The True Amateur

Friends of Promise: Cyril Connolly and the World of Horizon

by Michael Shelden
Harper and Row, 254 pp., $24.95

Why are so many people in England down on Cyril Connolly?” Edmund Wilson asked John Wain in 1957. Wain gave a sensible reply. Fashion had changed. The man of letters had been superseded by the professional academic critic. Empson and Leavis, Blackmur and Tate made discriminations and analyzed the text. Critics had at their fingertips examples of the intentional fallacy and the dissociation of sensibility. The critic now took his vocation as seriously as a young priest.

There was nothing priestlike about Connolly. What was worse, he mocked criticism. Only failed writers like himself, he implied, became critics. He regarded as absurd the claim of professors to question the values of writers and lecture them on their faults. Nor did he think much of the techniques of the New Criticism, and he was quick to spot how automatic all that strenuous activity became. It resembled an athlete building his muscles by weight-lifting: making with the blocks Connolly called it.

Connolly was also the victim of a significant social change in the English educated class. During the 1950s the intellectual grammar school boy displaced his public school contemporary. The Etonian dragonfly skimming over the lily pond of literature, shimmering as it explored the avant-garde, turning now an epigram, now a set of verses, cosmopolitan, at home in European languages as well as in Latin and Greek, was driven off by a cloud of wasps—sardonic, stinging, ironic, insular, and purposeful.

Few writers of Connolly’s talents have been so eager to disparage their gifts. He despised worldly success while giving the impression that he hankered after it. The wasps admitted that he diagnosed well enough the diseases that destroy young writers—social ambition that turns writers into journalists to make money; the pram in the hall; the splendors and miseries of public school education. But he had then given in to most of them. Why did he wallow in his failure to defeat the enemies of promise? Michael Shelden, an American professor, disagrees. He thinks Connolly should be given his due for his one undeniable success. When three months after the beginning of the war, Connolly and his friend and backer Peter Watson founded Horizon, they became friends of promise—friends to dozens of writers and artists who were to make their name in the magazine’s pages. In London readers of Shelden’s book have praised him for writing so convincingly about a milieu he never knew. His book exhibits American scholarship at its best: cool and tolerant in tone, it conveys the atmosphere of literary wartime London, and the exhilaration, the agonies, and the absurdities of Connolly’s circle.

It is true that Shelden only sketches Connolly’s early years—and indeed there was no need to write about his school days when Connolly himself had done it so well. It was at Eton that, despite being clever and ugly, he was elected against all the odds to the Valhalla of the well-born bloods—an emotional experience that Connolly thought handicapped him for life. But Shelden should have noticed that Oxford as much as Eton formed him. Oxford confirmed Connolly in his determination to be a failure.

He was one of the Oxford wits, part of a singular succession of talent during the 1920s. Maurice Bowra, the greatest don of his generation, was their animator. Bowra liberated his listeners by his unbridled talk about people, sex, poetry, and art. The power of Bowra’s personality, his overwhelming voice and play with words were imitated by his admirers. Osbert Lancaster took over his manner of speech, and Anthony Powell his penchant for litotes (“far from jolly,” “by no means bad”).

Connolly said that Bowra saved him from despair by his passion for poetry in many languages, and by introducing him to the heroes of the Modernist movement. He introduced him, too, to his friends. “This is Connolly. Coming man…hasn’t come yet.” The capers of the young Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton, and Brian Howard have passed into literary legend. But the Oxford wits in the 1920s were not all children of the sun. Kenneth Clark succeeded Roger Fry as the best-known art critic; John Betjeman was to have a remarkable influence on architecture and taste; Roy Harrod, John Sparrow, and Richard Pares were notable dons in their day; Graham Greene, Tom Driberg, and Claud Cockburn formed the maquis of the left; and Alan Pryce-Jones was as successful an editor after the war as Connolly was during it.

The wits gave Connolly his life’s vocation—to pursue the pleasures of sunshine, food, places, clothes, faces, and the memories of lovemaking. They also bequeathed to him the obverse of that inheritance: vanity, remorse, boredom, and angst. The wits were intensely competitive. To be as clever as the next man, to be invited to all parties of note, to give a party unique in its originality, panache, expense, and outrage was their ambition. They were undismayed by the charge of snobbery. They had an eye on London and a foot in it. To capture the citadels of the well-born and rich was an objective. “We were greatly impressed in a ninetyish way,” Connolly admitted, “by money and titles and the necessity of coming into closer contact with them.” All very different from Bloomsbury and the austerities of Cambridge.

Living up to the standards of the wits posed a problem for Connolly, and for three years he earned his living as a reviewer of novels, hating the work. Then he married Jean Bakewell, an East Coast American student. He was in love but soon after discovered that he had solved his problem. She came from a wealthy family. They lived on her money in Paris, in London, and on the Mediterranean, and he tried to write the novel that was to be a masterpiece. The Rock Pool was not a masterpiece: he could not create characters. Then eight years after he married he fell in love with another girl, determined to live with both, and was indignant when his wife closed their apartment and walked out on him. His novel and now his marriage were failures. The next failure was civilization. Europe went to war.

Connolly had for some months been trying to persuade Peter Watson, a charming, gentle homosexual who lived in Paris with his American lover, to finance a new little magazine. Watson had been reluctant but the war made him abandon his Paris apartment and his lover returned to America. So he gave way and Horizon was born. Paradoxically the time could not have been more propitious. The Criterion and the Mercury had folded, and the war was to prove for most of those in the armed and auxiliary services to be a time of sitting around and waiting. The boredom of war created Horizon’s audience.

Editors dream of backers like Watson. He was seriously rich, modest, never interfered, and brought a talent to the paper that Connolly did not possess—a talent that did not disturb Connolly as editor. Watson had a genuine knowledge of modern art, and Horizon became almost as well known for its articles on painting as for literature; Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud were among the artists celebrated in its pages.

Watson’s money enabled Connolly to indulge his whims as an editor. One of these was to accept numbers of contributions which were set up in galley and later spiked. He enjoyed spiking a contribution by Somerset Maugham, “good enough for Horizon but not good enough for me.” He also could lunch, dine, and wine potential contributors, a duty dear to his heart. Connolly also exploited the new vogue for interpreting the nation’s culture through ephemera. He published articles by Geoffrey Gorer, who wrote an anthropology of England, and also Orwell’s famous piece on boy’s weeklies with their stories written about mythical public schools, called Greyfriar’s or St. Jim’s, stories remote from reality but gobbled up by thousands of boys and girls who fantasized about such schools and would leave theirs at fourteen. The publication of Waugh’s The Loved One and his own The Unquiet Grave as separate issues of Horizon were characteristic of his flair for unorthodoxy.

But perhaps Connolly showed his talent as an editor not so much in his choice of contributors as in his determination to ignore the war and lose no opportunity to send up pompous and earnest pronouncements about it. That pleased young intellectuals who were resolutely antiheroic and were determined not to be fooled this time by propaganda about a noble war and a just peace. Nor did Connolly indulge his passion only for European writing. He was the first English editor to welcome American writers; and Hemingway and Edmund Wilson praised him. Just as Watson left all editorial decisions to him and would not have his name on the masthead, so Connolly left the running of the magazine to three indefatigable young women: Anna Kavan until heroin took over; Lys Lubbock; and Sonia Brownell, who was to marry the dying Orwell. It was just as well they ran the office since Connolly stayed in bed until midday, rarely appeared there, and took his proofs to the Café Royal for an extended lunch.

Part of Connolly’s success as an editor lay in his power to charm. His sense of humor made him wonderful company. People forgave his gargantuan selfishness, his laziness, his determination to do as he wanted despite obligations, financial, social, or moral. His behavior toward women does not bear inspection. “Infidelity,” he wrote, “that infallible rejuvenator,” calms the fear of growing old. “In spite of our decreasing charms we sweep young people off their feet, for young people do not understand themselves, and fortunately for us, can still be hypnotised by those who do.” For a few years he would establish a permanent relationship, as he did with his first wife or with Lys Lubbock. And then along would come some fascinator with whom he would depart. When the incumbent protested, he used all the tricks of emotional blackmail—if she left him, he would commit suicide, how could she torment him, did she not know what suffering she was causing him, how could he endure the burden of guilt he was carrying.

Women were his slaves. Shelden refers to the exquisite dinners Lys Lubbock and Sonia Brownell cooked for him in Sussex Place after the war, when rationing was even more severe than during it: he might have mentioned that when Lady Cunard and other grandees came to dine, his assistant editors ate what was left of their rations in the kitchen.

He had depended on Lys Lubbock more than on anyone else and promised to marry her: waiting for his first wife to divorce him she took his name. But excuse followed excuse, and affair followed affair. Maurice Bowra described her as a mouse at bay, but eventually the mouse turned. When Connolly took up with Barbara Skelton she left for America. No sooner had Connolly married Barbara than he was begging Lys to take him back. To marry Skelton was an act as rash as swimming across the crocodile-infested Zambesi river. But the explanation is to be found in The Unquiet Grave:

I am attracted by those who mysteriously hold out a promise of the integrity which I have lost; unsubdued daughters of Isis, beautiful as night, tumultuous as the moon-stirred Atlantic.

He certainly got tumult.

His other assistant was younger and of different mettle. Sonia Brownell repulsed all advances by men. She resembled a vulture circling in the air until she scented the carrion of a decaying marriage among her acquaintances when she would descend from the skies to pick at the carcass and comfort the stricken. She enjoyed being queen bee of the office, was pretentious and devoid of humor. Perhaps Shelden was wise to report most of the goings-on with a straight face, but Connolly’s old friends found hilarious the story of her escaping from Dick Wyndham’s advances by jumping into a pond and emerging to declare, “It isn’t his trying to rape me I mind, but he doesn’t seem to realise what Cyril stands for.”

Horizon died of natural causes. When peace came both Connolly and Watson set out on their travels and lost interest. And with peace the reading public began to fragment. Peter Watson, no longer so rich with the fall in the value of the pound, returned from New York with a new lover. This lover was not so self-destructive as his first, but more sinister and disturbed. Watson was always to be betrayed by shady acquaintances who sold his paintings or cheated him and played on his natural masochism. In 1956 he drowned in his bath in suspicious circumstances. But the bathroom door was locked on the inside and his lover, though under suspicion, was not charged. Fifteen years later the lover himself drowned in his bath.

Cyril Connolly had a happier fate, though in a sense it resembles that of Ben Gunn, the marooned seaman on Treasure Island. When the Hispaniola returned to Bristol, Ben Gunn spent the thousand pounds that was his share of the treasure within three weeks and was sent to wear livery and keep a lodge on the squire’s estate as he had always feared. Connolly, as he had always feared, settled down in the country with a wife half his age, a pram in the hall for the children, and wrote reviews for the Sunday Times to make a living. Moralists will shake their heads over him, but throughout his life he found life enhancers, such as Joan Leigh Fermor, who remained devoted to him. Barbara Skelton undressed him in public and left a memorial of him that resembles the beasts in the gardens of Bomarzo. But she remained obsessed with him and he with her.* Sheldon never quite succeeds in my view in conveying just how awful Connolly could be, or just how clever, witty, and stimulating.

Where does he stand as a writer? The wasps of the next generation of editors and reviewers in London still buzz and sting. Only the other day Ian Hamilton, poet and editor of the New Review, dismissed Horizon with a savage comment; and those who romanticize London in the Forties prefer the drunks in Fitzrovia to this fat cat. They cannot endure his levity, his snobbery, and his inability to be dull. Although the Oxford wits considered they had displaced the aesthetes of the Nineties, how much in retrospect Connolly looks like a successor to Wilde. Wilde pursued beauty, Connolly pleasure; both thought that to amuse and be amused was the mark of intelligence; and both were expert in self-pity. Just as Wilde used as symbols of beauty those tiresome lists of precious stones—beryls, chrysoprases, and chalcedonies—so The Unquiet Grave contains lists of nostalgic memories of pleasure:

Hôtel de l’Université for American college girls, Hôtel de Londres with its chestnut tree in the courtyard, Hôtel de Jacob for wasting much time; Hôtel de…. Central heated stations of the Cross; names that stir the lees within me…. Paris afternoons; the quiet of hotel bedroom and of empty lounge; the bed covered with clothes and magazines, programmes of the Pagoda Cinema, Ursulines, Studio Vingt-huit….

Like Wilde he would break off to tell a parable about two sages, one who pursued happiness, the other whose sole hope was to endure. Like Wilde he could be silly. Reject the industrial system, he said, reject the twentieth century, cultivate aloofness. “It is a suggestion of the primitive that I crave. Hence the appeal of sandals for they alone permit human beings to hold themselves naturally.” Like Wilde he considered himself to be a socialist of a sort, though he thought the socialized community was an enemy to art. Yet—so Paul Johnson, the leading English reactionary journalist, noted with disgust—practically all the reforms Connolly advocated, such as the abolition of capital punishment, the reform of the laws on homosexuality, and subsidy of the arts by the state have been achieved.

Connolly is the aphorist of angst and boredom. His own hero was Chamfort, an aphorist without hope or pity whose last words were “I am leaving at last this world where the heart must either break or turn to bronze.” “A man must swallow a toad every morning,” Chamfort observed, “if he wishes to be sure of finding nothing still more disgusting before the day is over.” Self-disgust, like self-pity, obsessed Connolly: he even imagined that soles and turbots borrowed the colors and contours of the sea bottom to express their self-disgust. The Unquiet Grave is Connolly’s lament for his inability to write the masterpiece that he considered all writers should try to create. Anyone who enjoys reading Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, or Halifax the Trimmer will recognize that he was in pursuit of a style to convey his fancies and doubts. He wrote so well.

It would not be a style of exquisitely turned sentences like Logan Pearsall Smith’s Trivia. He was too aware of what was happening to English prose. In the first section of Enemies of Promise there is the admirable dissection of the mandarin style, whose great exponents were Johnson and Henry James. But in the hands of Addison, Lamb, or Compton Mackenzie it became artful, whimsical, and affected. The colloquial style displaced mandarin, but though Connolly sympathized with the change, he knew that informality and simplicity have their own traps. To show where that style could lead he stitched together some sentences from Hemingway, Orwell, and Isherwood. The seams were invisible, so indistinguishable was the diction of one colloquial writer from the next. “Our language,” Connolly wrote, “is a sulky and inconstant beauty and at any given moment it is important to know what liberties she will permit.”

He thought the time was promising for experiment. He was wrong. For nearly all novelists writing in English, style became as obsolete as the epigram. But there was certainly one exception. Not among the Modernists whose fortunes he followed as a critic praising their achievements. Nor was it that voluble Mediterranean aficionado Lawrence Durrell. The writer who above all exemplified Connolly’s belief that style exists in its own right was that dedicated self-conscious stylist Vladimir Nabokov.

In the last piece of his last collection of essays Connolly pictured Logan Pearsall Smith telephoning him from the grave to ask where his reputation now stood. Connolly told him that the extra polish he had given his aphorisms was in vain: he was forgotten and unread. Perhaps wisely Michael Shelden made no comparison between Horizon and Leavis’s Scrutiny, which had a far more enduring influence on both sides of the Atlantic. The professors dismissed Connolly as lightweight. When he selected the hundred key books of Modernism, Frank Kermode showed how careless and inaccurate he was, labels doing service for labor: the book was so unworthy of him, so sadly bad the writing. He was treated as if he was a hunting parson who had blundered into the Oriel common room when Newman and Keble were discussing the illapse of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost.

But Connolly had the hallmark of the true amateur. He made his readers feel that he loved literature as much as his other pleasures in life. How few critics do. He was the last English man of letters to read Latin for pleasure, could quote Greek, knew Romance literature, and saw himself as an impresario for Modernism. He is not a totally minor figure like Le Gallienne or Crackanthorpe in the Nineties. For a time he may even be remembered for those miraculously funny satires on Huxley, James Bond, and on Brian Howard’s progress from aesthete to communist; and cultural historians will choose him as a classic interpreter of Twenties hedonism. If one pictures the culture of his days as resembling that High Renaissance edifice so beloved by his Edwardian schoolmasters, the Certosa di Pavia, then somewhere among the forest of statues Connolly’s squat figure will peer out from a niche, wearing an anxious yet amused expression.

  1. *

    Barbara Skelton, Tears Before Bedtime (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987); Weep No More (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1989).