The Magazine

Himself When Young

An American novelist on his formative years at Oxford.

Jul 20, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 41 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Ardent Spirits

Leaving Home, Coming Back

by Reynolds Price

Scribner, 416 pp., $35

A quarter century ago, in the midst of what had been a rich life of writing and teaching, Reynolds Price suffered a devastating spinal cancer whose treatment by radiation and surgery left him wheelchair-bound and deeply depressed. He was given 18 months to live; but happily the prognosis was wildly premature, and he has since enjoyed a triumphant increase of artistic powers. And it continues. As if in compensation, that drastic encounter with illness opened doors of memory and inspired a triptych of distinguished memoirs.

Ardent Spirits, the latest, is about his experiences at Oxford (1955-58). The preceding volume, A Whole New Life, described his struggle with pain, physical and emotional, and the spiritual vision and professional rededication that attended it. It is a classic of a difficult genre.

The "ardent spirits" in this latest volume are obviously figurative. He was intrigued to hear a guide at Monticello say that while Jefferson preferred fine wines, he kept ardent spirits (distilled liquors) for guests. These spirits are his hosts of friends from the Oxford years and later, none more ardent than Price himself.

Oxford, a place of physical power and haunting memories, is famously challenging to write about. One who seeks its inward texture must contest very articulate forerunners--for instance Edward Gibbon, who wrote several versions of his autobiography. Gibbon came to Magdalen College as a teenager, became a Catholic convert, and was quickly snatched away to Geneva by his father for Calvinist reprogramming. But not before he unforgettably deplored the "monks of Oxford, steeped in port and prejudice," an immortal phrase stamped on the mind of every word-conscious Oxonian. Gibbon's successors are legion and include Cardinal Newman, whose poignant farewell to the snapdragons of Trinity College is as indelible as the "dull and deep potations" of Gibbon's dons.

Reynolds Price's recollection of the Oxford of 50 years ago are, however, in a way atypical--less concerned than others have been with the textures of place. Price is not especially haunted by the misty fogs and buildings of the aged city--encrusted, in his time and mine, by a century of industrial soot. It is true that he lived for a year in Mob Quad at Merton College, reputedly the oldest such structure in the university. There is, of course, some routine grumbling about plumbing and heating.

In Price's day, Oxford maintained the amusing conceit that students--even green transatlantic visitors--should be treated as friends and peers. Price obviously took advantage of that conceit. Ardent Spirits is crowded with detailed, often amusing, pen portraits of the university's personalities.

One lacks space for much of this rich vein, but one or two examples may give the flavor: Lord David Cecil, who directed his BLitt thesis on Milton: "[I]n a lifetime's acquaintance with world-class talkers, I've known no other conversationalist who equaled David Cecil." Or W. H. Auden, who came twice a year to lecture as professor of poetry: "Even in his relaxed moments .  .  . coming to the end of our first half-quart of martinis, he'd fall silent for two long draws on his endless cigarettes; and in the brief silence .  .  . I could hear his great mind turning like the wheels of a vast locomotive."

Later, after his return to the United States, there was a snapshot viewing of Edmund Wilson at work on his Civil War book, Patriotic Gore: "(Wilson .  .  . for me had the almost transparent physical air of an ancient Chinese sage with tiny expressive hands and a tendency to talk straight forward into the air as though none of us was present.)"

Price, indeed, seems to have had a genius for notable encounters, unlikely eminences sometimes turning up briefly in the lanes of Oxford (Nikita Khrushchev) or in their dressing rooms at Stratford (Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh) or reciting tales of personal humiliation at small London dinners (John Gielgud) or being fetched for Rhodes House receptions (Robert Frost).