Cyril Connolly: A Life
by Jeremy Lewis
Jonathan Cape, 653 pp., $19.95 (paper)
A 600-page biography of a book reviewer may seem an eccentric and supererogatory undertaking. However, Cyril Connolly: A Life is not only a fascinating portrait of a greatly gifted man whose work deserves to be remembered, but also a survey, lightly executed yet remarkably comprehensive, of a generation of Englishmen—it was practically all men, in those days, with one or two notable exceptions—who in youth seemed set to achieve great things, but whose subsequent careers fell far short of expectations. This is the generation that produced such fine artists as W.H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, and Benjamin Britten, but also, for example, Maurice Bowra, Harold Acton, Constant Lambert: not failures, exactly, but men whose early promise did not lead to work of the first rank.
Cyril Connolly was quintessential of the latter category of underachievers—and he knew it: hence the title of his best-known work, Enemies of Promise. In his youth his brilliance, energy, and erudition marked him out as one who would surely do something great, but in adulthood he allowed sloth, self-pity, and a strong taste for luxury to stunt his development as a literary artist. He was forever about to embark on this or that magnum opus, the novel or volume of criticism that would be the wonder of the age; however, his book-length works failed to live up to his ambitions, especially his only novel, The Rock Pool, published in Paris in 1936, a wan little tale of 1920s bohemianism among expatriate English in the South of France. Enemies of Promise, published in 1938, is described by Lewis as “a curious, wonderfully original hybrid,” and certainly it is true that nothing quite like this eclectic blend of criticism and autobiography had been written before. The Unquiet Grave, published under the pseudo- nym Palinurus—the fatally sleepy pilot of Aeneas’ homebound ship—appeared just as the war was ending. It too is a hybrid, a sort of glorified commonplace book of aphorisms, literary reverie, scraps of memoir, and quotations from wonderfully obscure sources and authors.
Connolly’s finest writing was done in the columns of magazines and periodicals, including, occasionally, The New York Review, and, most notably, the London Sunday Times, which in his day was still one of the world’s great newspapers. “My journalism is literature,” he wrote, a claim that is surely justified. His criticism was elegant, highly burnished, informed and informing, and above all generous—as Jeremy Lewis points out, Connolly the self-professed failure was acutely conscious that a second-rate talent will be wounded just as deeply as a first-rate one at the hands of a cruel reviewer.
In the superb opening pages of his biography, Jeremy Lewis characterizes his subject as an incurable romantic who yet suffered from “an unwavering, almost masochistic realism about his weaknesses and failings.”
It is this mixture of restless yearning and terrible honesty that makes him so sympathetic and perceptive a guide to the perils and pleasures of life, evoking again and again feelings …