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Endlessly Entertaining Enderby
on 18 March 2009
First of all, hilarious: Enderby himself (original "grumpy old man," poet, barman, murder suspect, lecturer) is a wonderful creation, old beyond his years, hugely erudite, technically expert yet naturally, instinctively poetic - and absolutely hopeless, a complete innocent when it comes to society, sex and the modern world. These contradictions allow Enderby to be placed in a series of extreme, farcical circumstances which pit him against increasingly exotic situations, places and people - from the sedate English South Coast, via Italy to Morocco and Tangier; from treacherous fellow minor literati to yobbish pop singers (one of whom he is wrongly accused of assassinating), waiters, tourists, students; and the lovers with whom he invariably proves unlucky. A broad, imaginative canvas of human life is here, warts and all.
Our fantastically articulate, bumbling hero finds himself duped, seduced, betrayed, plagiarised, whilst all the time offering us a beautifully ironic commentary on his misadventures. Enderby may be, like Burgess, a master of language, but his character flaws and sheer bad luck put him into rich conflicts, most commonly with the haters of intelligence, creativity and learning: those sneaky, censorious, prurient prudes who, even at the time of Enderby's writing - and even more so since, prophetic Burgess! - had begun to commandeer the media, politics, literature and the high moral ground, to the detriment of all of us who value, as does Burgess, that most blessed of all human gifts, common sense.
Enderby is another splendid Burgess attempt to confront the unfairness of it all, Man's Inhumanity to Man: and, as in the magnificent Earthly Powers, morally weak character, sloppy thinking and expression, the cheap, the easy, the obvious - these insidious sins trump any of the more obvious cruelties of people. They are embodied here particularly amongst those enemies of Enderby who rush to judge, strike outraged postures, cultivate self-righteousness, miss the point and generally abuse the gift of language.
Way before "political correctness" acquired that misnomer, Burgess used Enderby to hit back, in the most seriously comical way, against all those apologists and opportunists amongst whom genuine insight and emotion are feared and loathed, whilst cheap sentiment and ignorance are excused, even revered. In the face of brutish contempt and superior posturing, Enderby remains consistently, deliberately, uncomfortably provocative (and funny, really funny); he responds to life's true injustices with his sharpest weapon, his tongue, and the offence he cultivates is at the core of Burgess' robust response to weak minds. Other than Earthy Powers, modern writing has seen little to match this daring dissection of contemporary orthodoxy.
Entertaining, fascinating, instructive adventures, terrific central character, some especially moving moments (Enderby's sexual failure(s), the poignant death of his former literary arch-enemy); the advent of a sexy, redeeming "muse," the sharpest of satire - how can you resist this! There's even a couple of pages of Enderby's "screenplay" - later pornographically filmed - of Hopkins' "Wreck of the Deutschland"; not to mention the Minotaur poem made into a horror film and thus contributing to Enderby's "infamy" amongst the precious brigade: drop dead hilarious and unflaggingly entertaining, all of it.
Indeed, you can measure your own sanity against the Enderby scale, I suggest. If you find yourself chortling and nodding most of the time, you're probably OK. If it causes "concern" at all: have a word with yourself. Anyone taking objection to the scathing way Burgess/Enderby confronts the relativist world, with its hazards and frustrations, needs to read with a little more openness of mind and readiness of smile. For anyone moved to take wheedling exception to, for example, certain racial references (especially in the grimly accurate US college sequence in Clockwork Testament) from which "the narrative suffers" (no, it doesn't, it gains flavour) - why bother? Burgess has already nailed you right here.