A Stranded Whale

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 part, “The Visible World”). Impressions rather than ideas—his earlier collection, Ideas and Places, should have been called “Places and Commonplaces.” The talents are real: clarity, vividness, and as much accuracy as is compatible with gentlemanly amateurishness. But they are journalist’s virtues, and it is hard to see why anyone who throws away his London Sunday Times after he has read it should then want to buy this book. Mr. Connolly’s title, Previous Convictions, genially includes his half-guilty sense of the journalist’s treadmill. The trouble is that doing time is indistinguishable from killing it.

No, the real success of Mr. Connolly is as a personality. For one thing, he has Micawbered everybody into believing that something is going to turn up—a feat, especially as his disarming technique has been to insist again and again that he is just a hack. For another, he has gathered to himself adhesive anecdotes. There is the Warden of an Oxford college conceding that Mr. Connolly “is not as nice as he looks,” while gazing with benignity at a photograph of memorable unbeauty. Or there is this story—and were the speaker anyone other than truth-telling Kenneth Tynan, one would suspect that it was made up:

I remember, at a predominantly non-literary gathering, overhearing a highly literate Texan and a pretty young English girl. “Do you know Cyril Connolly?” he asked her; whereat she blushed, giggled nervously, and replied: “Which Cyril do you mean?” I discovered later that she had been shocked and affronted, and I had to explain that no harm had been meant, that the Western drawl, which can turn street-names to music, can also turn “Connolly” into “carnally,” and an innocent enquiry into an item from a Kinsey questionnaire.

Such a tale is a tribute to some sort of vitality in Mr. Connolly; and so of course is his having been at Eton with England’s present Prime Minister. What skill, and luck, to have written in 1938 of this schoolboy that “In the eighteenth century he would have become Prime Minister before he was thirty; as it was he appeared honorably ineligible for the struggle of life.” All that Mr. Connolly did not foresee is that the Conservatives still live in the eighteenth century—and that to seem “honorably ineligible” is formidably useful if you are ruthless enough.

At projecting his personality Mr. Connolly is very good indeed. So his best book is Enemies of Promise, an unexpected and successful blend of autobiography and cultural analysis. The later anthology of angst, The Unquiet Grave (by Palinurus), has been windily overrated and is altogether too pestered with affectations. There is no reason why Mr. Connolly should not have called himself Palinurus, but all the same it is a source of pleasure to me that one of England’s great libraries now has listed under “Connolly, Cyril Vernon” a pamphlet: “The Post-War Investor. Debentures and Preference Issues: How to Choose Them. By Palinurus.”

The key to Mr. Connolly’s success is that he is a professional failure. Enmies of Promise, with lugubriously accurate wit, went through all the forces that were going to stop him from ever writing anything really worthwhile. With a ruefulness that only occasionally sinks into the ingratiating, he has said of this present book that it is in lieu of the festschrift which his sixtieth birthday somehow didn’t precipitate. His crest is “A Hack in his element, hobbled.” His book is “an ageing Narcissus complete with pool.” It is astonishing how often, and with what skill, he deploys this winning assurance that he is on the losing side. He is one of the first to carry over into journalism the principles which have insured success in society to men like Sir Alec Home—Home who so lovably admits that he works out economic problems with a box of matches. Mr. Connolly confesses all, and who could be so disloyal as to take advantage of the confessional? Lazy, yes; careless, yes; book-making, yes. How fortunate, though, that the English prefer their ruling class to be underdogs—kindly, modest, baffled by experts. The last twist of Mr. Connolly’s powerful knife is that, in an ecstasy of self-disparagement, he shows himself aware of all this. He tells us that he doesn’t like Coleridge: “every hint of accomplishment disappears in that great lachrymose, self-pitying eye.” And then just when our thoughts are unkindly veering, Mr. Connolly analyzes his dislike, admitting to “an impatience with his dilapidated existence which betrays a fear of it.” The result is an eerie blend of the sharply self-critical and the cadgingly self-accusatory. Qui s’accuse, s’excuse. All the same, he does write very well about “all who have inhaled, as age creeps on, the miasma from their wasted time.” And naturally he rejoices in Scott Fitzgerald’s self-contrast with Hemingway: “Ernest speaks with the authority of his success. I speak with the authority of my failure.”

Horace Walpole is one of the few figures who twice receives attention, and this is because Mr. Connolly wistfully sees something of himself in so cultivated and stylish a semi-failure. “For that refusal to endanger his industry and talent he was both punished and rewarded. If he could never achieve a sublime phrase neither could he perpetrate a bad sentence.” Yet Mr. Connolly’s own style, for all its fluent equability, is often careless and clumsy—faults which would not much matter in the style of a robust roisterer, but which are damaging to sleek old-world limpidity. Clichés: people take up the cudgels. Mock-pomosity, indistinguishable from pomposity since unsalted by wit—self-consciousness, yes, but not wit: “I make no apology [a phrase I have always wanted to use]—I make no apology for…” School-masterly facetiousness: “a party of fifty Nordic harpies,” or “after bidding farewell to our resourceful and patient mentor.” Affectation: “I am not a Beylolater, I need a fond noir à contenter in my heroes, but of all those who lack it, the seed of Epicurus, Stendhal is the least stupid.” Do we need the elegant variation of Beyle and Stendhal? And is “the seed of Epicurus” in apposition with “it” or with “those” Overwriting: “At first we set out slowly and quietly on our magic voyage. Gradually the enchanted universe of the Comédie Humaine grows nearer and clearer; ultimately we are engulfed by it.” “Voyage” and “nearer” imply that Balzac’s novels are a distant land, but can you be engulfed by land? Carelessness: “some girl is busy getting up steam to leave by reading about the other women he hankers after in his famous diary.” Getting up steam? And should we re-word it: “by reading in his famous diary about…”? Or is it implied that Léautaud hankered after them in his diary, not in his life? Each of these is trival, but collectively they become important because Mr. Connolly’s world-view is so much a matter of elegance, fragility, aestheticism.

Such attitudes, not surprisingly, are tinged with the anti-American, the anti-academic, and—worse—the anti-intellectual. “The two editors are redolent of the campus: simple, sensitive souls who…” But the juxtaposition of “redolent” and “campus” is a jeer, not a witticism. And why is a campus, as distinct from a college, something with built-in disapprobation? Mr. Connolly, as a Balliol man, ought to be careful about that famous Balliol tone of “effortless superiority.” The superiority in “simple, sensitive souls” strikes me as offensive in its facetious effortlessness. “As a rule I dread this kind of book: the intrusion of the brash, cocksure and semi-illiterate anaylst into the Broceliande where…” But if you are going to protest at the semi-illiterate (and get in an out-of-the-way reference to the wood Broceliande), you had better make sure that your printer spells analyst properly. Just as it is ignorant as well as silly to sneer at Hugh Kenner for using the word “explicate,” when—as any reader of The Explicator knows—it is an honorable word used by Dryden.