07 June 2011

A Working Lunch

"Hello," said my supervisor to a colleague, as we headed down the stairs. "Alexander and I are just off to a working lunch."

Wow, I thought. 'A working lunch.' That sounds really professional.

But I didn't feel very professional. Today, as I met with the professor who's supervising my dissertation, I felt distinctly like I was way in over my head.

The basic process of the dissertation wasn't so bad, even if I was a little rushed. It began at the start of the semester. In the first few weeks as a refugee from Christchurch, I had wrangled entrance to the school and been admitted just shy of the deadlines. I raced from office to office from one day to the next, getting approval for a series of year-long courses (already in session) and finances and visas and so on. Work began immediately.

It was still my first day as an official student when I met with the faculty member in charge of matching supervisors with students on dissertations. He told me, as kindly as possible, that everyone else already had at least a rough topic in mind and a supervisor arranged, and that I should get started as soon as possible. Sitting in his office, I pitched ideas at him - the first couple rehashed from my planned courses at Canterbury, and the rest just snatched out of the air.

Could I work on Melville, comparing the fictional and nonfictional elements of his work? No, the faculty member with that specialty was going on sabbatical. Could I look at Ezra Pound and his influence on the Lost Generation? No, no one had that as an area of particular interest who was available. Could I work on medieval fablieux? Not unless I already knew French.

"Nabokov's Pale Fire?" I asked. I had read it a couple of months ago.

The coordinator thought for a moment and nodded. There was someone who might be able to work with me.

A few days and an email exchange later, and I was set up to work on the "various games played in the index in Pale Fire." Pretty vague, but enough to work with.

And work I have! Over the past semester I have buried myself in dozens of books of primary and secondary material. It's one of Nabokov's most-studied books, and there has been a huge amount to look at. All the while, I have met with my supervisor and refined my ideas, and set up a blog to roughly track my progress.

But to be honest, I still didn't feel ready for the big leagues. So it was pretty daunting today, when I went for this "working lunch." I didn't have any sparkling insights or witty banter. I don't even know Russian, so I could only read the half of Nabokov's work he'd written in English. I have some slight breadth of knowledge about literary and critical history, but hardly felt qualified to chat about my plans and research with my supervisor. I mean, who am I kidding? "My research!?" Like I knew what the hell I was doing! I felt like a fraud.

I'm not a nervous person, but...

Well, it didn't matter. It was too late, and I was committed. Committed to this working lunch.

We made small talk as we walked to one of the faculty cafes. It felt awkward to me. Oh, God, is it awkward for him? Am I boring? I'm boring!

The food was buffet-style fake Mexican, and we grabbed a couple of plates full of it. Rice in a sloppy brown bean sauce, tortilla chips, corn salad, etc. Not bad, but not good. It didn't matter. I needed to have a completely positive attitude. This food is fine. Delicious, even! I am pleasant and casual! PLEASANT!

We began talking a little bit about my research, but almost immediately veered off into gossip about the school and the like. As we chatted about trivial things and his plans for the break (conference in England), I started to relax. I heaped a lump of guacamole on a chip and even genuinely grinned as I talked about Korea and where I had been. It's been a weird couple of years, and I was happy to tell a little about living in Asia and where I'd traveled. We talked about living in Dunedin. We talked about the university in general. He talked about his kids, and asked me about mine. I don't have any kids, but now we're talking! This is professional as shit! Yeah!

The conversation moved back to my research, all too soon. Casually, my supervisor described a theory he'd had about Pale Fire for some time, a theory that I had (a) never heard of before and that (b) was absolutely brilliant. He saw the book as a thing of fractal beauty, with the small images reflected in a larger scale at either end. The waxwing slain by a false sky from the poem's first line is reflected later by Hazel's death; the toy wheelbarrow one character remembers grubbing under the bed for as a child is reflected later by a real wheelbarrow in the final scene; and so on. The poem within the book is 999 lines, with a final couplet unfinished: my supervisor speculated that the whole of the later commentary that comprises the rest of the book is a fractal examination of that missing line, a close-up examination of a fragment with complexities that just increase the deeper you go.

Well, hell. That sounds way more competent with the book than anything I could say. And this book has been my focus for like three months! Pack me up and send me back to America, I can't even swing a lunch where I sound like I know what I'm talking about.

Searching my thoughts for a moment as I tried to think of an intelligent response, all I could think of was the fairly standard model of the poem. Nabokov had described a "Hegelian spiral" that ran through many of his chess problems (and by extension, his writing). It was sort of a strategy he used to lure in the reader. A broad and obvious theme is first, something easy to see. It's obviously flawed, though, and it leads the reader to a new understanding that is wholly contrary to the first. This new understanding is deeper and smarter, and puts the first theme to the lie. But there are still a few little things that don't make sense - a few pawns that get in the way of the solution. It isn't until the reader finally sees a third way of understanding and a new theme, joining the first two, that everything finally makes sense. Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis: a spiral going out, turning back, and finally curling in together.

This is how most everyone sees Nabokov's work, and especially how scholars view Pale Fire. It would be a safe to say, probably. Certainly not objectionable. But it was also the kind of thing I should have learned (that I did learn) my first week of research. It was not smart, and did not demonstrate I had been engaging with my work.

I needed to demonstrate that I had been working, and not wasting my time. I couldn't just respond with the elementary-school version of the book, could I?

The moment stretched out a bit too long.

Then, a flash of light deep in my brain. I realized something. I clutched.

"Well," I said. "I like the fractal idea. But I was thinking about the Hegelian spiral Nabokov mentions in Speak, Memory. Everyone finds that in Pale Fire, and they're right do so, I think." I solidified my hold on my half-conceived insight, and continued. "But the focus has been on identifying an author of the book as a whole. Meyer and Boyd both found the thesis in Kinbote and the antithesis in uncovering his unreliable narration to reveal the 'real' story, and then Meyer and Boyd had their own ideas about the synthesis of those two themes." So far, so good. I gathered steam. "But my thinking recently -" Very recently! "-is that the real spiral is found in the structure of the book. The thesis is the poem, the antithesis is the contradictory commentary, and the synthesis is the index, which allows us to make sense of the two preceding parts that had seemed to oppose each other."

When I write it out now, it actually doesn't seem like much of an insight. It doesn't seem very impressive at all, actually. But trust me, it's something new. And more importantly, it actually sounded like I knew what I was doing. It might inspire confidence, and let my supervisor know that I'm working hard and I'm on the level. I jammed a chip in my mouth.

My supervisor was impressed. His latte paused, mid-air. He raised his eyebrows and smiled.

"I never thought of it that way before. You... hey, you might have something there."

Haha! Yes!

You hear that, world?! I might have something! I might know what's going on! Ten points to Gryffindor! Triumph! Triumph!

Okay, so it's not really all that amazing. All I did was successfully navigate a casual lunch with a pleasant expert, which is about the lowest bar that anyone can clear. And I certainly shouldn't be congratulating myself on a relatively pedestrian insight into a book I'd been poring over for months.

But I needed this one. So: Triumph! Triumph!


1 comment:

  1. A victory without danger is a triumph without glory (guacamole).