July 2009

Chelsey Philpot

nonfiction

Oxford Revisited: A City Revisited by Justin Cartwright

How much does place shape who we become and, in turn, how much do we reshape place through memory? These are questions novelist Cartwright poses, but never fully answers in his nonfiction ode to the city of Oxford and its University.

Known for his novels such as In Every Face I Meet, Cartwright's latest book is not enough about him to be a memoir. It is too dense with philosophy to be pure travel writing and too peppered with personal anecdotes to be an academic exercise. It is a mixture of many genres, but mostly it is about the history, both his and that of the Oxford University he loves. Many readers will be lost in his erudite references -- if you have not read Brideshead Revisited in the past five years or the philosophy of Isaiah Berlin you can skip whole pages. However, the determined adventurers who can push through the dense passages will be rewarded by beautiful language and descriptions that make you ache, as Cartwright does, with nostalgia.

Cartwright begins by outlining his mission: he is planning to make a number of visits to Oxford both to write this book and to understand how Oxford University shaped him into the man he is today. "A city is of course a place, an accumulation of bricks, glass, architecture and landscape. But more than that it is the sense that these material objects contain its accumulated history." As a young man arriving from South Africa, Cartwright recounts how he was romanced by Oxford even as he still felt himself to be an outsider.

His winding tour of old haunts and Oxford landmarks is interrupted by his memories as well as philosophical ruminations. He pauses to state, "One of the things that has struck me all my adult life is the extraordinary amount of energy that has been wasted on the hope that life has meaning," before moving into a discussion on world and academic politics. Under a less skilled writer, such leaps would be clunky. However, Cartwright manages to meld both grand themes and small observations by remaining unabashedly cerebral even as he discusses drunken girlfriends or the tourist appeal of J. R. R. Tolkien (one of Oxford's celebrated professors).

The writing stumbles only when Cartwright tries to criticize. He briefly presents the problem of Oxford elitism, inequality between its students, and competition among professors. "It is not news that Oxford can be a nest of vipers." But he moves too quickly back to praising its virtues to make his critique convincing. Oxford University's status arises in part because not everyone is allowed into its the kingdom. As much as any other high caliber institution, its allure comes from how privileged few are allowed to be part of its history.

This trip down Oxford's cobblestone streets and narrow passages ways, ultimately, is as much about memory and place as it is about aging and change. Cartwright's disappointment with his middle age appearance in the beginning becomes a romanticization of youth towards the final chapters. By the end, you cannot help but rack your brain for your reminiscences of university or college and agree, "The happiness of youth is blitheness, the sheer physical joy of being young and beautifulů aware, but only theoretically, of what lies ahead."

 

Oxford Revisited: A City Revisited by Justin Cartwright
Bloomsbury USA
ISBN: 1596910933
240 pages

 

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