The recent election of the new Chancellor of Oxford University—or was it the prospect of another July undisturbed by fireworks?—reminded me of the letter I received from a Cambridge friend last summer, when I was living in Oxford. I quote it with minor deletions.
“Warm greetings to the Latin Quarter of Morris-Cowley, and happy Fourth of July. I hope you are celebrating. My own preference lies more with the Third than the Fourth of July, for I think it more American to be preparing for tomorrow than to celebrate yesterday. Nonetheless, I shall both prepare and celebrate next week if you tell me that you are coming to Cambridge, which you should do.
“According to Vladimir Nabokov, who came up in 1919 by way of the Crimea and Creece, the residual property of Cambridge, ‘which many a solemn alumnus has tried to define,’ is the constant awareness one has ‘of an untrammelled extension of time.’ The same feeling did not escape me at Oxford, so I attribute the difference between the two to other things. Henry James maintained that ‘a stray savage is not in the least obliged to know the difference,’ but a difference there is, and I am curious to hear what Andrei Navrozov will make of it.
“My views on the matter are definite. No amount of development will ever make of Cambridge more than a village, whereas Oxford is a steamy industrial Gehenna between 9 and 5. Oxford without Oxford would still be Oxford, but Cambridge without Cambridge would be nothing. In fact, for us of the gown and for them of the town, Cambridge is everything. This is not to conclude, by extension, since they are indeed different, that Oxford is nothing. In fact, we are quite willing to concede that Oxford is something. But what? I think it typical of the uncertainty in that question that one should see everywhere the signs of Oxford trying to prove that she, like Cambridge, is also everything. What else could account for the unseemly phenomenon that greets one’s eyes on walking into any bookshop. The Oxford Book of Science, The Oxford Book of Art, The Oxford Book of Edible Funghi, Tudor Carols, Quechua Verse . . . The Oxford Book of Oxford! I was told that there were even plans for The Oxford Book of Cambridge, but that this was discarded as giving the game away. My dear Andrei, it is as if God had given us the Universe, and created Oxford to keep track of it. Which is just as well, for had he given it to Cambridge it would have been returned as either unnecessary, insufficient, absurd, or much too flashy. Whence undoubtedly proceeds the opinion that at Oxford people walk in the street looking as if they owned it, whereas at Cambridge they walk in the street looking as if they didn’t care who owned it. . . .
“But do come and participate in these delights. I shall try to arrange nice weather.”
The stability of the Oxonocentric universe was put to the test in March as Roy Jenkins, described by my vitriolic Sussex friend Martin Seymour-Smith as “a claret-swilling sentimentalist,” became the university’s new chancellor. The four-way election was bitterly contested, greatly politicized, and widely publicized, with Lord Blake (who would have been endorsed by this magazine’s editors had they not been too busy clearing the intellectual swamp in the colonies) pitted against Edward Heath (the “wet” Conservative Prime Minister deposed by Thatcher), Mark Payne (a 34-year-old “alternative candidate” who displayed his campaign poster reading “Ecce Marcus Payne: Eligendus Est” outside the Sheldonian), and Jenkins (founder, with David Owen and others, of the SDP and a former Labor “minister of sanitation or something like that,” as Seymour-Smith remembered it). With thousands of alumni converging on Oxford, Castell’s, the High Street tailor, had an “unprecedented” run on gowns, selling out of its £55 model in synthetic fiber and only a few in Russell cord (£99) or pure wool (£125) remaining. The Randolph Hotel was fully booked, its restaurant (as the maitre d’ was reported to have put it) “full of sirs and lords.” The Sunday Times ran a sententia in Latin.
Yet what, in reality, is Oxford? Perhaps to capitalize on the enormous election publicity, Oxford University Press began bringing out its ubiquitous “Oxford Books” in paperback, “at less than a fiver each,” and I would like to use the remaining space to review the first four arrivals: The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, The Oxford Book of Dreams, The Oxford Book of Death, and The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. OUP may not be Oxford, but it too has a “genuine” Gothic facade.
Vasily Rozanov, perhaps the subtlest of all Russian writers, once counted 20 overshoes in the hall of his flat, concluding with pride that he was able to feed 10 mouths, “including servants,” by his thoughts alone. Rozanov, who is quoted twice in The Oxford Book of Aphorisms—compared with 17 times for Anatole France and 10 for Sigmund Freud—abhorred the very notion of “literature” and never wrote anything but “thoughts.” To suppose that the Western reader, considerably less aware of this writer’s achievement in 1987 than he was in 1929, when 750 copies of Fallen Leaves were published by James Stephens at the Mandrake Press, may notice and understand two of Rozanov’s thoughts served up as “aphorisms” is sheer folly. In the pages of The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, the obscure are doomed to obscurity.
Freud, on the other hand, is a “famous name” whose prominence in a book such as this is ipso facto assured. “The principal task of civilisation,” runs one of the good doctor’s apothegms, “is to defend us against nature.” Startling, is it not? One suspects that the same quotation will some day delight the readers of The Oxford Book of Nature, The Oxford Book of Civilization, and The Oxford Book of Tasks, among other useful compilations OUP may be contemplating. Likewise, Anatole France need not worry: Even if OUP decides to bring out a frankly commercial title like The Oxford Book of Sex, a line or two of his, no matter how trite, will doubtless be included. For instance: “Of all sexual aberrations, chastity is the strangest.”
Even if not motivated by misplaced commercial considerations, OUP’s obsessive anthologizing borders on the absurd. If one likes Wordsworth, one has certainly read The Prelude and need not buy The Oxford Book of Dreams to savour “the language of the dream” which the poet learned at Cambridge. If one dislikes Wordsworth, finding the relevant passage categorized as “Travel and the Natural World” under the rubric “Earthly Things,” next to the rather enigmatic “Gladness of mind shows that you will live abroad” from The Oneirocriticon by Astrampsychus, c. A.D. 350, will probably do little to change one’s mind. For whom, then, are these books?
There are, to be sure, writers so quotable their oeuvre begs to be parceled into small lots: One thinks of Wilde, La Bruyere, Karl Kraus, and five or six others. (Even so, why not read them, as it were, “in the original”?) But Proust? William James? George Herbert? Surely, to gouge out of the body of Dostoevsky’s work an “aphorism” like “The formula ‘two and two make five’ is not without its attractions” is a senseless act of editorial brutality. It is all the more painful to see such acts committed with the sole aim of “popularizing” a variety of readily available cultural commodities.
D.J. Enright is a brilliant anthologist by divine vocation, as well as one of the most amusing writers around, but even he seems unable to breathe life into The Oxford Book of Death. Yet here, at least, the editor’s introductions to each of the chapters, if not the book itself, may be well worth the cover price. Finally, there is The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. Its premise is clear, its contents suitably highbrow, and those who feel the need to enliven their conversation during the evening commute to Tunbridge Wells would certainly do better telling stories about famous writers than intimidating their companions with all those aphorisms, dreams, and thoughts of death.