The Friend of Promise

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 and states of mind that are common to us all; his wit was underwritten, as wit so often is, by a corrosive sense of melancholy and loss; he celebrated the pleasures of love and food and literature, yet, like all romantics, he pined for what was lost or out-of-reach; he combined selfishness with generosity, a sense of his own worth with a dread of being snubbed or disliked, an editor’s feel for the spirit of the age with an anarchist’s urge to react against it. He frittered away his gifts, as he saw it, on ephemeral book reviews, yet—fragmented and fragmentary as it almost always is—his writing when taken as a whole is shot through by recurrent themes and images, and so permeated by his personality and his own experiences that its glittering shards, when pieced together, form an ever-evolving autobiography, that condition towards which all his writing aspired.

Cyril Vernon Connolly was born in “a modest suburban house” in the unlikely city of Coventry in 1903. His father, Matthew, a soldier, was stationed there at the time; later the family moved to the much more suitable Bath, and it was here that Cyril passed his childhood. His mother, Mollie, an enduring but elusive presence in his life, was an Irishwoman, a Vernon from Clontarf, in Dublin. The Vernons were a rather grand Ascendancy family, something which was a source of deep satisfaction to her always childishly snobbish son.1 Mollie Connolly carried on a long, sporadic relationship with her husband’s onetime commanding officer, eventually, in the mid-1930s, abandoning husband and son to go to live with him in South Africa. It does not take a Freudian to see in the adult Cyril’s constant need to be mothered an unassuageable yearning for the natural mother who was never fully there for him. “I sometimes think it must seem to you as if I had always deserted you,” Mollie wrote, in her characteristically vague and understated manner; her son at the time was in his fifties.

Although he might have been expected to resent his mother deeply—and perhaps he did—he was generally kind in his treatment and descriptions of her. Toward his father, on the other hand, his feelings were unexpectedly sharp. “I was an only child of a father who drank and who made my mother unhappy and whom it was dangerous to approach after nightfall,” he wrote; he went on to confess that where his father was concerned, “shame rather than hate was my emotion….” For all that, Matthew Connolly comes across in Lewis’s treatment of him as a delightful eccentric who might have been invented by Evelyn Waugh. He had many interests other than soldiering.

A towering figure in the world of snails, and South African snails in particular, he was to become the author of—among other seminal works—A Monographic Survey of South African Marine Molluscs… and The Land Shells of British Somaliland, as well as learned papers for the “Proceedings of the Malacological Society” and the “Annals of Tropical Medicine and Parasitology” on such matters as bilharzia in South-West Africa or the activities of a giant snail in Ceylon which, pestilentially, was given to licking the paint off window-frames.

Nor did snails exhaust the reach of Connolly père’s interests. He was also an authority on the pedigree of thoroughbred horses, a world-class philatelist whom the Stamp Collector acknowledged as “the greatest authority on Railway Parcels stamps,” and, perhaps most remarkably, a renowned expert on potted meats and pâtés, and the author, under the crafty pen name “A Potter,” of Pottery: Home-made Potted Foods, Meat and Fish Pastes, Savoury Butters. Though bibulous, certainly, this polymath was hardly the sot that his fastidious son castigated to his friends as “belching and coughing and lurching to the rears [lavatory]….” This was the 1920s, and the old boy was downing a bottle of port a day, not an excessive intake, compared to others of his class and age. Connolly fils, however, was unrelenting: “Worse than most of his faults are the noises he makes eating and far worse digesting….” Reading these passages inevitably brings to mind the visits by Charles Ryder to his father’s house in Brideshead Revisited.

Cyril was almost ten before he was sent to school, first to St. Christopher’s in Bath, then to St. Cyprian’s prep school in Eastbourne, which boasts of Cecil Beaton and George Orwell among its former pupils, and which Connolly described as typical of England before the First World War: “It was worldly and worshiped success, political and social; though Spartan, the death-rate was low, for it was well run and based on that stoicism which characterized the English governing class and has since been underestimated.” At St. Cyprian’s Connolly developed two of his interests, namely, light verse and homosexuality. The former was to be a lifelong source of amusement and mild literary satisfaction; although he would have hated to hear it said, he had a real gift for clever doggerel. Here is the schoolboy versifier describing St. Cyprian’s creepy matron:

Stalk and sneak, stalk and sneak
Maid of the rubbered shoes
Sneak, sneak, every week,
Maid of the rubbered shoes
Over the cubicle wing you go
Hearing the red room whisp’ring low
Low as a murmuring sea…

Homoeroticism, too, was to be a continuing temptation from the straight and narrow path he longed to have the resolve to keep to. Throughout his childhood and youth he fell repeatedly, pantingly, in love with boys. These seem to have been affairs more of the heart than of the genitalia—although as an adult Connolly did recount a dream in which his first wife came to him and announced that she had a wonderful gift for him, and lifted her skirt to reveal that she had acquired a penis.

We should not make too much of this predilection: rare was the boy who passed through the public schools of England without afterward undergoing a more or less protracted period of sexual confusion. One early love of Connolly’s, Noël Blakiston, remained a friend for life; an early fragment of fiction expresses Connolly’s rapturous first glimpse of the beloved, “…the tousled hair and the intolerable beauty of the slim brown arm and the bony elbow fused and mingled in his heart….” More than fifty years later, when Connolly was on his deathbed, Blakiston was one of the people who brought him comfort by reading aloud to him.

After St. Cyprian’s, Connolly was sent to Eton, which he adored, a reaction not shared by all internees of that venerable institution. Here his snobbery came to full, luxuriant flower. Late in life he recalled how he and his fellows used to study with fascination the publicly posted lists of the names of all the boys at the school along with the names and addresses of their parents or guardians: “Although we were supposed not to be snobs, except about those who were good at games, some of those addresses were unforgettable: ‘c/o H.M. King of the Belgians’; ‘Duke of Hamilton, The Palace, Hamilton’; ‘Sirdar Charanjit Singh of Kapurthala, Charanjit Castle, Jullundur City, India.”’

If Eton was bliss, then Oxford was very heaven. Connolly arrived at Balliol College already a full-fledged aesthete, “reading Pater’s Marius the Epicurean and Huysmans’ A Rebours, and doing his best to burn with a ‘hard, gem like flame.”’ This was not all pose: from very early on Connolly had a passionate love of literature, and his reading was very wide, from the classics to the moderns, although in after years he bemoaned the fact that he had been slow to appreciate the full significance of works such as Ulysses and The Waste Land, both of which appeared in 1922, when he was nineteen. But he was admired, and even feared, for his erudition, as well as for his quick wit and gift for mimicry. Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford throughout their long correspondence made endless fun of him, dubbing him “Smartiboots,” but behind their sniggers lurked awe and resentment in equal measure.

The pages Jeremy Lewis devotes to Connolly’s Oxford years are wonderfully evocative, and in them readers of the early novels of Evelyn Waugh and, in particular, of Brideshead Revisited, will find themselves in familiar territory. However, while acknowledging the splendor of this golden world, Lewis brings a healthy dash of skepticism to his portrait of it and its gilded inhabitants. For instance, his treatment of the Dean of Balliol, F.F. “Sligger” Urquhart, who exerted such a deep influence on scores of Oxford students in the 1920s, is drolly ironic. Urquhart, whom Connolly described as a “Dean whom you can pinch, put your arms round his neck and call Sligger without any self-consciousness at all,” was in his fifties, a “quintessential bachelor don,” as Lewis has it, who no doubt “dreamed of sleeping with a good many of the handsome young men with whom he surrounded himself.”

Although Connolly was by no means unique in having a “crush” on Urquhart—there were indeed many of those “handsome young men”—it is an instance of a weakness he had at that time for clever, bookish, and slightly repellent father figures. Another such was the American writer Logan Pearsall Smith, best known for his book of aphorisms defiantly entitled Trivia. Pearsall Smith, another bachelor of indeterminate sexuality, had a private fortune, which allowed him to keep a Tudor-style mansion in the country called Big Chilling, and a townhouse in Chelsea, which he shared with his sister. Connolly worked for a time as Pearsall Smith’s secretary, and allowed himself to be influenced by the older man’s prose style, and no doubt learned from him something of the aphorist’s art, of which he was to be a remarkable practitioner—everyone knows at least one of Connolly’s bons mots, and usually it is his observation that inside every fat man there is a thin man signaling wildly to get out.2

The years at Oxford and immediately after were some of the best Connolly was to know. He read, fell in and out of love, studied intermittently, talked, and, above all, traveled. Ah, the assurance of those Oxbridge travelers between the wars! Connolly would set off with hardly more than a satchel of books and a change of underwear and wander footloose across the face of Europe and beyond, never doubting that at the end of the day there would be a meal and a glass of good wine and a bed for the night, whether he could afford to pay for them or not.

France was an early and enduring love. In his freshman year at Oxford he traveled to Italy, the Low Countries, and into France, there discovering one of his favorite cities, Bordeaux, and the restaurant he was to return to throughout his life, Le Chapon Fin (which is still there, and still superb). Some of his finest paragraphs were inspired by his experiences of France. Here he is recalling, in The Unquiet Grave, the time he and his first wife, Jean Bakewell, spent living together in a house called Les Lauriers Roses in Sanary, near Toulon:

October on the Mediterranean; blue skies rinsed by the mistral, red and golden vine branches, wind-fretted waves chopping round the empty yachts; plane trees peeling; palms rearing up in their dingy underclothes; mud in the streets, and from doorways at night the smell of burning oil.

Not only culture but the natural world held a deep attraction for him. He was a lifelong animal lover, and in those early days with Jean in France and England he kept a menagerie of domestic pets, if that word can be applied to such exotic creatures as kinkajous, marmosets, and lemurs, this last a favorite: “To have set foot in Lemuria is to have been close to the mysterious source of existence….” In later years he was able to afford to go on safari in Africa to study the wildlife, especially elephants, another enthusiasm.3 On his seventieth birthday, his friends arranged a surprise party for him at the London Zoo, an occasion which he enjoyed with childlike pleasure.

Despite his undoubted brilliance, Connolly’s time at Oxford was academically undistinguished, and after graduation he experienced a period of drift, suffering from that melancholy and ennui familiar from the novels and memoirs of so many of his contemporaries, who like him had suffered the shock of expulsion from the edenic groves of academe. Without really meaning to, he became a book reviewer, not dreaming that this was to be his life’s calling. He took to the work with supreme confidence. Lewis quotes a passage from Connolly’s “wonderfully assured” first signed review, in The New Statesman, of a seven-volume edition of the works of Laurence Sterne:

The tempo of Tristram Shandy… must be the slowest of any book on record, and reminds one at times of the youthful occupation of seeing how slowly one can ride a bicycle; yet such is Sterne’s mastery, his ease and grace, that one is always upheld by a verbal expectancy, slow though the action moves he will always keep his balance and soon accelerate till there follows a perfect flow of words that ends often with a phrase that rings like a pebble on a frozen pond.

What is remarkable here is the way in which the sentence itself, in its slow, assured acceleration and ringing closure, is a perfect illustration of the very effect it is describing. Control and balance such as are displayed in this earliest example of his work justify Connolly’s claim that his journalism at its best rises to the condition of literature. He was, surely, one of the century’s finest prose stylists, and it is, as he himself frequently and loudly proclaimed, a tragedy that he could not find a form weighty and sustained enough in which to produce the masterpiece he was convinced he was capable of. Connolly’s friend, the writer and editor Alan Ross, rightly declared that Connolly wrote

a prose that was more allusive, suggestive and elegant than perhaps anyone of his time; a prose at once reflective, wise and just. It may have been the prose of a man who was vulnerable, greedy, devious and susceptible to most vices, but in the last resort, perhaps because of all this and despite his own frequent depressions and disappointments, he was able miraculously to convey the excitement of reading and traveling, loving and looking, study and literature.

In politics, Connolly was a liberal, a position not guaranteed to win him friends or admirers in the 1930s, a decade drunk on ideologies. His background and education were naturally conservative, but the milieu in which he came to adulthood was largely left-wing, and very many of his peers became enthusiastic and, in some cases, active Communists. “I am,” he wrote, “probably happiest with liberals for they share my interests and my education, but the social injustice beneath their intellectual freedom I cannot forget.” He took a strong stand against political commitment in art, and throughout the war and into the politically charged 1950s he committed Horizon, the literary magazine which he founded and edited, to the passionate defense of artistic independence. In a review in the New Statesman in 1937 he pithily stated his position: “Literature is something which is just as good in ten years’ time, propaganda is not, and the contrast is acute for many.”

In the dark days of May 1943, while war raged in Europe, Horizon ran a masterful essay by Raymond Mortimer on Henry James, whose centenary fell that month; in the “Comment” spot Connolly wrote that James had become “the symbol of a certain way of life, a way that is threatened not only by the totalitarian enemy but by the philistine friend….” As he had written in Enemies of Promise, “Being political is apt to become a full-time job.” His own writing was a model of liberal balance and what might be called passionate detachment, while in the ten years in which Horizon flourished the magazine helped to maintain significantly high standards in a low time.

One of the chief enemies of promise for Connolly was women. He was not good-looking—he was stout, squat, with a bulbous head and the features of an overfed Silenus—but he was loved by some of the most magnificent women of his time and circle. His first wife, Jean Bakewell, was an American heiress, a Junoesque “tall dark girl with a pale oval face, a slightly sullen expression and short boy’s hair.” The marriage was a stormy one, and although they parted early, Jean was probably the woman he cared for most deeply and enduringly. Among his other loves was the beautiful, long-suffering Lys Lubbock, who worked for Connolly on Horizon; Lys was so much taken with him that although they were not married, she changed her name to Connolly. After Lys came the redoubtable Barbara Skelton, a “pantherine femme fatale,” Lewis writes, “with a sinuous body, tawny skin, golden hair, high cheekbones under lynx-like eyes, and a manner that was unnervingly both humorous and malicious, taunting and farouche….” Connolly was still living with Lys when he met Barbara, who at the time was having simultaneous affairs with the writer Peter Quennell and the painter Feliks Topolski.

Connolly himself went in for multiple affairs, and to the end of his life he was usually entangled in impossible ménages from which he could not, would not, and usually did not want to extricate himself. In 1959, when he was fifty-six, he married for the third and last time. Deirdre Craven was some thirty years younger, tall, beautiful, loving, a divorcée with two young children. In time she would present Connolly, to his boundless delight, with a daughter, Cressida, and a son, Matthew, who were to be the joy of his old age, when he had bought a house and settled in Eastbourne, site of his old prep school.

By now he was the chief reviewer for The Sunday Times, in which position he had become a kind of national institution. However, age and respectability had made him neither pompous nor remote; on the contrary, his reviews for the Times were as lively and adventurous as those he had written as a young man. I can still remember vividly some of those pieces, especially a generous notice of Basil Bunting’s long (and unjustly neglected) poem Briggflatts, which Connolly candidly admitted he did not understand, but which he considered to be a work perhaps as significant as The Waste Land. This was a model review: elegant, learned, infectiously enthusiastic, and touched with that humility which was characteristic of a writer who recognized the first-rate when he saw it, while knowing that he himself could never aspire to such eminence. It was one of Connolly’s great strengths as a reviewer that one knew one could trust him neither to oversell the work under review, nor to undermine it out of jealousy.

Connolly, along with Edmund Wilson, V.S. Pritchett, Philip Toynbee, Raymond Mortimer, and one or two others, was among the last members of a guild that is as dead now as those of fletchers or mole-catchers. Although neither an academic nor a novelist or poet, he made a living from writing, and in doing so contributed to the maintenance of a living literary culture. Such a career would be unthinkable today for an aspiring writer whose talent is for criticism. In 1971, Harold Evans, then editor of The Sunday Times, wrote to Connolly to say that he was increasing his salary to å£4250 a year, which for those days was a comfortable living wage. In return, Connolly wrote one review a week, coming up on Thursdays by train from Eastbourne to deliver his copy by hand.

Early in his life he had declared that the sole task of the artist is to produce masterpieces, and he never wavered from that belief, despite his sorrowful acknowledgment that he would never be among those masterworkers. He unashamedly championed “High Culture,” convinced that an appreciation of literature is a prerequisite for the civilized life of a community. Were he alive today, he would be accused of “elitism” and “discrimination,” to both of which charges he would stoutly confess himself guilty. Anthony Powell said of him that “he knew more than the average about many things, but aspired to know all there was to be known about everything,” and if this intellectual eclecticism condemned him to be lightweight, still he was a formidable force in literature, in taste, and in living.

He was just past seventy when his health began to fail, from unspecific causes against which he put up scant resistance; perhaps he had glimpsed what the future—our present—held for literature and the life of the mind. He faced death with a stoicism that may seem surprising; as his friend Anthony Hobson noted in his diary, “Cyril is dying like a poet, in the sense that Erasmus used the word of himself, that is, a humanist whose life is based on the study of classical ethics and ancient literature.” More prosaic, however witty, is the remark of another friend, the well-to-do Sir Harry d’Avigdor-Goldsmid, who footed the medical bills: “Cyril is dying beyond my means.” Characteristic of this dedicated sybarite were the rich trappings of his going, the Harley Street clinic, the private nursing home, the debts left unsettled, among them a å£27,000 bank overdraft. Yet he had given much in return. As Philip Toynbee wrote to him, remarking the importance of Horizon during the war years, Connolly’s was the “voice of pleasure, sanity, wit and the imagination at a time when all were treated as almost treasonable.” He was, simply, and above all, a fine writer, and Jeremy Lewis, who himself is a master of measured and elegant prose, has done him proud.

  1. 1

    He would surely be saddened to know that the Vernon family mansion at St. Anne’s in Clontarf was leveled a few years ago: nothing now remains of the house save a raised grassy mound in the midst of an expansive but rather drab public park. Closing time, indeed, in the gardens of the West.

  2. 2

    A memorable adaptation of this aphorism is attributed to the Irish writer Seàn MacReamoinn: “Outside every thin girl there is a fat man trying to get in.”

  3. 3

    He wrote fondly about them in these pages: The New York Review, January 25, 1973.