Dorothy's alter ego

INTERPLAY: A Kind of Commonplace Book by D J Enright, OUP pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
COMMON-PLACE books are a neglected but charming genre. They allow the reader intimate glimpses of an author's mind, before everything has been cleaned up and transformed - often at a cost - into a novel or essay, while for the author, they are a rare chance to behave on the published page as one might in the privacy of a diary.

Because a common-place book is about so many things, its principal subject usually comes to be the author, and Interplay is most appropriately read as a vivid portrait of D J Enright himself. A poet, anthologist, book reviewer, one-time teacher and editor, he poses for the jacket photo with a pipe in his hand, and inside comes across as a loveable, slightly grouchy, brilliantly erudite, melancholic and rather fogeyish type, whom one imagines to be very adept at propping up bars in bookish pubs.

Enright seems to believe that the world has reached a particularly horrific stage of decadence. He detects symptoms of this in a host of areas: in the academic enthusiasm for post-modern theorists, in political correctness, in the popularity of literary biography, and in the decline of proper punctuation and grammar: "Recently I heard an ITN presenter announcing that a poor old person had died of pneumonia caused by emancipation."

A life-long book reviewer and poet, Enright reserves his most caustic reflections for the condition of the literary world. After an extract from Schopenhauer describing its parlous state in 1851, Enright wryly notes, "Some things don't change, but they can always get worse." In a section entitled "Sorrows of an author", he notes that the proofs of his new book have arrived: "The title page attributes the book to D J Wainwright." His editor then cheeringly tells him that his book will come out in mid- summer, "when there are no big books around". In another section entitled "Sorrows of a Publisher", he is at work catching dangerous typos in a book about to go to press. " 'In a queer way Connolly did enjoy his schoolboys,' - what? At the very last moment, phoning the printers: 'Make it schooldays.' "

But for all his frustrations with Grub Street, Enright is still keen to defend the reviewer: "Those critics of the past who have talked most cogently of literature, who have helped us in our effort to understand and our desire to appreciate, are closer to the humble reviewer than to the theorist."

Though there are pages where Enright's gloom grows overbearing, these are quickly redeemed by a lively sense of humour, and an eye for the good anecdote. Enright recounts how he once received a letter from a man who had spotted his name and work in the Listener: "Dear D Enright, Can you be the vivacious Dorothy Enright I met on a cruise to South Africa five years ago? Do you remember those nights on deck, gazing at the moon? ... You didn't tell me you wrote poems, but I should have guessed ..."

When he is being neither gloomy nor funny, Enright reverts to being scholarly. The book is filled with reflections on passages from Henry James, Goethe, Freud and Nietzsche, suggesting a lifetime's intimate contact. An effect of this is to make all but the most erudite readers feel ignorant, as we struggle to recall who wrote What Maisie Knew and what was the significance of the Lisbon earthquake.

But this is simply the most obvious example of the insouciance underlying Interplay. Enright has the aphorist's daring in formulating sentences which speak for more than himself, using "we" and "one" in the hope that others will find their experiences reflected, but without much care if they don't.

At one point, Enright wisely decides that most book reviews go on for far too long: "You are commissioned to write a 3,000 word piece. Four words would suffice. 'The author is mad,' or, 'This work is bad.' " In his case, one could say, "The author is eccentric, but the work is worth reading."