Paul West's schooldays.
Apr 14, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 30 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
PAUL WEST came up to Oxford as a raw young man in the late 1940s, prepared to be burdened with the hoary weight of centuries and made drunk with the lingering vapors of greatness that waft out through cobbled lanes once frequented by Thomas More, Dr. Johnson, and John Henry Newman. For some, nothing could seem more oppressive. But for West, who was to become a respected author, going up was exhilarating. The son of a tradesman, he was not to the manor born. But, as Edith Sitwell once told him, "Oxford will make you reach beyond yourself and be something in this world." In "Oxford Days: An Inclination," he ruminates upon what he gained there.
Oxford memoirs can be, as a genre, tiresome. They're typically about privileged people telling other privileged people inside jokes that don't strike most of us as all that funny. But we join him in his wonder. Before going up, West was enthralled with the romantic's intoxicated sense of the place. He longed for the "pipe-dream." He wanted
gowns, candies, roaring fires; all clergymen who played squash; rosy-tinted libraries in which ancient scholars hung fire; deer, ducks, and bells; ramshackle bicycles called "grids"; quads, scouts, and bullers, dark blue boat races, huge arriving cabin trunks full of brand-new Irish linens; marmalade and porridge for breakfast, old stones and older tombstones, chamberpots atop the martyrs' memorial; Shelley, Waugh, Aldous Huxley, Pater and Sir Thomas Browne; port wine, multicolored scarves, furrowed Balliol brows, porter's lodges, and that interior yellow glow of evening lamps discerned by an adolescent cycling by with Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his pocket, unseen by the elect at their oaken benches as they sat in the laps of the Middle Ages to get their fill of Greats.
West wanted, in short, "all of old Oxenford." He would get less, and more.
Standing out from all the evocative and quaint anecdotes recounted in this book is the memory of West's famous supervisor at All Souls, John Sparrow, escorting him down the stairs and outside to the street to see his protégé on his short walk along the High to Lincoln College. "This gesture or stance of his," writes West, "impressed me no end as a badge of Oxford's gentility: none of your rough-and-ready bonhomie from the outside world, but a cloistered amenity that did not really want to part with you and so watched you dwindle away after a lively conversation." At Oxford, he notes, "whatever else you are doing, you are unwittingly absorbing something unique and choice--a sense of the unfailing caliber of mental things, providing you with indestructible inner resources in after-years."
These benefits, though, were not limited to the life of the mind. They enhanced the soul. This was a place, after all, where change-ringing bells--in his first days an annoyance to West, who chafed under the duties of religion--reminded all of "a higher service than mere thought." Although examinations had to be passed, essays vetted, and theses approved, Oxford was not about knowledge alone. It was about becoming something other and, one hoped, better. It was about becoming the sort of man the world could, and should, admire. But how did this metamorphosis occur? West never tells us directly. Perhaps it can't be told explicitly. But he puts us on the scent.
Arriving with the generation of George Steiner and Donald Hall, West began his time routinely. His entrance examination was a fairly straightforward affair, an exercise in "enchanting the converted." "The Fellows of the Colleges wanted to know what I knew and could do, . . . not what I didn't and couldn't." From the beginning, he endured the Spartan side of the ancient seat of learning, where one would spend most of the year shivering, standard heating not yet being standard. And his college's cuisine was often less than haute: "Lincoln's main kitchen was built in the early fifteenth century and sometimes smelled like it." Grandeur doesn't always mean glamour.