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Coming Up to Oxbridge : The True Ivory Tower : UP AT OXFORD, By Ved Mehta (W. W. Norton: $25; 432 pp.)

January 16, 1994|Carter Revard | Carter Revard is a 1952 Rhodes Scholar (Oklahoma and Merton). His book of poems, "An Eagle Nation," was published by the University of Arizona Press last year

This seventh volume of Ved Mehta memoirs tells of his Oxford years (1956-59). Having made his way from India to Arkansas, where he attended a school for the blind, he then by brilliance, charm and drive earned a degree with honors from Pomona College. His dream, though, was to go on to Oxford and (if he could take first-class honors there) to become a great academic or a great political figure. Unable to compete for a Rhodes Scholarship (his blindness prevented his fulfilling the athletic requirements), he would not accept the mere Harvard alternative that was offered him. In 1956, he did get himself accepted to study for a degree at Balliol--one of the oldest and most intellectually prestigious of Oxford colleges, though slightly less venerable and distinguished than Merton College--and took an honors degree at Oxford, though I leave it to readers to find out whether of first or second class.

Fascinating, discreetly but tartly gossipy, glinting with fun but darkened by tragedy, Mehta's book shows us a 1950s Oxford both like and very different from Evelyn Waugh's 1920s version. Not possessed by the green-eyed Muse or Tiresias-like genius of Waugh, Mehta gives us nicer orgies and more scholarly debates, more learned dons and fewer hearty (or noble) dunces. Mehta's golden lads and lasses fight for places in a world of ideas, in ivory towers as well as country places, castles, courts or ministries. His laughter is gentler than Waugh's, white-toothed but not going for the jugular--sometimes, indeed, almost too gentle, reminding one of what Pope said of Joseph Addison, that he would "just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike." He is less concerned to expose naked emperors than to catch brilliant minds darting or hovering like hummingbirds.

We are shown the intellectual achievements, the scholarly integrity of the students and teachers he encountered; along the way he gives, also, a warm-toned and delicately nuanced account of his parents--traditional mother, generous and trusting father--and the dark comedy of their European tour before he came up to Oxford. The ironic relations between paternal India and filial England itch like a rash beneath his dinner-jacketed narrative, and he shows how many of the brilliant careers he chronicles end with suicide: "We poets in our youth begin in gladness," as Wordsworth said, "but thereof come in the end despondency and madness." With funny stories enough for David Letterman or Dick Cavett, this is no nostalgia trip but a serious and richly detailed account of getting into, through, and safe viewing distance away from one of the world's great universities in the middle of the 20th Century.

Master of lucid narrative, Mehta makes us companions on this journey to Oxford, the first entry into his Balliol rooms, all the chill and gloom and strangeness of that intimidating day, then the struggle to find his place, to decide just what he wanted to study during his two years there (a painfully comic affair), to choose a tutor and make the special arrangements needed for him as a blind student--readers, amanuenses, the labyrinthine walks and Byzantine ways of college, university and town. Cheerful and offhand in tone, polished and practiced in technique, his stories conjure the Oxford of 1956 onto the page--the feel of it, the voices, follies and fun of its students in their absurd black gowns, their arguing, drinking, gossiping. He takes us inside the elite "debate" clubs, lets us hear the absurd and brilliant discussions, witness the snobs and slobs, arties and hearties among the undergraduates. He takes us into tutorials with eccentric and deeply learned teachers, tells us what he had to do in writing his essays on Anglo-Saxon or Cromwellian questions.

The Beat Generation was thumbing roads not taken, and the Tripsters were limbo-dancing toward us just below the horizon. Mehta tells of a reading by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso at the Oxford University Labour Club: It was tough enough for Ginsberg's unzipped poetry to impress such buttoned-down metricians, but when Corso got up and dithy-Ramboed to those ban-the-bombers his paean to the Hydrogen Bomb, they took off their shoes and threw them at him--then retrieved them and walked out on the reading. Ah well, they expelled Shelley once--and in 1992 the Oxford Student Union would applaud Ronald Reagan!

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