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 …

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Letters

Puzzling October 16, 1975