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(This is a story of a child who had always been reckless about his french language learning. Now, his city has been conquered by enemy forces. In the following scene, the child is in his classroom, having his last french lesson. He doesn't know anything about the thing he was asked.)

While I was thinking of all this, I heard my name called. It was my turn to recite. What would I not have given to be able to say that dreadful rule for the participle all through, very loud and clear, and without one mistake? but I got mixed up on the first words and stood there, holding on to my desk, my heart beating, and not daring to look up.

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What would I not have given to be able to ...

means

I would have given anything to be able to ...

or, more simply,

I wished intensely that I was able to ...

What did he wish that he was able to do

To say correctly, completely, and confidently a rule about participles, which rule he found difficult to recall

Parsing in detail

To say that dreadful rule (dreadful to him because he could never remember it) for the participle all through (from beginning to end), very loud and clear (in order to demonstrate his confidence), without a mistake.

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  • Could it be "What would not I have given...."? If not, then why. Is there anything special about the grammatical structure used in the sentence? – Shubham nautiyal Nov 24 '19 at 13:49
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What would I not have given...

This is a statement of feeling as though he would have given/sacrificed/exchanged anything for something else, in this case the ability to recite the rule.

Feeling he would have given anything, he challenges the reader, in the form of a question, to think of something (the “what”) that he would not have been willing to give.

He feels that at that point in time, reciting the rule was the most important thing in the world to him.

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  • Could it be "What would not I have given...."? If not then why. – Shubham nautiyal Nov 24 '19 at 13:34
  • It’s simply the wrong syntax to say “not I”; that wouldn’t be said anywhere, other than when proclaiming that something was “not me”. – Chris Mack Nov 24 '19 at 14:12
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  1. Basic form: I wanted so much to be able to say...
  2. This can be expressed by: I would have given anything to be able to say...
  3. This, in turn, can be transformed into a question: What would I not have given to be able to say... To sum up, I think the author just wanted very much to be able to answer the question he was asked.
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