opposed to literary theory of any description. (It was one of Simone’s students who, upon starting one of my theory courses, announced to the class “I don’t want theory. I just want facts.”) If you picture her as a bristling reactionary, you are of course half right. But Simone could surprise you. Her courses in literature and opera were in an interdisciplinary mode that became fashionable again just at the end of her career. She read feverishly, always adding contemporary authors to her syllabuses: when I met her in the late 1980s, she was into Umberto Eco, and made his work the centerpiece of her regular 20th-century comparative literature courses. When I started reading the Sicilian novelist Lara Cardella, who was half my age and a third of Simone’s, Simone sent agents into the bookstores of Europe to bring back the newest Cardella for us both to read. And almost as much as Puccini, she loved Robocop.
While she was intermittently talking to me, Simone always added energy to my day. When I arrived at UTA in 1988, I was given an office across from Simone on the 6th floor of Carlisle Hall. I would be minding my own business when Simone would strut in in a cloud of cigarette smoke and proclaim: “They have just determined the language family that Etruscan belongs to! Do you know what it is?” Beats me, Simone. “FINNO-UGARIC!” And she would pivot on one heel and depart as smokily as she’d arrived.
Simone loved animals, despite her legendary allergies: birds of all kinds, and Scottie dogs, in particular. She was a magnificent Italian cook. She loved students, especially those who loved her, and was savagely devoted to her favorites – and I do not say that as a bad thing; she loved people who loved the art, music, and books that she loved, and at heart there’s nothing wrong with that.
Simone witnessed a swath of Italian history. Her father was persecuted by Mussolini, and Simone would later see Il Duce hanging dead in a Milan plaza. On a lighter note, she once saw the Nobel Literature prize-winner Salvatore Quasimodo in his underwear. The story goes that the great man had become enamored of one of Simone’s schoolfriends. Upon bustling into her friend’s flat one afternoon, she encountered Quasimodo in his BVDs. There are only a few degrees of separation between any of us and unclad Nobel Laureates.
Simone, you were often impossible to get along with, but as I said when you retired in 2001, “ti vogliamo bene” – and now, “ti avremmo voluto bene.” Rest well.