Tuesday, July 14, 2015

`An Impoverishment of One's Life'

Commonplace books kept by industrious readers are literary Wunderkammern, cabinets of bookish wonders that sometimes stand as a reader’s truest autobiography. In his final years, D.J. Enright (1920-2002) published three of them:  Interplay: A Kind of Commonplace Book (1995), Play Resumed: A Journal (1999), and Injury Time: A Memoir (2003). I read them all about five years ago but part of the attraction is their almost immediate rereadability. No reader can remember everything, and entering passages from a commonplace book into one’s own commonplace book is a little too postmodern for my taste. It’s sufficient to linger in the company of a writer as well-read and charming as Enright.

The introduction to Injury Time, published posthumously, was written by John Gross, who died in 2011, deepening one’s return to the book and lending it a retroactively elegiac cast. Gross says of Enright: “His gift is best summed up by the little word `wit’ – a word, like `sex,’ that often seems too small for the burdens it has to carry. At its best, without losing its power to amuse, it means understanding, insight, a sense of irony, an ability to make connections” – qualities abundant in Gross’ own work. Among the passages I didn’t remember is Enright’s reading of “Green: An Epistle” (Millions of Strange Shadows, 1977) by Anthony Hecht who died in 2004. He quotes Hecht saying, in his book-length interview with Philip Hoy, “our capacity to think well of ourselves is versatile to the point of monstrosity.” Enright adds: “Pride can disguise itself as humility; we can quietly pride ourselves on our quietness on this score, on what we choose to see as our modest and unassuming character.” Enright then takes on one of Pascal’s Pensées cited by Hecht: Le moi est haïssable. He warns:

“In the absence of God, the self – detestable but unmistakably there – is all we have. (Go carefully if it invades your writing, as it will).”

A good core sample of Enright’s method, if it can be called anything so formal and systematic, is his epigraph page, which offers quotations from Dr. Johnson, Walter Savage Landor, Robert Burton, Ben Jonson and, rather discordantly in such company, Susan Sontag. Here is the Landor line, from “Archdeacon Hare and Walter Landor” (The Last Fruit of an Old Tree, 1853): “Next in criminality to him who violates the laws of his country, is he who violates the language.” The casual debasement of language is one of Enright’s pet themes – “peeves” would be misleading because it implies curmudgeonly grievance, a stance foreign to his nature. Bad writing disappoints him and he pokes fun at it, frequently toying with clichés but without sermonizing:

“The ageing scribbler feels glum. He tells himself: Your raison d'être has disappeared. But then, it occurs to him, his d'être is about to disappear. This cheers him up, briefly.”

Three times in Injury Time Enright alludes to poems by C.H. Sisson, who died in 2003. On Page 1, Enright writes: “C.H. Sisson has a poem, `Looking at Old Note-Books,’ which begins: `It would seem that I thought, / At that time, more than I ought.’ No danger of that here; this is a new notebook. Later in the poem: `There was the London Library / Doing its best to confuse me.’ That doesn’t apply either, except that the Library lifts confuse me and the stairs forbid. An impoverishment of one’s life.”

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