Henry James’s novels are, by no accounts, easy reading, but nor are they exactly the painfully long mazes in which one loses oneself between the commas and semicolons, only to be found, panting, some three paragraphs later, with still very little idea of what has just taken place. Rather, the novel that I spent the end of 0th week and the beginning of 1st week reading, was a mixture of deliciously complex sentences couched between smooth and subtle dialogue that played across my mind like nursery rhymes for adults, so full were they of questionable double-entendres and humorous perhaps-allusions.
Wednesday was a daze, lived between the covers of The Ambassadors, waiting for Strether and Waymarsh and Chad and Mrs. Procock and the rest of them to figure themselves out. I fell asleep with my lamp on and woke up with my early alarm, thinking it was still the middle of the night. But, alas, it was only a cloudy and dreary English morning, and I still hadn’t reached the last page.
My luck held out and I reached the English Faculty Library, where bowls were filled with little squares. At first, blearily tired as I was, I rather suspected they might be condoms with literary quotes on their covers, but no, they were only little info cards to stick in one’s wallet. Shame, really. I would have loved to have a condom in my wallet with the words “‘Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish!” splashed across the front. A good way to let a partner know you’re on your period and a fantastic conversation piece to boot.
But I digress. After finishing the book – which took an hour, because I was nearly falling asleep in the comfortable chairs, black ones, with lovely wide backs to them that one can really lean on – I rose and began to search the shelves for critical work by other authors. I found five books, two of which turned out to be irrelevant to me, and only one article online that seemed to hold any truly helpful wisdom or readable writing. Remember, friends, that I was running on minimal sleep – some six hours in the past forty-eight.
At 10:00, I began to write. At 17:00, I got up, with a completed essay, ten pages long (including the bibliography – let’s not quibble, though). I don’t think I’ve ever felt my brain working so hard. The time flashed by in fits and bursts, making my stomach roil a little harder whenever I dared look at the clock. If I were a robot, there would have been steam coming out of my head, whistling like a teapot, rust flaking away from my hinges and oil dripping out of my eye-sockets.
At 17:45 I sat in my tutor’s office, with the printed essay in his hands. He was impressed that I’d read the entire book and admitted that it was a tall order. He said nine pages was enough – I’d been laboring under the impression that he’d asked for 10-12 and that I was slightly under the mark – and that I’d used my sources well. He told me I had to simplify my prose and stop splitting my infinitives. I didn’t know anyone cared about split infinitives anymore; I thought that we were liberal about those these days. I got a mark of 70 on the paper, which, in Oxonian terms means, apparently, an A.
My sigh of relief may have created a brilliant set of majestic waves all the way out in the middle of the English Channel, where no one, except for a few confused meteorologists watching the satellites, saw them.