I signed up for upper class courses because they did not take attendance in them. I signed up for one on the French novel in the Modern Languages department – not realizing that it would be given in French.
I didn’t understand a word in the lectures, and so it made no difference that I stopped going to them. And read none of the assigned reading, for I already knew the actual books had little to do with what literature courses were all about.
I did take the precaution before the final exam of looking up most of the course books in 500 Masterpieces of Literature in Digest Form – but the exam contained only one question, an essay question, and it was on a book I had not looked up – Stendhal's The Red and the Black (or as it said in the exam question, Le Rouge et Le Noir). You could write the exam essay in English or French – but the question was posed only in French.
I caught the title Le Rouge et Le Noir but nothing else except a name I assumed was of a main character – Julian Sorel.Although the question ended with a quote, "Faites vous pret" (which meant nothing to me) I assumed the idea was to relate this mysterious book and this Julian person to this mysterious quoted statement. A few years later I finally did read the book and with considerable pleasure and found out that “Faites vous pret” meant make yourself into a priest, which was something Julian Sorel did as something that would help make him a success in the world. But I did not know this at the time of the final exam.
I wrote for two hours, every literature class cliché of the time – getting more and more eloquent about how this Julian Soret was eptomized “man discovering himself” – all of which, I wrote, is so beautifully heightened and summed up by....
And then I copied the words, letter by letter – like transcribing Ancient Egyptian before the Rosetta Stone – copied letter by letter the quote in French, "Faites vous pret."
My A on the exam made up for total failure in the course up till then – and meant that my overall average that semester would be high enough to just avoid flunking out –
Which in retrospect – the avoiding it – was my big mistake.