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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.

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    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.

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