Book 1 – Inside Mr Enderby, published under the pseudonym Joseph Kell in 1963. We first meet Enderby through the eyes of a group of time travelling school children, on an educational trip to visit some of the poets of yesteryear. There are echoes of Joyce Grenfell in the teachers admonitions to the students not to misbehave, which of course they do. Enderby lives alone, in squalor. His bathroom is his sanctum, where he composes his poetry, filing much of it in the bath which he shares with a family, indeed generations, of mice. He lives a narrow, routine existence, troubled by the outside world as little as possible. But people just won’t leave him alone.
Book 2, Outside Enderby. The psychiatric transformation of our hero is no more effective nor long lasting than Vesta’s attempt, and with the return of his muse, Enderby is about to leave his job as a barman when fate once more intervenes. The bar where he works is being used as a venue for a pop group – the lead singer of which has plagiarised some of his poetry, left behind in his flight from Vesta’s home. The singer is shot by a bitter former band member, but Enderby is framed, and flees. Taking a holiday flight to Tangiers, narrowly escaping the clutches of a matronly astrologer on the way, he tracks down Rawcliffe, a failed former poet who had plagiarised his extended poem, the Pet Beast, turning it into a schlock horror film script. Rawcliffe, who is in all the anthologies, is dying, and Enderby cares for him in his last days, instead of killing him as intended. Enderby inherits Rawcliffe’s bar, and settles down into a comfortable life of exile. But the happy ending is denied him, because at the end of the novel he is visited – literally – by a personification of his muse, who is a cruel mistress, and who appears to intend to desert him, once again.
It appears that Burgess planned books one and two as a single volume, and only published them separately when a serious illness threatened to be (indeed was diagnosed as) terminal. But having created this character it seems Burgess couldn’t really leave him alone.
Book 3, A Clockwork Testament, or the End of Enderby, finds Enderby lecturing in creative writing and minor Elizabethan drama in New York. He is more of a fish out of water than ever, finding much in New York and his students to frustrate and anger him. This is a lighter revival of Enderby, putting him in comic situations in which his frustrations with the modern world are never far from the surface. Enderby makes no compromises for his new situations, and is blunt to the point of being offensive towards his black students, particularly in his liberal use of the N-word – what would have read as challenging and daring in the 1970s comes across as simply offensive in 2012, not that Burgess would have given a stuff. But this is true of many treatments of this issue, and we should be wary about imposing 21st century values on 1970s Britain, or any other period for that matter. Which I suppose is his point.
The discussion about the potentially corrupting influence of art, as exemplified by the popular response to the vulgarised film treatment of “The Wreck of the Deutschland” dominates much of the novel. This is Burgess’s response to the media storm generated by the film of Clockwork Orange, hence the otherwise inexplicable title of the third novel in the series, in case the point were to be missed (which of course it is now much easier to do, with Kubrick’s film available to watch on terrestrial television, and pretty tame stuff compared to, for example, the Saw movies.)
Why is Enderby such an endearing, successful character? He meets many of the criteria you would look for in a sit-com character – good hearted but hopelessly adrift in the modern world, always falling unwittingly into comic situations, and at the same time puzzlingly attractive to various maternal and not so maternal women. For Enderby poetry is the all-consuming mistress that he cannot allow himself to be distracted from. The comedy switches from quite low brow, scatological stuff to highbrow meditations on Elizabethan theatre and Shakespearean scholarship.
Burgess’s style, throughout the quartet, is one of the major enjoyments of the novels. He plays with language freely, at times showing off, but rarely distracting from the overall fun of the piece. Here’s an example from Book 2. Enderby is serving drinks in a bar when he meets an old acquaintance, whose breath, he notices, smells of onions:
“Then, instead of expensive mouthwash, he had breathed on Hogg-Enderby, bafflingly (for no banquet would serve, because of the known redolence of onions, onions) onions. “Onions” said Hogg.”
I can just imagine Burgess’s pleasure at meeting the no doubt self imposed challenge of repeating “onions” four times consecutively without interruption nor syntactic trickery.
I’ve read these novels for pleasure several times since discovering Inside Enderby many years ago, and apart from the easily offended they should be a joy for all readers. I cannot recommend them highly enough.