Some of the happiest times in Paul West's life were spent as a student at Oxford University in the mid-20th century. It was there that he launched his literary career as a poet. Now a prolific and distinguished author, he has published 22 works of fiction and 14 works of nonfiction, including autobiographies and literary criticism. In his new memoir Oxford Days: An Inclination, West describes the famous institution as a "mellifluous beehive, a whirligig of amateur fascinations." Engaging and insightful, the memoir presents a defining period in the author's life, a time that grew out of his upbringing by a father who was seriously disabled in World War I and an extraordinarily talented mother who taught music. The piano in their home was in use for as much as 10 hours a day, West remembers. His mother had an exquisite knowledge of grammar, and she gave him a grammar book as soon as he could read.
All this was wonderful preparation for the intellectual challenges Oxford would present. West hardly believed his supervisor John Sparrow when the latter described the value and meaning of the Oxford experience. "At Oxford [Sparrow told him] 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 indestructible inner resources in after-years. He was right," West writes. "Oxford had, still has, a kind of permanent Zeitgeist, indefinable but unmistakable."
While there, along with budding writers Donald Hall, George Steiner and the poet Elizabeth Jannings, West contributed to a poetry collection that was reviewed in glowing terms in the Times Literary Supplement. West gives us a sense of what makes the university distinctive, from its language, to its religious aspects, to its food and smells. His fond tribute to this venerable institution offers abundant riches to the reader.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.