[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Oxford Days: An Inclination

Paul West
Latham, NY: British American Publishing, Ltd., August 2002
272 pages, $24.95 hc

Maurice Burke
Mathematical Sciences

Paul West has been touted as "Possibly our finest living stylist in English" (Vance Bourjaily, The Chicago Tribune). Dozens of novels and works of non-fiction have marked him as "a writer of distinction and originality" (The Los Angeles Times) and earned for him many accolades including the Lannan Prize for Fiction, the Literature Prize of the American Academy, and the designation Chevalier of Arts and Letters from the government of France. How would such a talented writer approach the task of describing his experience as a student at Oxford University? With aplomb and self-deprecating candor, West provides in Oxford Days a fascinating glimpse of the person he was and is, and a portrait of Oxford in the mind of a young man 50 years ago.

Oxford Days is a gallery, an exhibition if you will, of jottings carefully curated by West into a "memoir or memorial" (he can't decide which) of his formative Oxford years. It is not a treatise on Oxford, the university, or its educational methods, but a depiction of an indelibly special time in Paul West's personal life and education. The exhibit is a mélange of beautiful prose, of snapshots from albums of old notes, letters, photographs, and other memorabilia. But this is not simply memoir. In West's imaginative rendering of his Oxford years, he cannot resist slipping into literary metaphor and fantasy for lighting and perspective as he briefly assumes the identities of a dining hall servant, a custodian, and a residence hall matron.

Though somewhat chronological, the exhibit's chronology is underside as often dates are on old photographs. And while the idiosyncrasies of the Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge Universities) educational system are briefly described, none are well-explained and readers not acquainted with the system will find the book's pervasive contextual nuances a bit hard to decipher. Nonetheless, West's "Oxford Prose," whose lavishness hopes "to enact a spell," indeed creates a story worth reading and a sense of a larger theme, of something lost and something gained, which is West's purpose, I believe, for this work.

The story begins with West's recollections and humorous rendition of the scholarship examinations he "sat" in order to win a place at Oxford, the university of his childhood dreams which he had been "born for, though not into." West actually failed in his first attempt in 1946, at the age of 16 ("A god failed, but also a boy. Imagine my puerile agonizings..."), but succeeded a year later when he quit trying to dazzle the examiners with his vast store of memorized twaddle, instead writing from the heart about things that delighted him.

West was offered a place at St. Edmond's Hall, one of the approximately 30 colleges that Oxford University comprises. However, he was required to wait out two years before "going up," due to the influx of soldiers returning to their colleges after serving in World War II. Not anxious at that moment to do his compulsory military service, West opted to attend the University of Birmingham, where he completed a Baccalaureate in English Literature.

West entered Lincoln College in Oxford as a graduate student in 1950. After two years in Oxford, he transferred to Columbia University where he completed his MA in comparative literature in 1953. Interestingly, despite Oxford's profound influence on West as a person and as a writer, he never received a degree from Oxford University. As with many other important details in this book, no explanation is given, although several are insinuated.

Oxford's educational environment seemed perfect for West. There are three eight-week terms (Michaelmas, Hilary, and Trinity) in Oxford's academic year, with ample time between terms for both faculty and students to travel, research, and write. In fact, the Oxford educational environment is designed for independent reading, writing, critical reflection, and intellectual conversation. Although lecture series are offered by professors from the various colleges, students are not required to attend. The young Paul West, with his unbridled horde of literary interests and his unstructured approach to learning, must have been a rare attendee.

The true locus of Oxford's educational system is the tutorial. All students are assigned mentors in their colleges. These mentors, or dons, belong to the university faculty and guide students through their studies by means of tutorials, often one-on-one sessions in which students present and defend the work assigned in their previous tutorial. Students often attend two or three tutorials per week with different dons. Ultimately, to receive a degree, students must pass a series of comprehensive examinations given at the end of their final term in the university. Graduate students must also defend a thesis. With regard to these examinations, in the words of Paul West, "your tutor was your ally against the assembled forces of the university" (121).

West resided at Southfield House in Carfax, on the outskirts of Oxford. This residence for graduate students of Lincoln College was hardly what West had imagined in his youthful dreams (23) about living in an Oxford college ("...its coal-smoky rooms,...the atmospheric snooze of the fire in the grate, the kettle that boiled thereon like a hydraulic ally, the rind-stiff marmalade on the dead toast in the dining hall, the tamed lawns in the courts, the continual bells, the river-sweet fog").

However, West's tutorials with John Sparrow, Fellow of All Souls College, were everything he hoped for. Sparrow epitomizes the greatness of Oxford's tutorial system. "He was not intent on making a silk purse out of sow's ear, but had heeded the Latin verb educare and the verb it derives from, educere. Both can mean to lead out or bring up. Hence education.... There were times when I felt adopted, learnedly attended to" (83). Indeed, it was Sparrow who educed Oxford's significance to West: "At Oxford, whatever else you think you are doing, you are unwittingly absorbing something unique and choice--a sense of the unfailing caliber of mental things, providing you with the indestructible inner resources in after-years" (41).

Only a born writer would instinctively pay attention to the details of language, accents, names, smells, and sounds the way young Paul West did as a student at Oxford. One cannot resist laughter at his definition of "pobble," a unique, Oxford way of muttering. "To pobble is to gobble suavely, a trick invented in certain public schools, its aim being to convince hearers that you are responding brilliantly to what they said, but with the entire burden of what you say lost in the polyphonic rumble of your speech. How did pobbling sound? Hard to express it in words, but something like "hob-bon bobble, wob wob, bob-bob-bob, terminally finite," the last two words thrown in to sustain the illusion of something astute just missed, thanks to the brutish sound effects" (70).

Much of West's literary rendering of Oxford resonates with my experiences as an Oxford student in the mid-'70s: the bells, the unchained bicycles, the choirs, the striped scarves identifying one's college, the old dining halls, High Table where the dignitaries of the college and their guests dined each evening, the benedictus benedicats to bless the food, the sconcings, the gowns, the annual Commens Ball, the eights (rowing teams and their races), the quads (the inner gardens and lawns sheltered from Oxford's noisy streets by the sandstone college walls), the scouts (servants in the college "staircases" or student residences), the dons, the rectors, the pubs, and the pobble. Each makes a brief appearance in Oxford Days and provoke in West "disbanded memories" not recognized at the beginning, but involuntary ones that bubble up.

By themselves, however, none of these trappings are the subject of West's book. Rather, they are the stage set, the evocative backdrop for Oxford's "permanent Zeitgeist, indefinable but unmistakable," that had such a profound influence on West's literary metamorphosis from his poetic days, in statu pupillari, to his status as "a novelist whose passion for narrative does not fade." They are also the backdrop of a profound sense of loss and sadness entwined with the memories of his happiest days.

West devotes a chapter to his youthful theories about literature, resurrected from his Oxford jottings. He zealously pursued the "sadness motif" in literature, that "serious art (music or literature) was bound to depress." With an existential anguish making him "a sitting duck...for Sartrian hard tack," West questioned how one could "write serious art without revealing, even using as bedrock," the appalling fact that "sooner or later, the human condition would sever them [the readers] from all they held dear and annul them forever" (137).

Somewhere between agnostic and atheist, West found no solace in the "rationalizations of supreme casuistry" proposed by those of a religious bent. "Serious writers," he contended (140), "should write about serious, 'last' things, but not expect anyone to read them.... If accurate literature merely saddened us, then why bother with it at all instead of playing snooker, darts or roulette?" With literature, for the young Paul West, it came down to a dichotomy, "truth versus entertainment."

Oxford Days, as a literary work, echoes West's sadness motif. It conveys a sense of unrelenting change taking place within himself and within Oxford, and the inevitable severing of old relationships. "No brilliance daunts death. That must be it" (221). He frequently laments his father's disaster in World War I and the seriousness of his generation following World War II--a group of individuals too staid for many of Oxford's popular trappings. He relates without explication the "successful sadness" of his tutors and mentors. He bemoans modern Oxford's hectic and noisy pace, its remodeled and modernized landmarks, and the paraphernaliazation of its mystique in T-shirts and photomania. At times, he even appears skeptical, neutral at best, toward the most monumental change in the University in the 20th century--the admission of women to all of Oxford's colleges.

Even identities change or are lost. West describes the awkward visit to Oxford by his parents and his own trips home where he was viewed differently, through a filter of Oxford stereotypes, by old acquaintances. He laments the sudden death of his best friend during his second year at Oxford, and wonders at the subconscious delusion he shared with many of his peers that graduating from Oxford somehow assured their immortality as writers and critics.

But Oxford Days does more than echo West's sadness motif of serious literature. It transcends that motif. Oxford Days strikes a compromise with truth and entertainment, an enigmatic balance of "deinosis with delight." I was taken by West's fond reminiscences of his parents, his tutors John Sparrow and Freddy Bateson, his mentors the Sitwells, and his fellow "amateur" literati, scattered throughout the book. A sense of West's deep appreciation is inescapable. To me, these relationships are the core of the book's larger exhibit of the abstraction that serious literature represents for West, of something lost and, more importantly, of something gained and appreciated. One senses his smile transcending his sadness, as West remembers and then memorializes the ones he loved.

And what about the golden spires of Oxford, the Oxford of Paul West's mind, sullied by change and time? His resolution is surprising, but simple. He is no meliorist. Change has enacted an irreversible toll, and, to West, not for the better. But he is no pessimist or reactionary either. West concludes Oxford Days with flaring imagery as he cheerfully eats wild boar in an Oxford college at Christmas in the year 1524. Memoir, or truth, is subsumed to memorial or metaphor-laden tribute, the Oxford in his mind. Perhaps for him, history's "sullen rages," the inevitability of change, the loss of parents and loved ones, and the sadness motif itself are trumped in serious literature by holy metaphor, nostalgic--yes, but "human transcendence at its best" (156).

For Anglophiles and fans of Paul West, Oxford Days should be a popular exhibit. For students of English literature there is much "brawn" to chew upon. However, for some readers, Oxford Days might appear to be too much of "a mêlée of thoughts" to peruse the entire gallery. After making several trips through the mêlée and studying every part, I would love to meet this talented writer and converse, tutorial fashion, about Oxford, pobblers, and "dancing on the rim of hell."

[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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