A Sort of Pilgrim

The Evening Colonnade

by Cyril Connolly
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 469 pp., $15.00

Cyril Connolly lay all last fall in a London nursing home, dying like Wilde beyond his means. He bequeathed to his widow and two children a mortgaged house, debts of over $60,000, and a library whose best items, so it appeared, had already been sold. His employers, the London Sunday Times, have come to the rescue and his friends have organized a fund to help his widow. His thriftlessness was disgraceful. All that can be said is that there was no hypocrisy in it. He did not like Harold Skimpole ask only to be free on the grounds that if butterflies were free, mankind would not deny to him what it granted to the butterflies. He did not pose as an innocent incapable of coping with the ways of the world. Yet this disarming self-knowledge was incapacitating in its ruthlessness. It enabled him to turn the same weapons of analysis upon his friends so that he could persuade himself that their vices were as reprehensible as his own Celtic inertia.

Inside him were a dozen books and countless articles which could have been sold to coffee table magazines. But no: a huge blockage which had been growing since he took his final examinations as an undergraduate at Oxford stopped the books, and his contempt for potboiling and money-grubbing absolved him from writing the articles. So even his virtues pandered to his self-indulgence. He had so come to terms with shame and guilt that they had lost the power to rouse him. Yet who knows what he suffered and what mortifications he endured or how many times he promised himself to change, knowing that he would fail?

No one less resembled Christian in his journey through the world. He was all for a wallow in the Slough of Despond and, so far from putting his fingers in his ears at Vanity Fair, he indulged in a prolonged shopping spree there; no cage or pillory for him. Accidie was his besetting deadly sin. And yet he was in a tired and tattered sort of way a pilgrim and made his progress through the Valley of Humiliation, hooted at by the upper-class Philistines and by the Marxist fellow travelers of the intelligentsia. At intervals he sent ironical messages of encouragement to his fellow pilgrims.

Someone who captivates is often called enchanting by his friends although very few people really have the power to enchant. Wrapped often in the gloom of boredom, Connolly was not one of them. But he had a magical personality. The intelligence, the speed of his cleverness, and the inventiveness of his mimicry were his friends’ delight. He used to cast them in roles to be played in the comedy of the world: in some cases they would never have existed unless he had invented them. That was why they wrote touching obituaries. They felt like Pirandello’s six characters in search of an author, with the third act of their comedy unwritten. His death had left them less alive. But I did not know him well, so I have asked myself what, after all, was his achievement? What place, if any, will he be judged to have held in the cultural life of his country?

Many will answer none. They would claim that, having made something of a reputation as a bright reviewer in the years before the war with the customary young man’s first novel to his credit, he then wrote a book to explain why his promise would never ripen into achievement and, as it were, established his excuse. He had his brief moment of ascendancy during the war as editor of Horizon, an overrated little magazine far less important than the wartime Scrutiny. After that he settled for the quiet life, succumbing a willing victim to quite a number of the enemies of promise which he had so adeptly identified. He sank into the role of a Sunday newspaper reviewer contributing his weekly thousand words for the next twenty-five years.

He once seemed set on achieving that peculiarly European status of the Man of Letters. Yet no sooner had he mounted the throne than he abdicated. He threw away the scepter before it was snatched from his hand by the new generation of young critics who despised dilettantes and were to introduce into literary journalism new standards of seriousness and professionalism. Few under the age of forty cared for what he wrote. He even acknowledged his own failure: the self-parody, the idleness of his life, his habit of accepting publishers’ advances and never producing were all part of an inner irresponsibility, at once cultivated and at the same time exploited as a defense against those unkind enough to question his waste of talent.

Understandably enough he is sometimes classed as a lesser and later denizen of Bloomsbury. But anyone who knows the countryside of the English intelligentsia, crisscrossed with hedges and ditches, will realize that he did not inhabit their parish. He was far too besotted a hedonist. Forster said he gave pleasure a bad name. Bloomsbury, too, took to pleasure in middle age, but their pleasures were regulated and justified by the state of mind in which they were conceived as well as by the austerity of normal life. A party, a frolic, was earned, so to speak, by weeks of dutiful devotion to art or the cultivation of the mind and the opening of the heart. They were Arnoldians. They wanted to enlighten and have been attacked for their stylish device of flattering the reader by assuming that he has joined their conspiracy against Dullness and Stupidity.

Cyril Connolly mocked conventionality in a fashion that looked forward to Joyce rather than back to Diderot. Supreme egoist as he was, he made no secret of the fact that, as in Cardinal Wiseman, the lobster salad side of his nature was unusually well developed. In this his last volume of collected essays he sketches, like a drawing by Constantin Guys of the belle époque, the Oxford of the Twenties which Evelyn Waugh immortalized: the discovery of travel, waisted suits, monogrammed silk shirts, Oxford bags, foie gras and Yquem, nightclubs, that combination of hope, internationalism, bitterness and pessimism, and, inevitably, debts. (Is there a comparable overflow of reminiscences about the Harvard of those years? Does Mory’s evoke for Yale men the same nostalgia as the George?)

Throughout his life Connolly remained obsessed by Eton and Oxford. He was the most overeducated boy that Eton has produced in this century, reading Petronius in chapel and Aristippus of Cyrene in class. Disapproving of Eton where by sheer exertion of personality he overcame all obstacles and won success and happiness of a kind, loving Oxford where he was disillusioned and unhappy, unable any longer to conform to the rules of the game of worldly success, abandoning upper-class life for which he no longer had sufficient money while watching Evelyn Waugh make money and rise in the world to win acceptance among the very Etonians whom Connolly had once charmed but who now regarded him as eccentric, suffering under Waugh’s merciless satire and contempt, and seeing the circle of the intelligentsia to which he belonged, and his own flabby set of convictions, pilloried in each succeeding novel, yet at the same time hankering for the very world he had renounced so that, as the years passed, he would get more pleasure from meeting royalty, peers, and upper-class acquaintances who could revive for him by their style of speech, the slang they used, memories of the past—Connolly was haunted by the contradictions in his make-up. Yet these last essays show why if much has to be said against him, he had merits fast disappearing from the literary world today.

Connolly declared that there was no point in writing books unless he tried each time to write a masterpiece. That, he knew, was beyond him. But he did not turn his back on this conviction, and in a minor way he wrote three works of such singular brilliance that they will live.

The first is his account of his days at his preparatory school and at Eton in Enemies of Promise. In the interwar years, novels, biographical sketches, and reminiscences poured from dozens of authors about that curious education enjoyed or endured by the English upper classes. The public school novel which had begun with Tom Brown’s School Days and Eric or Little by Little (as distinct from the schoolboy yarn) became a recognized genre and, by the time Connolly published, the theme of the sensitive intellectual, enduring the Gehenna of communal school life, the glorification of the Empire, the cadet corps, and above all compulsory games and sadistic canings, had been almost played out. But no account can touch Connolly’s evocation of the extraordinary impulses, assumptions, delusions, and myths which made up the ethos of English boarding schools at the beginning of the century.

He revealed the upper-class value systems within the school world, exploring them far more subtly than Kipling had done in Stalky & Co; and whereas Kipling was writing about a poor middle-class hand-me-down version of the public school, Connolly was looking at Eton and at the relations between the 70 clever boys who would be the civil servants and leaders of the professions trained in the hothouse of “College,” the preserve of those who had won scholarships to Eton at twelve years old, and the 900 sprigs of the landed aristocracy, the great Etonian City clans, the gentry and the newly-rich, all of whom despised the Collegers.

Connolly’s ironical understanding of social relationships among the boys themselves, among the different peer groups, between the upper-class and middle-class boys, between the boys and their schoolmasters, between Eton, the symbolic personification of the ruling class, and the vast mass of boys and girls who grew up outside those charmed and hallowed buildings and playing fields and who were the rest of England—and, above all, his ability to write about these themes not as a social analyst or as a tormented intellectual but as an observer himself caught up in the conspiracy, at once a member of the junta and a spy within it, already judged and condemned—gave his account its special distinction.

Condemned…. The very titles of his collected essays, The Condemned Playground and Previous Convictions, sharpened his picture of himself as a character in Kafka. There could be no escape from sentence: unlike his fellow sufferer George Orwell, at both his prep school and at Eton, who could plead that he had rebelled and opted out of the system, Connolly pictured himself as an accused person without defense, too weak and compliant to abandon his social milieu, willing in the end by accepting election to Pop to settle for popularity and success at games as the arbiters of life, too wayward an individual to toe any party line. This was the theme of all his writing—and, of course, his defense.

Reflecting upon the life and letters of one of his Eton contemporaries, Anthony Knebworth, who died in an air accident, he saw him not as his father the Earl of Lytton naturally did, as a symbol of early promise cut off in its prime, but of early promise going sour in Baldwin’s England and turning in desperation almost to fascism. “He missed entirely the two great conceptions of our day: that of artistic integrity, the life of the spirit, and that of social justice, the palpable and obvious love of man for man.”

Connolly wrote one plea for artistic integrity in which he at last said openly and without apology that he was to be taken as he was. That is The Unquiet Grave, his second claim to be remembered. He thought of it as an explanation of his style of life, his tastes, his preference in art, and found in Vergil’s Palinurus, the pilot who fell asleep at the helm and slipped into the sea, yet tempest-tossed for three days was washed ashore only to be murdered by the savage inhabitants, a myth singularly appropriate to himself. But it is in fact an epitaph on his own generation of aesthetes, of the intelligentsia of his time, who put their trust in literature and the arts as other men put theirs in religion or politics.

Holy Writ is the literature of the world, of China as well as Greece and Rome; and you declare the sect to which you belong by your choice of texts. For Connolly the texts were the Odes and Epistles of Horace, the Eclogues and Georgics of Vergil, Villon, Montaigne, La Fontaine, the maxims of La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère, Pope, Leopardi, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Byron’s Don Juan: “What is common,” he asks, “in thought to these twelve writers? Love of life and nature; lack of belief in the idea of progress; interest in, mingled with contempt, for humanity…these masterpieces then (mostly high peaks of the secondary range) reflect either what [palinurus] would like to be, or a self to which he is afraid of confessing.”

Confession opens the road to salvation, and salvation consists in recognizing what a masterpiece is and acknowledging one’s own incapacity to create one; but, above all, it demands genuflection at the shrines of the dead artists who have endured in poverty, humiliation, and anguish the experience which they have recorded and through which we, feeble fellows, afraid to change our way of life and endure such hardship, live as best we may. Huxley in Texts and Pretexts created a new kind of anthology connecting groups of poems on aspects of life with gnomic comment. Connolly strings his commentaries on life together with lines of poetry, maxims, and aphorisms. Many people are revolted by the preciosity of The Unquiet Grave: some, including myself, regard it as the tombstone of a generation, a prose poem to luxury and nostalgia and a document for the historian of culture.

Like many intellectuals Connolly was a sort of socialist. For him this meant allegiance to the notion of the brotherhood of man and dissent from all Marxists, Fabians, revisionists, Trotskyites, anarchists, vegetarians, flower children, or flat-earthers who want to force their notion of social justice by making their fellow men swallow some disgusting medicine of their own concoction. He hated intolerance, dragooning, organization, discipline, adherence. After the defeat of Republican Spain he never wrote again on politics. No one ever doubted his detestation of fascism but when in 1939 the war came, he was not going to join what was called by the worthy “the war effort.” Philip Toynbee remembers chanting with him: “We hate the war. We hate the sex war, we hate the class war, we hate the war.” Along with E.M. Forster he defended, when the hiss of the world was in their ears, the decision of Auden and Isherwood to turn backs on Europe and the war, and in an essay in this work he quotes with approval Cocteau saying to a young poet about to join the Resistance: “Vous avez tort. La vie est plus grave que ça.”

Writing in this book about Wilde he praises him for the passage in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” which runs:

It is clear then that no Authoritarian Socialism will do…. Every man must be left quite free to choose his own work. No form of compulsion must be exercised over him…. The true perfection of man lies not in what man has, but in what man is…. What a man really has, is what is in him. With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true beautiful healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things or the symbols for things. One will live.

Passages such as these he praised as the true Wilde and far removed from the inferior sayings of “Oscar” such as: “There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else.” The example he chose was unfortunate: Oscar was far nearer the truth than Wilde. Characteristically Connolly backtracked—it is this that makes some of his essays flimsy—why would he not be bold and claim that social justice can be nothing but a vision and declare that there are times when one prefers visions to planning?

There are war veterans who look back with nostalgia to Horizon. Its first numbers coincided with the outbreak of the Second World War and they liked it precisely because it contained no edifying unction about the justice of the Allied cause. In those years when young intellectuals were determined not to be conned into the hatred and war hysteria of the First World War, and when they thought with some justice that the war was being fought among other things to preserve the life of the mind and the heart from Nazi book-burnings and Goebbels’s propaganda, they saw Horizon as the symbol that another and an eternal world existed despite the blitz and grinding war service.

The editors of little magazines proudly count the numbers of writers who make their names and whose first work appeared in their pages; and Connolly could claim his fair share. But Horizon’s claim to fame rested on his policy of making it cosmopolitan and concerned with the visual arts as well as literature. Not only disquisitions on French but on German and Russian literature and, above all, on American literature were published. Connolly believed that English novelists had become anemic and constricted. The inventive use of the English language had passed into the hands of American writers, in particular Faulkner and Hemingway (though he did say that he would regard being made to reread For Whom the Bell Tolls as an unspeakable ordeal). He was doglike in his devotion to Edmund Wilson, whom he regarded as the greatest critic of his time.

But it is his parodies, not Horizon, which Connolly can use as an obol to hand to Charon as he crosses the Styx. Connolly wrote how all his life he was plagued by his gift of being able to make people laugh. He invented a shorthand prose, spare, sharp, and quick, a rebuke to the mandarin prose he analyzed so acutely, an antithesis to Strachey’s or Logan Pearsall Smith’s shapely sentences, an analogue to the early Waugh. His three greatest triumphs were his evocation in “Where Engels Fear to Tread” of the progress from aesthete to Marxist of that feline and displeasing character Brain Howard, the prototype of Waugh’s Ambrose Silk; his scourge for Huxley “Told in Gath”; and “Bond Strikes Camp,” in which Connolly outdistanced Ian Fleming in fantasy. In this new volume the last two pieces are splendid confections.

Throughout so much of his writing there came bubbling out this marvelous gift of the absurd, of his own absurdity, but especially of the absurdity of those who sniffed at the immortality of art or who—too reverential—embalmed it. No one who demands that literature be studied with the intensity shown by Yvor Winters or R.P. Blackmur will endure Connolly’s Causeries de dimanche. Nor was he a scholar like his octogenarian Bloomsbury colleague on the Sunday Times book page, Raymond Mortimer, who continues to point out with a mock magisterial air inaccuracies and ignorant misstatements made by professors of literature and biographers.

Connolly frequently made slips; and when on the death of A.E. Housman he aired his considerable knowledge of Greek and Latin to list some of Housman’s imperfections as a poet, the classicists fell on him and his efforts elicited from John Sparrow the sentence: “Late for the funeral Mr. Connolly at least had the satisfaction of arriving in time to spit upon the grave before the mourners had departed.” In that controversy he had to admit his limitations and acknowledge that at that time to touch the Housmanic juju tree was punishable with death and torture. Yet it is Connolly’s judgment on Housman’s place in poetry which has endured today rather than that of his critics.

But anyone can pick holes in his writings. What is undeniable is that he exists as a person on the page after his death. A voice, totally individual, is speaking to us. You cannot confuse it with the voice of any of his contemporaries. How often can one say that of many of the most honored reviewers? Two of his phrases will pass into anthology: “In every fat man there is a thin man trying to get out.” “It is closing time in the gardens of the West.”

If you like to read in bed, indolently and affectionately, nothing is easier to pick up than these books filled with his agreeable idiosyncratic prose. He was fond of quoting “Time…worships language and forgives / everyone by whom it lives; / pardons cowardice, conceit, / lays its honours at their feet….” That is the excuse he gave for his life in the hope that having been transported to the Elysian Fields and able at once to tuck in to the nectar and ambrosia, he would recline upon a particularly thick bed of asphodel and moly and find a place next to Max Beerbohm and Saki.


Puzzling October 16, 1975