Tuesday, January 13, 2009

`Wry, Ironical, Guarded'

Only rarely has D.J. Enright’s name shown up at Anecdotal Evidence and for that I apologize. He was a model of sorts for this blog and for a life in writing, a thoroughly decent man, civilized, without pretensions, of necessity opposed to the drift of his time. He was, perhaps, the last man of letters in the old sense – poet, novelist, critic, memoirist, translator, teacher – and died on New Year’s Eve 2002 at age 82. The following November, Paul Dean published “Writing for Antiquity: the Ironies of D.J. Enright,” in which he distills Enright’s charm as a writer:

“He cultivated a doggedly unfashionable persona and quoted with approval Charles Lamb’s reaction to an editorial letter of rejection: `Damn the age! I will write for Antiquity.’”

Dean thinks less of Enright’s poetry than I. Here’s a favorite, a self-portrait-in-disguise, “Dreaming in the Shanghai Restaurant”:

"I would like to be that elderly Chinese gentleman.
He wears a gold watch with a gold bracelet,
But a shirt without sleeves or tie.
He has good luck moles on his face, but is not disfigured with fortune.
His wife resembles him, but is still a handsome woman,
She has never bound her feet or her belly.
Some of the party are his children, it seems,
And some his grandchildren;
No generation appears to intimidate another.
He is interested in people, without wanting to convert them or pervert them.
He eats with gusto, but not with lust;
And he drinks, but is not drunk.
He is content with his age, which has always suited him.
When he discusses a dish with the pretty waitress,
It is the dish he discusses, not the waitress
The table-cloth is not so clean as to show indifference,
Not so dirty as to signify a lack of manners.
He proposes to pay the bill but knows he will not be allowed to.
He walks to the door like a man who doesn't fret about being respected, since he is;
A daughter or granddaughter opens the door for him,
And he thanks her.
It has been a satisfying evening. Tomorrow
Will be a satisfying morning. In between he will sleep satisfactorily.
I guess that for him it is peace in his time.
It would be agreeable to be this Chinese gentleman.”

Enright spent much of his teaching life outside England, in Egypt, Japan, Thailand and Singapore. His sensibility seems to have been very English but, like Kipling and Empson, peculiarly open to other cultures – thus, the Chinese gentleman. He was prolific, and picking a favorite among his books is a challenge. In the U.S., his best known volume is probably The Alluring Problem: An Essay on Irony (1986). I favor The Collected Poems: 1948-1998 and his three final, unclassifiable books: Interplay: A Kind of Commonplace Book (1995), Play Resumed: A Journal (1999), and the posthumously published Injury Time: A Memoir (2003). Here’s Dean’s description:

“Part journal, part anthology, part essay, part newspaper scrapbook, part collection of aphorisms, with some poems thrown in too, their unity is one of tone and personality: the tone wry, ironical, guarded, with melancholy never far away and the shadow of Death looming with increasing menace over the last book; the personality complex, playful and somber at once, in the manner of Montaigne or Robert Burton, both of whom Enright admired. Their style is oblique, compact, often epigramatic, full of sudden shifts of subject or perspective.”

When I said at the start that Enright was “a model of sorts,” these are some of the qualities I had in mind. We can think of him as another proto-blogger, like Montaigne, Thoreau and Ruskin. We could use his gentleness, toughness and formidable learning in the blogosphere. I was moved to finally write about him as I started reading Duncan Wu’s recently published William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man. Both men turned journalism into an art form. What Wu says of Hazlitt – “From an early age he was a citizen of the world.” and “…called upon for the smallest contribution to a newspaper column, he would give generously of his talents to produce something unique, amusing, and thought-provoking.” -- is likewise true of Enright.


Levi Stahl said...

Glad to learn that you're an Enright fan, too. His three commonplace books/journals are great favorites of mine, and I've also received countless hours of pleasure from the anthologies he edited for Oxford, the books of death and the supernatural being my favorites.

{And I've been considering that Hazlitt bio--that one line may be enough to convince me to pick it up.}

Mr Bleaney said...

For something "wry" and "ironical" by Enright, take a look at the poem "No Offence" - his view of post-war Germany. (A disclaimer: I take no position on the views expressed in the poem, and have no axe to grind against Germany or Germans.) I came across the poem in Larkin's Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, which may not be surprising, given Larkin's sense of humor.