D. J. Enright Enright, D(ennis) J(oseph) (Vol. 31) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

D(ennis) J(oseph) Enright 1920–

English poet, novelist, critic, and editor.

Enright is an important literary figure whose poetry and criticism exhibit a liberal, humanistic outlook. Underlying the witty, ironic, and sometimes irreverent tone of his writing is a sensitivity to the human suffering Enright has witnessed in England and during his many years of teaching abroad. Many of Enright's stylistic and thematic concerns are typical of those of The Movement, a literary group with which he is sometimes associated. As editor of the anthology Poets of the 1950s (1955), Enright is partially responsible for bringing what would become known as The Movement to the attention of readers and critics. The anthology includes poems by Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, Philip Larkin, and Enright, among others. Enright is also well known as a literary critic whose reviews have appeared in the New Statesman, Encounter, and London Magazine.

Enright spent over twenty years teaching English literature in Egypt, Japan, West Germany, Thailand, and Singapore. Many of his works are informed by his experiences in these countries. Enright's first novel, Academic Year (1955), for example, concerns three expatriate Englishmen in Egypt with thematic emphasis on the conflict between Western and Eastern sensibilities.

The suffering and powerlessness of the individual which Enright observed in impoverished countries appears as a major theme in much of his poetry, most notably in his collection Some Men Are Brothers (1960). Political power and hypocrisy are themes which Enright develops through foreign settings but which he also applies to situations in England. The Terrible Shears: Scenes from a Twenties Childhood (1973) is an account of Enright's youth in a working-class family and his early recognition of human suffering. Paradise Illustrated (1978) and A Faust Book (1979) are tongue-in-cheek revisions of the biblical tale of the Garden of Eden and the Faust legend.

Enright's literary criticism displays the same mistrust of established authority as his poetry and fiction. In The Apothecary's Shop: Essays on Literature (1957) and Conspirators and Poets (1966) he examines classical and contemporary literature, questioning conventional interpretations of the works of numerous important authors. Similarly, in Shakespeare and the Students (1970) Enright questions traditional academic approaches to Shakespeare's plays and advocates more pragmatic interpretations based on character analysis.

(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 8; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 27; and Something about the Author, Vol. 25.)

Anthony Thwaite

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The words human and humane ring briskly through [the essays in Mr. Enright's The Apothecary's Shop], as, indeed, do their implications through his poems. Mr. Enright is a moralist—undoctrinaire but (if one can rid the word of false and mis-leading accretions) committed. He is impatient with work which is not demonstrably about something, scornful of critics who obfuscate the something when it's there….

'The greater part of current literary criticism resembles a game of skittles played with ivory chess pieces,' writes Mr. Enright. The danger of the other kind of literary critical game which has come into being since Mr. Enright wrote those words is that the equipment is deliberately crude and the players deliberately tough…. Mr. Enright is not really this sort of player, but there are a few distressing streaks, chiefly apparent in the dialogue on The Cocktail Party and, to a lesser extent, in 'The Use of Poetry.' What is painful is the slightly strained jauntiness of tone, a feeling that the poet is not just a man speaking to men but a chap chatting to chaps.

Healthy common sense is not enough. Mr. Enright's peculiar strength is his alliance of common sense with a wide range of reference: the general critical pieces are supported by essays on (among others) Shakespearian and Jacobean drama, Goethe, Thomas Mann, a useful juxtaposition of Auden and Rilke, and—as one might expect—a volley of praise for Forster at the expense of Virginia Woolf. Mr. Enright is already well known and appreciated as poet, traveller and entertainer: he is now available, in solid form, as a travelled and entertaining critic.

Anthony Thwaite, "Literary Games," in The Spectator, Vol. 199, No. 6752, November 22, 1957, p. 718.∗

John Pettigrew

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Apothecary's Shop] is an extremely lively, sensitive and sensible collection of critical essays, varying greatly in subject matter and in quantity. Some of the material—"On Not Teaching The Cocktail Party" and "The Use of Poetry" for example—was not really worth reprinting, but what remains reflects a vigorous and wide-ranging mind, and one which detests the vast amount of nonsense in much modern criticism….

Mr. Enright's forthrightness and commonsense approach to literature and criticism come out nicely in the opening essay "Criticism for Criticism's Sake" and in "The Brain-washed Muse: Some Second Thoughts on Tradition" but, engaging as he is here, he is still better, because more positive, in such essays as those on Coriolanus, Wilhelm Meister and "To the Lighthouse or to India?". Personally, I find it refreshing to read a critic who refuses to elevate Coriolanus to the first rank of Shakespearean tragedies, who, while admiring Miss Woolf's technique, questions the value of her purpose, and who writes in a lucid and extremely witty style which makes his book a pleasure to read.

John Pettigrew, in a review of "The Apothecary's Shop," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 451, August, 1958, p. 119.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thinking of D. J. Enright's poems, one feels no inclination to talk in terms of 'promise,' for they are already fully achieved things in themselves. They face up to whatever judgment one makes of them with no petitions in their hands, no defensive pleas based on age or inexperience or a broken home. [Some Men are Brothers] is divided into four sections—Siam, Berlin, Japan and Displaced—whose titles might suggest that its author is more of a foiled circuitous wanderer than he appears to be. For while he is strongly aware of the exile within him, and who is in all of us, he bridges the gap between him and the ferocious world of the strange, the starved and the brutal with a sympathetic irony which puts himself and it in their places. Sometimes, I guess more and more often, he closes that gap with an understanding compassion that has none of the distance in it that irony implies, and, though the ironic ones are charming and witty and not without a weight of meaning, it is these others that seem to me the most interesting poems in the book. He is not a man to quote in the small space of a review, for he is not notably a phrasemaker. It is the general tone of the poems, that is to say, fundamentally it is the quality of the mind and the sensibility behind them that give them their special flavour. That mind is interested in peasants and politicians, landscapes and loneliness, fans and furores, but always as they matter in everyday living. He recognises their involvement with each other and with him, and these poems therefore are about a real and complex world in which real and complex poems are still possible, as he shows.

Norman MacCaig, "Peering and Seeing," in The Spectator, Vol. 205, No. 6893, August 5, 1960, p. 223.∗

P. N. Furbank

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[D. J. Enright] is out to make poetry from absolute, unambitious honesty. It is enough for him to be human and ordinary and to give exact rendering to the promptings of a humane consciousness. His role of professional and itinerant humanist is very sympathetic and one waits eagerly for the perfect Enright poem [in Some Men are Brothers], one in which the looseness of his verse justifies itself as flexibility, a freedom of approach allowing the subject to impose its own natural shape. (It would be the aesthetic counterpart of his tolerant and adaptable humanist ethic.) One has to do a lot of waiting; indeed, one gets into a mood of thinking the whole thing not poetry at all. When one remembers what Ezra Pound has done with free verse, Enright's often seems to have no more tension than a burst balloon. His great rambling octameters are not pulled into order by any tautness in the lines which follow them; indeed it seems a point of honour that no line should ever repeat the rhythm of the one that went before. And lacking any formal interest, what the poems have to say often seems scrappy and conventional too. However, the successes come at last, and they are worth waiting for. What really seizes and disturbs his humanism is the realization that there are some men who are outside its range; that there are human castaways so abject that it would be hypocrisy to think of them as human at all. Out of this thought springs a poem, 'Written Off', about Japanese vagrants, which is taut, poised, and most moving in its directness.

P. N. Furbank, in a review of "Some Men Are Brothers," in The Listener, Vol. LXIV, No. 1646, October 13, 1960, p. 651.

Robert Taubman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The better part of Figures of Speech, or at least the more assimilable part, is a private view of Bangkok and Japan, with the author's comments on the East-West imbroglio and what Unesco calls the mutual appreciation of cultural values. It's Mr Enright's own voice one hears detailing the traps and vanities of university life, embassy parties and literary gatherings—and in his characters' observations on the equivocal scene…. [Mattie is a] Chinese typist on holiday from Singapore; voluble, Westernised, but baffling. The starting-point of her thoughts about anachronism is Chung Lu, a young writer from Hong Kong who quotes the sages and models himself on the Confucian 'superior man'—anachronism or not (Mr Enright seems to be saying yes and no), he's pretty baffling too. They conduct a strange courtship, and are left facing a marriage that I find unimaginable. Something about them, however, may be deduced from the English character, George: a teacher of English literature prone to misadventures, who after a night in jail is shipped home from Bangkok as one of the British Council's failures—to reappear in no time in another well-heeled cultural role, flashing an expense account. He, at least, is a familiar figure, in novels and indeed in life, and if I call him a stereotype it's only to make the point that Mattie and Chung Lu may be valid in their own way, and possibly Mr Enright's audience in the East will find them just as true to life. If so, I would still feel that Figures of Speech fails to communicate to the rest of us their peculiar aptness. (p. 456)

Robert Taubman, "Style-Spotting," in New Statesman, Vol. LXIX, No. 1775, March 19, 1965, pp. 456, 458.∗

Peter Vansittart

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I have always respected D. J. Enright, a useful all-rounder; critic, poet, teacher, novelist. [In Figures of Speech] he has not greatly extended himself: alternatively, as they say, he is 'writing comfortably within his reach.'

I don't mean that the poet-critic is condescending to the wider public. He has achieved real comedy, entertaining, often witty, about intellectual life and love in Bangkok and Tokyo, while making things easy for himself with the sitting targets of cultural nannies, linguistic conferences, genial brothels, old-world diplomats worried by rising human rights, the usual farcical British Council lecture…. Occident and Orient rub noses and produce not sparks, but courteous solecisms, ornate mis-understandings.

The story links George, a casual English lecturer, with a priggish but teachable young Confucian and an attractive Chinese girl from Singapore. They fumble charmingly on the great divides of race, culture, sex, in a tinted atmosphere of well-bred unreality. On all sides are heard high-sounding exquisitely phrased moral principles whose actual practice must be avoided as pleasantly as possible. Like attending London PEN dinners without paying. Harrying the myth of the inscrutable and unchanging East, Enright has an adroit eye for the tender, absurd and gently disconcerting.

Peter Vansittart, "Strictly for Entertainment," in The Spectator, Vol. 214, No. 7135, March 26, 1965, p. 410.∗

Francis Hope

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The thesis that all liberals become defeatist reactionaries is one which D. J. Enright could see off wittily—has done so, indeed, in earlier poems. But [in The Old Adam] his pleas for the old Adam—private, disorganised, indecisive man—take him into strange waters, whose subtlety contains some less subtle fish…. He is nothing if not a civilised grumbler, detached even from his own detachment. It's a privileged position, whose cost, as he recognises, sometimes falls on others….

[His] wispy but pointed observations certainly speak, or murmur, for the age. Poetically, they vary: they are never coarse or harsh but can sag a little, can become too restrained—even faded Japanese paintings are invoked:

           Soft pastels and stern primaries,
           A line which bears you where it will.
           The master at his most assured,
           Not one hair out of place.

But one still wishes that the master's assurance weren't so linked to understatement, that his line gave rather stronger evidence of its will; perhaps even that he would muss his hair up a bit. The ratio of stern primaries to soft pastels needs looking at. Not even jokes—and his can be excellent—will always do.

Francis Hope, "Pastels and Primaries," in New Statesman, Vol. LXIX, No. 1788, June 18, 1965, p. 972.∗

Dan Jacobson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Professor Enright apologetically suggests that some of the short articles and reviews he has collected in [Conspirators and Poets] could 'scarcely be called "literary criticism."' By the standard he himself set in the best essays in his previous collection, The Apothecary's Shop, that may be true. But the apology can be read in more ways than one. When he writes in one of these pieces that the symbolism in John Updike's novels is

all very neat and contrived, as if some sophisticate is amusedly performing for a psychiatrist of low intelligence

that, we can't help agreeing, is certainly not literary criticism of the kind we...

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Malcolm Bradbury

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Enright is so witty, cogent and right-minded a commentator on literary practice, and believes so energetically in culture in a straightforward sense—'people listening to music and composing it, reading books and writing them'—that [in Conspirators and Poets] he offers a heartening view of what the endeavour is about. I would only say, too heartening. An inheritor of the Scrutiny tradition (one of the best pieces here is an unusually genuine appreciation of what Scrutiny gave us), he indicates that the distinguishing fiery spirit, the giant energy, of that magazine is not his…. One consequence of his geniality is that the old Scrutiny concern with the overall decline of...

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Philip Gardner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a wry little poem, "The Fairies," D. J. Enright neatly sums up his response to the foreign countries in which he has worked: …

and the closet door swings eagerly open
And out falls a skeleton with a frightful crash.

Enright's inaugural lecture at the University of Singapore, on which this poem presumably comments, aroused governmental hostility by criticizing the banning of jukeboxes. Such a skeleton appears to an outsider comparatively small; it is his poems about Japan that display to the full his talent for dropping bricks, for X-raying through the public "face" of a country to the bones beneath.


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Alan Brownjohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Enright's] personal commitment has been profound, and often courageous. But it has resulted in his verse becoming a sustained lament for the ineffectualness of art—'man's slight nonmurderousness'—in a world controlled by politics and economics. It is hard to see how much more can be got out of this theme after the present volume [Unlawful Assembly], although the writing is as sensitive and likeable as ever. Unlawful Assembly repeats the topics and attitudes of several earlier books, with little new added and with rather less energy (the poems are less observant and pointed than they used to be). Enright continues to write appealing, but slightly tired, accounts of places and politics, casting wry...

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Gavin Ewart

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Unlawful Assembly the] conversational, ironical tone of poems that are more like footnotes to experience than anything more ambitious, is immensely pleasing…. Commonsense and humour run through this whole collection ('ordinariness has much to be said for it'). Control is good, the effects are achieved—though sometimes with a certain amount of discursiveness ('Processional') and sometimes with too much of the footnote's curtness ('Cultural Freedom'). Very enjoyable are 'After The Riots', 'Roman Reasons' (about Enobarbus) and 'What became of What-was-his-name?', the miniature equivalent of a Graham Greene novel set in a Police State. Best of all, perhaps, is 'Map', where the material is compressed into a...

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Martin Seymour-Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The best … of this year's books on Shakespeare is D. J. Enright's Shakespeare and the Students…. It is relaxed and non-theoretical. It arises not only from teaching Shakespeare (as its author explains) but from an experience of life and poetry. There is no mystical pursuit of Shakespeare, no embarrassing attempt to expose a Christian or neo-Platonic "pattern": the approach is in the essentially human terms of psychology and poetry. It is truly eclectic (not in the now pejorative bibliographical sense), and almost unerring in its selection of what is most moving; its explanations stimulate where they provoke disagreement. There have been few commentaries so full of new insights. Perhaps this is because Mr....

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Alan Brownjohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Enright's Daughters of Earth is] a better volume than he has recently given us, more varied and less repetitive, more obliquely subtle yet also more trenchant. And the pictures of life in Singapore and Japan in his [Foreign Devils] … seem sharper than usual; and name names.

Enright is still writing with a despairing smile about a teacher's failure to communicate, about the pretensions of governments and the miseries of peoples in poor or 'developing' countries ('Tourist Promotion', 'Board of Selection'), and about hanging on, despite everything, to a faith in some humane western values. And no attitude, whether strenuously ideological, or high-minded, or just innocent, is ever right...

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P. N. Furbank

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

D. J. Enright is a poet preoccupied with responsibilities. He is an itinerant and committed, if lazy moralist, not positively seeking to squeeze out a moral from experience, but doggedly prepared to confront any moral that obtrudes itself on him—and thousands do. His sytle reflects this moral stance. The poems [in Daughters of Earth] spar about rather loosely to begin with, without especial finesse, before going in to deliver their upper-cut. This they deliver with great precision: the punches of this Forsterian 'connect' all right, sometimes with his own chin. Indeed he sticks his chin out on our behalf: in no egotistic spirit, but on the assumption that it might as well be his as another's—which is a good...

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Myra Hinman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The four separate essays which comprise [Shakespeare and the Students] … will not be of great interest to serious critics of Shakespeare. Professor Enright presumably intends his leisurely discussions for students but does not indicate the level of sophistication of his audience, and his account of difficulties encountered by Singaporean students suggests that some of the misunderstanding he wishes to dispel has a cultural as well as a dramatic basis. Students at any level might well be confused by the many snippets of critical opinion used out of context and without adequate elaboration…. Moreover the critics cited, being almost exclusively British, lend a parochial flavor to the essays. (p. 337)


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William Walsh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[D. J. Enright's] four novels, which appeared between 1955 and 1965, while they have had considerable critical acclaim, have received less than their due attention from the reading public. All these novels are set abroad, in Alexandria, the imaginary island of Velo, or Bangkok or Japan. No doubt this fits in with the simple biographical fact that Enright has spent a considerable part of his career abroad as a Professor of English Literature in various Far Eastern universities. He undoubtedly knows what he is talking about. But it is also in keeping with his reflective, poetically sensitive and coolly registering mind. He is a writer who believes that 'civilization consists in the diminution of human tears', and his...

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Nicholas Mosley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

D. J. Enright, in Paradise Illustrated, has written 34 short poems on the myth of the Fall of Man, and 20 more from a similar vein. They are wry, dry, succinct poems; often with a throw-away feel about them, leaving the reader wondering whether he has ducked, or has received, a punch line. Adam and Eve appear as a humorous, somewhat sexy couple who might be sharing, as it were, an apple in a pub. God is one of those omniscient landlords….

These characters get through the opening-hours of sin, knowledge, alienation, labour; always ready with a quip, a self defensive technique, a sort of Cockney or Jewish humour. As a model for enduring a fallen life, this is not a bad theology. There is no...

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Alan Brownjohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Comic updatings of old tales rarely work well, whereas serious ones get away with it too often. D. J. Enright has made it clear that his intentions in Paradise Illustrated are at least fairly serious, but he is much too witty and clever a writer to let solemn truths about the Fall of Man drop too heavily from his typewriter. The result, in this long sequence about Adam and Eve, is an uncomfortable mixture: some of the jokes come off…. And some of them sink to depths of homeliness plumbed more often by Jewish comedians than poets. This is a surprising misadventure from a writer who redeems himself at the end of the book with some "Other Poems" which show him in top form: mordantly satirising authoritarianism...

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Philip Toynbee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

['A Faust Book'] is full of cunning literary allusions and learned puns (of which I probably missed as many as I recognised) and the perfect reader of Enright's book would be a widely read don with something of his own donnish turn of mind.

Considered only in these terms Enright's 'Faust' is a very funny book. He has a great knack for sliding from the sixteenth century into our own and back again; and much of the humour comes from comic and pointed anachronisms. But this is plainly a book about 1979, and the trappings of the sixteenth century are really no more than a device for a sharp satirical glare at our own times….

[A] careful reading of Enright's 'Faust' shows that...

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Alan Brownjohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It seemed well-trodden ground for D. J. Enright to cover in Paradise Illustrated, his sequence of poems updating the Fall; I thought the joke had been better done by other, less sophis ticated, artists. Now, in A Faust Book, he has followed the exhortations of Heine and Valéry to do your own Faust, and come up with an altogether subtler, funnier and more sustained set of personal variations on the legend. His Faust and Mephistopheles are, for one thing, not put so relentlessly through all the latest hoops: the story seems to have compelled Enright to treat it a bit more on its own terms; perhaps a moral in that, about its more convincing relevance to our own times…. A Faust Book moves steadily...

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Derwent May

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The earliest of [Enright's] Collected Poems go back more than 30 years, to the end of the 1940s; but already in them you find that absolutely characteristic move away from a feeling of his own to a thought about somebody else—and then another thought….

Enright has lived abroad, teaching English literature, for much of his life, and he has written poems about Egyptians, Japanese, Germans, Thais, and the Malays and Chinese of Singapore. He has seen a lot of suffering and oppression; but he has always tried to picture it in individual terms, turning a situation from facet to facet to catch it in as many lights as possible.

He can write as well about an Asian prime minister,...

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Gavin Ewart

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anybody at all interested in English poetry should read [D. J. Enright's Collected Poems]. It has in it the best autobiographical sequence written this century: 'The Terrible Shears.'… It also contains, in the short pieces, some of the wittiest and wryest comment on the modern world to be found in the verse of our time….

The intelligence, the irony and the wit are there from the first…. Puns appear throughout, good ('The hot iron of the railroad hisses in the air') and not so good ('The Metropolitan Water Bawd'). Yet the descriptions of Egypt and Japan often have a sensuous quality, and pathos is not beyond him….

Enright isn't a lyrical writer, nor is he fluent as...

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Andrew Motion

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The 'Movement' was doubtless a force in post-war poetry. But was it—as Robert Conquest, one of its leaders, claimed—unanimously empirical, ironical, and insular? Some of its members were incurably romantic, soft-hearted and keen on 'abroad'. Even D. J. Enright, who edited the Movement anthology Poets of the 1950s, was never absolutely faithful to the preferred neutral tone, and a reexamination which begins with him makes the Movement look rather a hotch-potch.

The bulk of his early poems are set in and around Egypt or the Far East, and respond to the exotic strangeness of those places with a good deal of flamboyance…. Equally, though, Enright's first two or three books [reprinted in...

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Patrick Swinden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Collected Poems] is a severely pruned collection of poems written by Enright between 1953 and now. What picture of the poet emerges from them? Academic, humanist, traveller. (p. 85)

But most of all a single scene comes to mind. The poet is at his desk in some far-flung corner of south-east Asia. It is night, so the desk lamp is switched on. The poet continues to write, as insects gather under the lamp. Then the lizards come and eat the insects. The insects think the poet is punishing them by feeding them to a spring-jawed dragon. That is the scenario of 'The faithful'. It ends:

It isn't difficult to be a god.
You hang...

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John Gross

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is something to be said against collecting old book-reviews—but not when they are as good as D. J. Enright's. Flaubert and Heinrich Böll, 'Earthly Powers' and 'A Dictionary of Catch Phrases,' 'The Golden Lotus' and E. B. White: coming from most reviewers, the pieces assembled in 'A Mania for Sentences' would simply represent so many fares picked up at the rank. But in Enright's case they cohere, bound together by a consistent (and consistently enlivening) approach and a distinctive tone of voice, and by the mixture of subtlety tempered by common sense (or vice versa) which makes him one of the most rewarding critics currently plying his trade.

He is also a master of the witty...

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