Malcolm Bowie on the shimmer of transcendence

  • A Mania for Sentences by D.J. Enright
    Chatto, 211 pp, £12.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2662 0
  • The Mirror of Criticism: Selected Reviews 1977-1982 by Gabriel Josipovici
    Harvester, 181 pp, £16.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 7108 0499 7
  • In the Age of Prose: Literary and Philosophical Essays by Erich Heller
    Cambridge, 268 pp, £20.00, January 1984, ISBN 0 521 25493 0

As I begin to write this, innumerable other reviews are being born. Some are being word-processed in paper-free offices, others handwritten in the Club lounges of intercontinental jets and others still dictated over breakfast on luminous southern terraces. But the reviewer I feel closest to is the lonely midnight scribbler – aching for his bed, dreaming of his cheque and as familiar with his emerging sentences as a ploughman is with his latest furrow. Not for this fellow the long-nursed grievance finding outlet at last in a venomous tirade; not for him the careful think-piece upon which a career may depend, or the glittering parade of witticisms, or the tessitura of erudite references. The night is too short and tomorrow already belongs to another review. What I like most about this companionable creature is his readiness, once his column inches have passed briefly before the public gaze, to bid each of his reviews farewell. Not only does he not impede their journey into oblivion, but he thinks of ephemeral things as having their own dignity. And he will be puzzled and saddened, I like to imagine, by attempts to arrest the flux in which his editors, his readers, his copy and himself are borne along. The turning of reviews into books will particularly appal him. Why place a preservation order upon l’écume des jours? Why delude oneself into thinking a Temple to Minerva can be built from the columns and capitals of periodical literature?

It was at a late point in a long tradition that Lionel Trilling found for the collected volume of reviews a resonant generic name: A Gathering of Fugitives. But although the genre has been sanctified by such outstanding books as Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation or Stuart Hampshire’s Modern Writers, compilations of this kind still often have something raffish and opportunistic about them. And nowhere do they more plainly invite suspicion than in the titles they bear. A Mania for Sentences, The Mirror of Criticism, In the Age of Prose... the titles hover between modesty and grandeur, as Trilling’s did and as do the books themselves. ‘More words about words, for those who have a taste for such amusements,’ each artisan-author says. ‘But perhaps writing is all that we have left, in which case the Book of the World must have its Reviewer,’ each of them counter-suggests. But no matter that the desire to find a unifying ground for one’s fugitive pages should protest a little too much in the present titles. For each of the books is informed by an inventive critical intelligence and each of them is as powerfully reorganised by the author’s obsessions as it is disorganised by all that is accidental and improvisatory about the reviewer’s calling.

In discussing ‘foreign’ literature, as all three authors mostly do, they write not simply against the parochial grain of contemporary English culture but often with sustained exogamous passion. Enright’s reviews are more conspicuously abroad thoughts from home than Josipovici’s or Heller’s, and ‘the British reader’, named or implied, is often summoned up and flattered as a necessary moderating agency in a world where foreign (and in particular German) writers have a seemingly innate tendency to fret their brains with metaphysics or with ungainly questions of historical truth. At such moments Enright clothes his writing in tweeds and brogues and begins to sound like J.B. Priestley at the wartime microphone: ‘In their new books’ Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll ‘have both turned into what in my childhood were called “worrits”. Since we can worry well enough for ourselves, and in any case lack no assistance or guidance from newspapers and television, this may strike us as supererogatory. However, these two are at least distinguished worrits.’ A few more blimpish steps in this direction and these wretched foreign fretters will have become blighters and bounders too. Yet how enthusiastic and unpatronising he can also be, and how tender towards each author’s idiosyncrasies.

Enright’s brief portraits of Goethe, Heine, Mann, Brecht, Flaubert, Hasek and numerous others are sprinkled with biographical curiosities, but derive their entertaining animation mainly from his sense of each writer as a distinctive intelligence inquisitively and acquisitively about its business. For a man who emerges, in his many reviews of books about language, as a caustic moderate, he has an engaging respect for artists of over-reaching imaginative or linguistic ambition. On the ‘brilliant, speculative and untiring’ mind of Musil as displayed in The Man Without Qualities, for example, he concludes: ‘Yet, as we expect novels to have a conclusion, so we expect thinkers to arrive at conclusions. The truth may well be that Musil couldn’t end his novel because he hadn’t arrived at his conclusions, he was still inching ruthlessly towards them when he died. If he had arrived – ah, then we should have more than merely a great novel, we should possess the great secret of life,’ The ‘ruthlessly’ is a typically fine and unenvying Enright tribute: a tribute paid by one who labours fitfully, hemmed in by deadlines and word-limits, to one whose work with words seems to have been an enchanted journey from one fiercely intelligent act to the next. It is liberating to see ‘the British reader’s’ complacencies dissolve in this way as Enright is drawn into his authors’ alien mental worlds. He is an omnivore among reviewers and has his own... if not ruthlessness then at least energetic persistence in discovering new opportunities for pleasure. Add to this a tone that is at once knowing and baffled, a wise irreverence (Goethe ‘failed to conceal his belief that the world was his oyster’) and a refusal to seek the last word on anything at all, and you have a delightful compendium of sentences brought back from the brink of that limbo in which the uncollected 99 per cent of reviews written circulate for ever.

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