A Don in the World


by C.M. Bowra
Harvard, 369 pp., $7.95

Maurice Bowra
Maurice Bowra; drawing by David Levine

When I was twenty, I was more scared of “Maurice Bowra” than I have been of any other human being before or since. He appeared as an accusing figure in a nightmare and when, while I was traveling with my father in Yugoslavia, we unexpectedly ran into him, I was so petrified that I could not remember his name. Behind my fear, of course, lay envy. To the youth I then was, uncertain of himself, gauche, shy, and, therefore, brash, he embodied all those qualities, social poise, elegance, wit, worldliness, which I most longed to possess and despaired of ever possessing. For an intellectual undergraduate of my generation—in those days we were called aesthetes—to belong to “Maurice’s” circle was to be “in.” I was not “in,” but dearly wished I could be. Those who did belong, Harold Acton, Brian Howard, Cyril Connolly, John Betjeman, John Sparrow, Isaiah Berlin, to mention only a few, highly individual though each of them was, all possessed, I think, one trait in common. At an age when most young men are floundering about, they were already formed characters, that is to say, their interests, their outlook on the world, their manner of gesture and speech, were already what they would remain for the rest of their lives. The one I knew best, since we were exact contemporaries, was John Betjeman, and he made the kind of impression on me which I imagine Max Beerbohm must have made on Oxford Undergraduates in the 1890s.

Most of them, like Sir Maurice himself, exemplified, and still do, the truth of Logan Pearsall Smith’s aphorism: “Hearts that are delicate and kind and tongues that are neither—these make the finest company in the world.”

For such persons, writing an autobiography presents special problems. In private, among their intimates, they are accustomed to making devastating remarks about others, which are remembered and cherished for years by those who know them. On the printed page, however, it is impossible for a reader who does not know the author personally to tell whether such a remark is made in a spirit of imaginative play or out of sheer malevolence. It is enormously to Sir Maurice’s credit that Memories is not quite so entertaining a book as it would have been, were he a cad, like George Moore, instead of being one of the most decent of men. For example, those of us who still remember what people said and how they behaved when E. R. Dodds was appointed to the Regius Chair of Greek—Sir Maurice was one of the candidates—cannot help being disappointed by his admirable reticence which only permits him to say: “The whole issue was discussed in Oxford with an embarrassing degree of frankness, and various conjectures and criticisms appeared in the Press, while local busy-bodies tried to pull strings.” I cannot resist quoting one scrap of dialogue from the time.


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