b. 1920 – d. 2003
Dennis Joseph ‘D.J.’ Enright was a British academic, poet, novelist and critic. He spent the best part of twenty five years lecturing abroad in Japan, Thailand and Singapore to name but a few of the Far East countries he explored. By 1974 he was director of publishing house Chatto and Windus. In 1981 Enright was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, and became in 1984 Poet Laureate. Not one for slowing down, he finished his memoir ‘Injury Time’ the day before his death in 2002.
D.J. Enright remembered – by Jeremy Lewis
I first met Dennis Enright in the mid-1970s. He had returned to England in 1970 from Singapore, and after a couple of years as co-editor of Encounter, he had succeeded C. Day Lewis at Chatto, looking after the poetry list, the odd volume of lit crit, and even the occasional novel; I was working as a shamefully ineffectual literary agent, and since I had somehow persuaded Chatto to take on a work by a don at Wadham, uncompromisingly entitled Genius, it was agreed that I should call in at their offices in William IV Street to meet Professor Enright and the famously ferocious Norah Smallwood, who had ruled Chatto with a rod of iron since the end of the War.
On the agreed day I took an antiquated lift to the second floor, and after grappling with the gates I turned to find a pale, rumpled figure watching the proceedings with a sardonic grin. Then in his mid-fifties, Dennis Enright had rubbery, mobile features that seemed both comical and lugubrious and a quiff of graying hair that streamed from the top of his head like smoke in a high wind. He was almost certainly clad in a green corduroy jacket, a fawn shirt, a green tie, fawn trousers and tractor-soled shoes. He introduced himself in a self-deprecating mumble, and I followed him round bare, lino-floored corridors to his office, which boasted Utility furniture and looked across a well. We chatted about this and that while Dennis tamped and rodded his pipe; but then, quite suddenly, the ancient Bakelite telephone on his desk let out a terrible shriek. Dennis shot bolt upright, as though he had been plugged into the mains, and a rasping voice came down the wire, rapping out instructions. ‘Yes, Norah, no, Norah,’ Dennis muttered, holding the receiver at arm’s length, and miming his response with much raising of the eyebrows and pursing of the mouth. We made our ways back down the institutional corridor, and Dennis effected an introduction before vanishing back into the gloom.
A few years later I was offered a job at Chatto, and Dennis became a colleague. A relic of Bloomsbury, Chatto combined high-minded and leftish opinions with adamant social snobbery. Far from being, like most directors of the firm, a product of Eton or Winchester, Dennis was the son of an Irish postman; later he described his early years in Leamington Spa in The Terrible Shears, a collection of poems sub-titled ‘Scenes from a Twenties Childhood’, in which he remembered how ‘We had to keep our coal out at the back, / They wouldn’t give us a bath.’ He had worked his way to Downing College, Cambridge, studying under F.R Leavis; a youthful contributor to Scrutiny, Dennis retained his mentor’s elevated standards, but none of his ferocity or intolerance. Within the office, he was an emollient and benign figure, consoling the afflicted and happier in the pub than at an editorial meeting. His closest friend in the office was Les the packer; on more than one occasion Mrs Smallwood, who liked to invoke ‘Professor Enright’ when dealing with a mutinous or recalcitrant author, learned that he was downstairs with Les in the Marquis of Granby when his services were needed.
Although much loved for his kindness and his wit, and a salutary reminder of literary standards, Dennis was not cut out to be a publisher. His name on the masthead lent it a certain gravitas, but he was incapable of the ephemeral, hyperbolical and competitive passions that motivate even the most literary publishers; he thought that only a handful of books were worth publishing in any one year, and provided someone published those few he wasn’t worried whether it was Chatto, Faber or Secker. The long hours he put in revising and then re-revising the Scott-Moncrieff translation of Proust provided welcome relief from an increasingly uncongenial world; and he combined his publishing work with reviews for the TLS and the Observer, critical works that ranged from Goethe to Basil Brush (equally admired in their different ways), and the witty, deft and humane poems, both sad and funny, by which he will be best remembered.
Dennis had spent much of his life overseas, and this, combined with a naturally sagacious temperament, made him impatient of the parochial and self-regarding. After leaving Cambridge he taught, from 1947 to 1950, at the University of Alexandria, where he also took a D Litt; while in Egypt he met his French wife, Madeleine, published his first book of poems, and gathered material for his first and best-known novel, Academic Year. After a spell at Birmingham University, he went out to Japan to teach at Konan University from 1953 to 1956, followed by a year at the Free University of Berlin; back home, he was becoming known as one of the poets associated with the Movement, along with Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. His experiences teaching in South-East Asia were described in his autobiographical Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor: the authorities at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok were unamused by his views on opium-smoking, and refused to renew his contract after he had been unjustly beaten up by Thai policemen and spent the night in a cell, while the ten years he spent as Professor of English at Singapore University brought him into conflict with the government of Lee Kuan Yew.
In 1982 Dennis left Chatto, where life became a good deal less convivial. He devoted his time to Proust, to poetry, to volumes of criticism and to the compiling of anthologies, of which The Oxford Book of Death was an outstanding example. He was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1981, an OBE in 1991, and a C Lit in 1998. He was the most lovable of men, and a writer of rare distinction; it is good to report that he completed Injury Time, the third in a series of commonplace books, only days before he died.