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Notes On A Thesis


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Notes On A Thesis back

Tiphaine Riviere

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Page 45 Review by Stephen

Placard held aloft during a Parisian university protest rally:

"We're losing our faculties!"

Coming as it does towards the end of this sanity-sapping spiral, it made me roar with laughter. I don't think it's their departments they're referring to.

Caveat: do not read this wry and ever so well observed graphic novel if you have just this second committed yourself to a three-year PhD. The rest of us lucky pups who left academia behind decades ago - or never moored there in the first place - will have a whale of a time, but you will probably cry.

Perhaps you're thrilled to be embarking on your brand-new endeavour, just like cheerful, fresh-faced Jeanne Dargan who is so relieved to be relieved of her hyperactive Year-Nine students that she's ecstatically ditched full-time, inner-city teaching in favour of research which she must fund herself. She's bursting with enthusiasm, especially since Kafka expert Karpov has agreed to supervise her thesis on 'The Labyrinthine Motif in the Parable of the Law in Kafka's The Trial'. Exciting!

Brigitte Claude, secretary for the Doctoral School since 1987, does her best to dissuade Jeanne with 'before' and 'after' photos of similarly perky pupils now rendered lank, limp and weary after 3-7 years of critical endeavour, but Jeanne will not be bowed. The city basks in sunshine and once she's met the great Karpov herself, not even a little rain dims the bright autumnal colours as she strides purposefully and proud along the banks of the Seine.

"Don't worry," she joyously reassures her boyf, "I'm going to get it done in 3 years. 3 years and not a day more..."

Were this early Gerald Durrell autobiography, the next sentence would have read "4 years later..."

But no, Jeanne has a plan. She draws up a detailed, three-year timetable involving research, reading and note-taking; a finished PhD plan; writing part 1; writing part 2; writing part 3; revisions and finishing touches; submission. Unfortunately this immediately follows her even more detailed, weekly time-management-table, by the hour, in which Jeanne will juggle her studies with the full-time job she needs to take in order to make ends meet. It's in Brigitte Claude's office! Hooray!

"I'm going to join the Events Team at the university! I'll be the one organising all the literature conferences at the Sorbonne! I'll be right in the nerve-centre, at the heart of Parisian literary life."

Just one glance at that timetable would tell anyone less in denial that it's completely and utterly untenable.

This is crammed full of satirical detail, from posters promoting events like "Laughter in Nineteenth-Century German Philosophy" (Schopenhauer!) to a conference day's agenda over-optimistically entitled 'Hope In Kafka' and a new PhD student gleefully declaring, "I have a feeling I'm going to make some serious waves in the world of Renaissance punctuation!"

Brigitte Claude herself is a masterful visual invention, jealously guarding her administrative office like a triple-chinned, fiery-eyed bullfrog, hands buried beneath her bosom, slinking down her desk to answer the phone with enormous reluctance, and only in defiance of someone entering her secretarial arena in need of information. Her jowls are a joy.

Delivering speeches is portrayed as a swimming race, accepting questions from the floor akin to opening yourself up to an oncoming battle charge. The exhaustion and despair of the older post-graduates drips from their word balloons and (in a move similar to Mazzuccheilli's ASTERIOS POLYP wherein Asterios literally talks over the love of his life, his word balloons obliterating hers) one speaker's conversation-stealing monomania is conveyed firstly by the sheer number - the barrage - of her balloons, then by her swallowing Jeanne's single, tiny, plaintive speech whole, before blowing an enormous one of her own back out, like bubblegum.

"I'm my own boss!" comes back to haunt Jeanne, as does Jeanne's visualisation of her thesis as the most splendid, ornate, meticulously crafted piece of neo-classical architecture. I cannot tell you how funny the eventual reprise is. Can you imagine the nightmare of finally composing a 500-page thesis from notes you've taken on books you've read - and long forgotten - two years ago?

Sympathy for all you will find in abundance, but students, lecturers and indeed administrators will be pertinently yet playfully poked in the ribs. Poor Karpov, for example, endures such excruciating presumption and neediness from his overly entitled students that one of them is shown offloading from a psychiatrist's couch; on the other hand, I do believe students should be entitled to some sort of supervision rather than a six-month wait for an eventually evasive reply from their ever-absent professor while he's swanning about Rome engaging in fully-paid personal research.

Egos will be exposed, intentions will be questioned and both mental and critical faculties be sorely tested.

Moreover, by the end of the book you may well re-examine your initial infuriation / exasperation with the Year-Nine children let loose on The Louvre in search of The Mona Lisa. There's a very, very funny background joke on that sequence's final panel and at the end of the day you should never mock energy, lest you lose it yourself.

Enthusiasm is all!

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