Surviving in the Ruins

Cyril Connolly: Journal and Memoir

by David Pryce-Jones
Ticknor and Fields, 304 pp., $19.95

The Selected Essays of Cyril Connolly

edited by Peter Quennell
A Stanley Moss Book/Persea Books, 307 pp., $17.95

Enemies of Promise

by Cyril Connolly
A Stanley Moss Book/Persea Books, 265 pp., $6.95 (paper)

The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle

by Palinurus (Cyril Connolly)
Persea Books, 142 pp., $5.95 (paper)

The Rock Pool

by Cyril Connolly
Persea Books, 138 pp., $5.95 (paper)

In person Cyril Connolly was a gift to the rueful moralists and extravagant gossips of every kind in his generation, but above all to himself. He was an egoist and actor with many parts and impersonations. I often thought of him in middle age as a phenomenal baby in a pram, his hands reaching out greedily for what he saw, especially when it was far beyond him, or, if he got it, delighted for a moment and then throwing it out and crying to get it back. Marvelous at amusing us, lost or sulky when alone: a baby talked about by the nannies, principled, spiteful, or bemused, who, of course, gathered around the resourceful only child. He disarmed by parodying others and himself. He had his moods. “I have always disliked myself at any given moment,” he wrote. “The total of such moments is my life.” Yet soon he would be saying that his life was “a chain of ecstatic moments.”

One of his roles was the bohemian. Not as bohemian as all that, as David Pryce-Jones notes in his portrait, but rather dressy, a man who knew his tailors, almost a dandy, negligently upper-class. At his best, charming, formidable in knowledge, at his worst bad-mannered when he did not like his company. In these middle years he turned on himself. “A fat, slothful, querulous, greedy, impotent carcass,” he wrote in The Unquiet Grave; “a stump, a decaying belly washed up on the shore.” But, as David Pryce-Jones continues, there was pleasure in the words: the festive pleasure “latent in the vocabulary…suicide by aphorism…. He was not going to deprive himself either of the joys of excess or of the atonement which topped them off.” He could be very grave.

A fine critic, compulsive traveler, and candid autobiographer, author of Enemies of Promise and The Unquiet Grave—vocabulary was the making of him. It fitted him to crave, at least, to write “a masterpiece.” On that he lay down the law for all writers who wanted to count. He was extremely well educated. The Latin classics had been drummed into him at Eton, he had read widely in French, Spanish, and other languages. It would be a crime, he held, not to be a Baudelaire, a Flaubert, a Rochester, a Pope, Congreve, or Dryden, even a Sterne, where his English tastes lay, or an elegiac Roman poet. He had read them all and—as his critical writing shows—he had imagination and decisive images flashed with the speed of wit in his mind. What checked him? The pursuit of pleasure, dining out, chasing women, his spendthrift habits, even his love of conversation—he lists all the notorious traps. He adds his life’s grudge: writers without private means or patrons fall back upon reviewing other people’s books and it stultifies their creative gift. Like himself, they become, at best, men of letters; at worst, newspaper hacks who go public.

But, as David Pryce-Jones says, there is another buried …

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