Previous Convictions: Selected Writings of a Decade
by Cyril Connolly
Harper & Row, 414 pp., $5.95
Reviewing someone’s collected reivews is parasitic, and it induces a vertiginous glimpse of lesser and still lesser fleas. Not that Cyril Connolly is a flea. He is a stranded whale—to use a comparison which, with characteristic lavishness, he offers twice, applying it once to Coleridge and once to Wilde. He is nothing if not frank: “The problem of the literary journalist who feels inhibited from completing larger projects is how to make a book.” Not how to write it, how to make it. Was this one worth making? Yes and no. Yes, because Mr. Connolly is fluently readable, cosmopolitanly well-read, and an influential figure on the English literary scene. No, because he is not much of a literary critic and most of his book is literary criticism or nothing.
The first section is deck-chair reading (and writing): travel-pieces, chat about animals, and—rather more solid—essays on art, of which the insouciance doesn’t altogether conceal a mind well-informed and deft. Then comes a section on some literary classics—always sensible (Saint-Simon is a ruthless observer) and never original (Saint-Simon…). If only something would ruffle Mr. Connolly. And then it suddenly does, and things get more interesting: Coleridge is soggy, The Ancient Mariner virtually doggerel; Sainte-Beuve was not a nice man. The next section is of modern classics: some lovely anecdotes about Joyce, but the general effect (on, say, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Hemingway) is to tame all literature into something unstrenuous, undemanding, and undisturbing. Last, a section of odds and ends, including a moral fable about the bibliographer-forger T. J. Wise, and a parody of Ian Fleming’s James Bond which has a good basic idea but can’t altogether overcome the difficulty that Fleming is a self-parodist to start with. What the collection manifests is width of sympathy and of reading. Contrast the title Horizon, the cultural magazine which Mr. Connolly edited with undoubted success, with the title Scrutiny, Dr. F. R. Leavis’s critical periodical. Horizon: spacious amplitude yes, but a bit airy. Scrutiny: rigorous concentration, yes, but a bit myopic. The trouble is that the hospitable width which was an asset in a creative editor seems indiscriminately offhand when Mr. Connolly is being a literary critic.
Our demands of criticism are different from those of reviewing. The reviewer hasn’t the space to “elevate opinion into knowledge” (Dr. Johnson’s definition of criticism); and he is writing for people who haven’t read the book, whereas the critic writes for his equals. Mr. Connolly has no talent whatever for saying why a book is good or bad, and it is clear from his scorn for professors (who apparently pull literature apart) that he thinks such goings-on a squalid farce. His talents are impressionistic; he can convey, and sometimes with great immediacy and economy, what it is like actually to read a particular book. There he is, glowing away—and in just the same way in which he glows at Egypt or at lemurs (see the first …