Memories of his Oxford days past

Travel writing is a category filled with subsets and divisions, but there are two principal modes. The first is that of discovery -- a voyager sets out to find a place that he or she has never been and that is difficult to reach. Often such a journey has been planned or at least prepared for; often it's a function of happy accident, a being blown off course into adventures in a region rich and strange. Almost by definition, however, this sort of exploration reports on the distant and unfamiliar -- it brings back the news from abroad.

The second is that of recovery: an account of a landscape the writer knows well. It may be the town or village in which he or she was born; it may be a chosen locale (think of Peter Mayle in Provence or Frances Mayes in Tuscany). This sort of travel story reports on a beloved place that's less a function of distant space than a traversal of the fourth dimension, time. "I had a farm in Africa," the opening line of Isak Dinesen's "Out of Africa," suggests that the writer is no longer local and must, via memory, return.

"Oxford Revisited" by Justin Cartwright attempts to fuse the two. As the title suggests, he knew the destination once and now returns to it; there's more than a buried echo of that most famous of Oxford-based novels powered by the blend of snobbery and nostalgia, "Brideshead Revisited." Part of a Bloomsbury series called "The Writer and the City," Cartwright's book discourses on place and time; as he announces early on, "it is not so much about the City of Oxford as the University of Oxford. The two are anyway inseparable in my mind."

More a memoir than a travelogue, this text tells us nothing about Oxford "the City" and not much about Oxford the university, except insofar as it pertains to Cartwright's past. He arrived as a young man from South Africa and now, as an aging litterateur, reports on the scene of his youth. We learn no history of the early years or founding principles of the ancient institution; we acquire little detail about the great men and intellectual movements of centuries gone by. Isaiah Berlin more or less begins this tale, since he was a vital presence in the author's apprenticeship, and there are passing evocations of such figures as John Betjeman, C.M. Bowra and W.H. Auden.

Mostly, however, this is a lyric paean to the magic of being a student, the pleasures of the library and tutorial system and drinking bouts. If the reader does not share these particular passions, this may be a hard sell.

"Where the believer sees an astonishing mix of honeyed buildings, breathing its accumulated wisdom gently, the agnostic sees smugness and reaction and damp, unfit accommodation." Cartwright situates himself unabashedly in the former camp.

"Oxford is many things," he assures us. "But it has a symbolic meaning well beyond its buildings, gardens, rituals and teaching. It stands for something deep in the Anglo-Saxon mind -- excellence, a kind of privilege, a charmed life, deep-veined liberalism, a respect for tradition."

That respect for tradition and deep-veined liberalism is everywhere manifest here.


Delbanco is the Robert Frost distinguished university professor at the University of Michigan. His most recent collection of essays is "Anywhere Out of the World."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World