January 7, 2011 10:06 pm

In a Jamesian purgatory

How does one escape from an obligation to speak for an hour about Henry James?

Sometimes, when you are having a jolly night out, someone asks you if you’d mind giving a little talk to a gathering of like-minded people in a refined provincial town about what Henry James has meant to you.

Turning radish at the compliment, you choke on your drink, which patchily christens your best suede shoes, and say, “Well, t’would be lovely, but I’m not quite sure if I ... ” but your pal says “Come on! Relax, you can just read out your favourite bits, no pressure, all terribly informal and cosy and no reason to worry and ... ” and although you know deep down it can’t really be that simple, you do like to be easygoing in life and say yes when things are asked of you, and you are flattered and, how bad can it be? So you agree and nothing more is said for a week or two, and you even forget about it altogether, and then the next thing you know your talk is going to be advertised in the Times Literary Supplement, the other speaker is an acclaimed Jamesian of international renown, and you are both to speak for an hour.

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Susie Boyt

Of course, I could give a lovely talk on James’s bearing on my life. Sure, I could measure out my days in the master’s “not for all the world”s and “she seemed to see him hear her say”s. I could take you to my mid-teenage years, when I first read What Maisie Knew and saw myself as a child through Maisie’s eyes, fancying I had something of her moral energy and a great deal of her lust for kindness and buns. I could speak about my favourite passage of James, the opening chapter of The Wings of the Dove, where the descripton of Lionel Croy’s mildly squalid apartments and wildly squalid ways made an impression on me and my attitudes to napery for ever. I have only to see faintly soiled table linen and the expression “wanting in freshness” flashes on my horizon like a beacon.

I love James at his most obsessive in The Sacred Fount or the short story “The Papers”, comedies of mania both, which, though not entirely successful, seem to me very permissive, for from them you can infer that you are only half-living if you’re not half-mad. See, five minutes gone already!

But all this would take time that I don’t have. The week of the talk happens to be my busiest of the year. If I skimp on everything and rise at five each day, there will be exactly six hours in which to prepare this great treatise. But I need four times that. The anxiety mounts. To give a shabby talk on James, the very talk itself wanting in freshness! I remember a friend who drank a cocktail of washing-up liquid and baking soda before an exam in Oxford and was violently sick and his marks were rounded up. I wonder?

. . .

I start to indulge in some entry-level magical thinking: I have two identical-looking keys, only one of which opens the front door; each time I am poised at the lock, I bargain if the key is right first time, I will be admitted to hospital in the dead of night with a mysterious disease. The key is not right first time, not for 20 times in a row.

I count the Cheerios in a bowl; an odd number will signal a cancellation. There are 144. All my fantasies are of short prison sentences and rehab stints, getting stuck in a lift even shimmers like a lustrous mirage. “The good thing about prison,” my nine-year-old informs me casually, “is you can pretty much have all the biscuits you want.” It’s something I told her when she was worried one night.

My head grows more and more fraught. There’s a whole conversation with someone where I use the word “Lemsip” when I mean to say “e-mail”. That will hardly do, will it?

I go to bed blandly murmuring “I am safe and all is well” but can’t help adding “and on Friday everything will be terrible and, like the mythical hyena who swallowed a box of Oxo cubes, I will be a laughing stock.” I make a substantial catalogue of my most embarrassing moments – but I can’t go into it here, it’s too awful. My fingers ache from clutching at straws. Could I somehow reframe the talk as a James singalong?

I look up to the heavens for some almighty reprieve and go to sleep and dream I am climbing Mount Everest, with absolutely no preparation – or even clothing ...

And in the morning I wake and the whole country is covered with a thick blanket of snow. I am saved.

susie.boyt@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

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