By Kitty Zhang Chengping
Rainy days are not suitable for work. Nor for any effortful brain exercise. Especially a rainy Monday. After marking four student essays and trying to put the results into the excel sheet, I ran into a serious calculation problem. Mid-term: 25%; Final writing exercise: 30%; Term Essay: 35%; Participation: 10%— three times I added these numbers up, and every time I got a 90. In a panic, I sent an email to Kitty in the School office telling her my amazing discovery. Kitty sent us this excel sheet almost a month ago; how come I didn’t notice this mistake for so long? Immediately she called me back and suggested that I do the calculation again. I did it again. And again. Oh no! A rainy Monday makes a PhD into a Permanent Head Damage.
Finished reading Bernard C. Meyer’s Joseph Conrad: A Psychoanalytic Biography. As a research assistant I’m so ineffective—I should have finished this book a week ago. A psychoanalytic biography sounds old-fashioned but it provides some very interesting data on Conrad’s life and discussion about his work. I didn’t need to read it in detail, but after two chapters I was absorbed and decided to finish the whole book and make very detailed notes. The first time I read Conrad in my undergraduate years I thought he was a bore; then he became a great genius three years ago when I re-read his Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness. I even own that to some extent he is deeper than my own dear Thomas Hardy. But today, after turning the last page, I thought: Poor Conrad! Great works need unusual—or unusually miserable—life experiences; but unusually miserable experiences alone do not make great writers. Creativity is an enigma— when we complete this research project, will we have found the key to Conrad’s creativity?
Yes I do respect and admire Conrad: but Hardy will always have my love. I’ve been studying him for four years and he has literarily become a part of my life—almost a member of the family. A family member can be mean or annoying sometimes, but you love them all the same. I remember a former MPhil student jokingly saying that after reading half a dozen biographies of W. E. B. Du Bois and a dozen of his books, she felt almost married to him. Well, Hardy is more like a father figure to me. His narrative voice is already ancient, or ageless, even in his earliest work Under the Greenwood Tree. Always observing, always waiting, like the Egdon Heath in his The Return of the Native; or the amphitheater beside the Casterbridge—oh dear. I should start writing my paper on The Mayor of Casterbridge for the Hardy at Yale Conference now: it’s only two weeks away. I need to re-read my thesis Chapter 3 and tailor it for the conference. And perhaps go to the library and search for some fresh materials. Better do it right now.
Finished marking, so I should have time to attend the reading seminar on Derrida. Several postgraduate students have organized this weekly reading seminar, which includes students from other departments such as Comparative Literature, Philosophy and History. I’ve missed several sessions already and hoped I could join them today—but they cancelled it. Fortunately we still have the regular research seminar held by the School of English. Today we have Prof. John Rodden, from the University of Texas, talking on “The Politics of Literary Reputation, or, How Writers Become Famous”. The big hero in this talk is George Orwell. Rodden’s conclusion is: to become famous, you need to show up at the right time and place. True—but most people don’t know when is the right time for them. And I think of Jude and Sue lamenting: “…the time was not ripe for us! Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us.” Well, the time will never be ripe for me, unless I get this writing finished!
How fortunate that School of English is stationed in the main building. The two courtyards are two big gardens where flowers are in blossom all the year round. And I’ve been dazzled by the big flame tree beside the main building recently. From May to June every year this flame tree will put on its best clothes: leaves green as jade and flowers red as fire. Every morning I walk up the road and see how the leaves unfold, how the dark brown branches become covered with green. Then several red dots appear; then the fiery flowers spread over the whole tree almost overnight. Unlike other flame trees, this one does not grow upward but stretches out its branches horizontally and makes a fine umbrella over the path. With this tree, all May and June become so lively and passionate. So I brought my Nikon D40 with me this morning and took dozens of picture from every possible angle. I’ll set up an album called “HKU Plants” on Facebook and share this poetry with all my friends.
Kitty Zhang came to HKU from Sichuan University in 2006, and completed her PhD on Thomas Hardy in 2010. She is currently a research assistant in the School of English.