A Life in Four Cities

By Peter Conrad

Poseidon. 252 pp. $18.95

Peter Conrad is a professor of English at Oxford, a native of Tasmania who left that distant island as a teenager and is now in his early forties. By birth, by education and by deliberate choice he is a citizen of the world: not merely a person of multicultural connections, but also one who has chosen to establish residence in no fewer than four cities. "Where I Fell to Earth" is the story of his life in those places: Oxford, London, New York and Lisbon.

Each of them fills a distinct role. Oxford is where he works; London is the great metropolis to which he can quickly and easily escape; Lisbon is where he summers in "a perpetuation of childhood"; New York is where the man of words and books encounters -- or at least observes -- life in the raw. In none of these places is his domicile even remotely lavish; it is to the places themselves, rather than his accommodations in them, that Conrad is drawn, and he writes far more often of the sights he sees outside his windows than of what he does behind them. To wit:

"Outside the windows, everything moves: In London, the spearing and splashing of rain or the bluster of reflected clouds or the dive-bombing raids of sparrows on the look-out for crumbs; in Oxford, tour-guides administering their flocks with umbrellas and crowds filing in and out of the cathedral for the incessant, repetitious routine of prayer; in Lisbon, maids flailing rugs on the balconies, the knife-sharpener striking sparks from the grindstone attached to the back of his bike, the drivers employed by the Zaire embassy languidly polishing a patch of chrome; in New York the world hurtles by with sirens keening, tires screeching, and the blaring expletives of car horns."

Perhaps it is not surprising that the last of the four is the city that seems to engage Conrad's interest and imagination most intensely. New York and America: Intellectuals from the other side of the ocean find the pull of them irresistible, drawn as they are by the energy and vulgarity that they see as the essence of the new-found land. That their fascination with America is mixed with contempt is indisputable, but in Conrad's case the former outweighs the latter.

The "local religion," Conrad says of the United States, is "manifest destiny": the conviction that "we are all jogging or dancing or singing or weight-lifting our way towards heaven." Later he notes "two aspects of America: its nostalgia for an infantile past against its relentless manufacture of the future." In both cases he is right; a longing for simple solutions and a simpler past is essential to the American character, yet it is this same American who is forever looking into, and attempting to control, the complicated and unknown future.

Of his three other cities, Conrad is at his best when writing about Oxford. His affection for Lisbon is so great that he seems unable to view the city with the same hard edge he brings to the other places. As for London, he never really manages to convey to the reader any particular sense of his life there -- it is the one city where he seems more interested in what goes on in his odd little house than he is in what he sees when he peers out through its windows.

In Oxford, though, he paints a poignant picture of himself as he arrived there nearly a quarter-century ago, determined to shake the Tasmanian dust from his feet yet daunted by the challenges the great university town posed. By contrast with the refreshing indifference he encountered in London, "Oxford was to exercise a more alarming power over my life: disapproval, which meant disqualification." Obviously he passed its tests, indeed triumphed over them; but his outsider's perspective on the town is undiluted even after all these years of residence there, and frees him to describe it with affection and gratitude, but wholly without sentimentality.

For all of that, though, the reader comes to the end of "Where I Fell to Earth" wondering what, precisely, is the point of it all. There's plenty of fine writing and sharp observing, but devoid as it is of narrative energy the book finally drifts out of focus. Part of the problem is that Conrad himself remains oddly remote in his own book. He tells us what he sees but only occasionally what he does, in the process silently raising more questions than he answers -- why does he live alone? What does he do when he isn't looking out his windows? Perhaps this is modesty, a desirable quality; but in a book the real subject of which is oneself, the absence of that self is no virtue.