Cyril Connolly
Cyril Connolly; drawing by David Levine

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 theme in Enemies of Promise—the loss of willpower and failure of nerve in the upper-class English of his generation, who had exhausted that will after the huge achievement of the Victorian age and the 1914 war. By the Thirties the high bourgeois culture had lost its place and its grip. It had become a minority affair of coteries on the one hand—Connolly was a natural coterie figure—or had drifted into commercialism on the other. Not to mention the rise of fascism. A putative Connolly of today would groan that the man of letters is now “out” and that the sciences and, above all, the leveling effects of technology were driving out any hope of the masterpiece. Its public has gone.

The most startling and effective chapters of Enemies of Promise are those in which he analyzes the state of English prose and its past cycles:

The vocabulary of a writer is his currency but it is a paper currency and its value depends on the reserves of mind and heart which back it.

Journalists, politicians, and advertisers devalue this currency:

There was a time…when it was impossible to write badly. This time I think was at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the meta-physical conceits of the one were going out and before the classical tyranny of the other was established…. To write naturally was a certain way of writing well.

Until Addison ruined everything by making prose “artful, and whimsical…sonorous when sonority was not needed, affected when it did not require affectation.” Connolly’s early tastes were for the natural mandarins: for Dryden, Pope, Congreve, and Rochester. Addison turned it into a popular industry. “The quality of his mind was inferior to the language which he used.”

At this we turn to Peter Quennell’s selection of Connolly’s essays, to one on Sterne written when the critic was a mere twenty-three. He knew all about Sterne’s insincerity and smirking and that Tristram Shandy “must be the slowest of any book on record,” so that it often


reminds one…of the youthful occupation of seeing how slowly one can ride a bicycle without falling off; yet such is Sterne’s mastery, his ease and grace, that…[we feel] he will always keep his balance and soon there will follow a perfect flow of words that may end with a phrase that rings like a pebble on a frozen pond.

The clinching gift for images like that is one that Connolly never lost, when he cleared up his own early mandarin passages. If slothful, he was not so as a reader or in what he wrote. Rather, he was a perfectionist of a special kind.

I stay very close to the text—no soaring eagle, but a low-swung basset who hunts by scent and keeps his nose to the ground.

And so much depends on style,

this factor of which we are growing more and more suspicious, that although the tendency of criticism is to explain a writer either in terms of his sexual experience or his economic background, I still believe his technique remains the soundest base for a diagnosis, that it should be possible to learn as much about an author’s income and sex-life from one paragraph of his writing as from his cheque stubs and his love-letters.

Enemies of Promise was a book of warnings. From the mandarins, as he said goodbye to them, one could

borrow art and patience, the striving for perfection, the horror of clichés, the creative delight in the material, in the possibilities of the long sentence and the splendour and subtlety of the composed phrase.

We must reject such things as “woolly profundities,…whimsy,…archaism, pedantic usages.” The list is long. There should be no “when all is said and done,” no “to my way of thinking,” no “I must aver,” no “adventurers among their books,” no coy references to personal habits, no armchair. Among “the realists, the puritans, the colloquial writers” one must reject “the flatness of style,…the cult of a violence and starkness that is masochistic.” “Construction” is what we can learn from the realists, “that discipline in the conception and execution of a book, that planning which gives simply-written things the power to endure.” And “pruning”: without that “the imagination like a tea-rose reverts to the wilderness.”

It is very odd indeed that, except for a reference to Tolstoy he has nothing to say, in the books before me, on the Russian novelists, little about the Victorians. He was thinking only of his English contemporaries—Forster, Joyce, Firbank, Virginia Woolf, Lawrence—and always under the shadow of Flaubert.

Did Connolly think of his own “masterpiece” as being a novel? He wrote one, The Rock Pool, and is said to have tried another. Reading it again, one sees that it keeps to the text of his addiction to the indispensable Mediterranean and the passing dissipations of foreign artists in Cagnes. It shocked English publishers in the Twenties because it portrayed one or two lesbians. It caught the jargon and the spell under which the dizzy exiles of this Rock Pool lived. It is more interesting for its send-up of the typical sententious English youth down from public school and Oxford on his first spree; its theory of the permanent adolescence of the English type, pompous, snobbish, and mannered. The story connects with the attack on the concern with “character” and preparing for high office and rule at these schools in his time and fits very well with Connolly’s response to his and Orwell’s youth at Eton in Enemies of Promise. But if The Rock Pool dates it does establish lasting matters in his life: his inherited restlessness and love of travel; the obsession of aggressive or romantic islanders. (Always make your fortune overseas and release your “id” abroad. Even left-wing “little Englanders” have adopted Blake’s wish to establish a mystical Jerusalem “in England’s green and pleasant land” as their ideological anthem.)

Connolly’s forebears were English military men, always on the move, with Anglo-Irish, i.e., colonial, connections. Travel began when he was a child sent on long stays to southern Ireland where he was spoiled, and where he found Anglo-Irish castles and ancestral talk of Norman blood romantic. He even started to learn Gaelic but came to fear the lowering influences of the Celtic Twilight. He was taken twice to South Africa and often to France. These places, and particularly their landscape, with everything luscious and strange in nature, intensified his powers of minute observation. Exotic flowers, fruits, animals, birds, and insects were, so to say, his first “texts.” When he grew up he longed to return to the privileges of the Grand Tour; he tried a “modern” Grand Tour. He loved modern luxury. The great sights excited: he had little interest in the inhabitants. And despite his lifelong complaint that Eton’s old method of teaching Latin concentrated on endless construing of the sentences of the ancients, he identified himself in Italy with the Rome of Virgil, Tibullus, and Petronius: every site brings the art and literature and the importance of history to life.


So he is a discursive traveler, and those who condemned him for being a self-indulgent French and Mediterranean buff will find from his diaries and notebooks that he was a close observer of the streets of London and not only the fashionable or elegant: he was often doing an anti-Grand Tour in the East End, not as a topographer and social observer, but more as a collector of life stories.

He is always present in these wanderings, a man with an eye on his dinner, but bent on the great or extraordinary site—see the excellent essay “In Quest of Rococo.” He is always candid when he is bored or disappointed, very briskly himself, speculating on the relation of art to life and life to art. He never leaves out his own nostalgias and guilts; so that we come to see that if he ever wrote the indispensable masterpiece that “will last ten years” it would not be a poem or a novel but something compulsively autobiographical: the exposure of a temperament.

On mature travel, as Peter Quennell says in his introduction to the essays, a piece called “The Ant-Lion” is striking. Connolly is on the edge of Provence. At Albi he is looking at the extraordinary blood-red cathedral. Inside “the pious buzz like cockchafers.” The landscape is magnificent, the site on the cliff looking down on the Garonne is dramatic. But outside, Connolly, the naturalist, has been distracted by the gruesome sight of a fight to the death between two insects—the “ant-lion” and a gadfly. He goes on to the Bishop’s Palace. It is attached to the cathedral and astonishingly houses the pictures of Toulouse-Lautrec. The collector of the bizarre wakes up. The powerful mother of the painter had obliged the cathedral to turn the palace into a musée for the work of her dwarfish son: La Goulue, the Moulin Rouge in this holy place! The painter, he notes, is to Degas what Maupassant was to Flaubert, not of the first rank; he recalls an “artificial” world because “it excludes the sun,” and yet for all that he has “force and intelligence.” But an ant-lion on holy ground!

The wandering moralist lets his speculations run on. Holy ground? This is the country of the Albigensian heresy, the Cathari, who were massacred, who believed in abstinence from food. The Elect or Perfecti held procreation to be evil, were heretics who dreamed that when all men were equal and free they would live in static bliss and would cease to kill for a living. Well, lately we have had the story from Ladurie’s Montaillou, but Connolly’s imaginative leaps of association dramatize the scene. Characteristically, the cathedral, which had amazed, now disappointed him.

It turned out, indeed, that Connolly’s “masterpiece” was to be a traveling affair, an autobiographical myth, one of his own fables.

“Dry again?” said the Crab to the Rock-Pool. “So would you be,” replied the Rock-Pool, “if you had to satisfy, twice a day, the insatiable sea.”

Forty years after it was published, we come again to The Unquiet Grave, Connolly’s mythical confession and elegy which we notice he very characteristically called “A Word Cycle.” In the Fifties it was attacked as being a mere anthology, done by a lazy man, borrowing from others and his hoarded notebooks. It was abused for outre-mer snobbery and self-indulgence by the colloquial generation who found it morbid and depressing. In a revised introduction Connolly pointed out that it was written during the war when Londoners were indeed tired, depressed, and battered. But why drag in Virgil and the Palinurus myth? It turns out that Connolly had been haunted by it when he was a young man and had even mentioned Palinurus in his very first essay. Reading the book again Connolly did not find it morbid. He excused what he rightly considered the weakest part—the speculative passages concerned with depth-psychology; still they were worth it, “even if a loss to literature.” He denied the morbidity: he had set himself free.

All grief, once made known to the mind, can be cured by the mind, the manuscript proclaimed; the human brain, once it is fully functioning, as in the making of a poem, is outside time and place and immune from sorrow.

In Dryden’s translation of Virgil, Palinurus is the pilot of the ship that carries Aeneas away from Dido. He falls asleep during a storm and is thrown overboard, taking the rudder with him. It becomes his raft. The ship founders on the shore and the gods do not save the crew, who with Palinurus are butchered by the inhabitants. Later the gods repent and allow a minor Cape to be named after him. The juxtaposition of Connolly’s own griefs and tastes, his lusts, his failures, his moralizations, with the long quotations from the masters that orchestrate or comment on his experience enhances his private dilemmas. (Mere anthologies do not orchestrate.) His wit and his fantasies have their play:

My previous incarnations: a melon, a lobster, a lemur…


It is better to be the lichen on a rock than the President’s carnation.

His curiosity, especially in natural history, flashes out:

Why do ants alone have parasites whose intoxicating moistures they drink and for whom they will sacrifice even their young? Because as they are the most highly socialized of insects, so their lives are the most intolerable.

There is the satire in bravura passages on the Thirties:

Ah, see how on lonely airfield and hill petrol-station the images of Freud and Frazer are wreathed in flowers! From Wabash to Humber the girls are launching their fast-perishing gardens of Adonis far out on to the stream; with sacred rumbas and boogie-woogies the Id is being honoured in all the Hangars.


Our memories are card-indexes consulted and then returned in disorder by authorities whom we do not control.

Or more piercing, at the age of forty:

Everything I have written seems to date except the last lines I set down. These appear quite different, absolute exceptions to the law—and yet what dates in them does not vary but remains the same—a kind of auto-intoxication which is brought out by the act of writing.

Was The Unquiet Grave a work of auto-intoxication? Yes, but also an ordered cure by mythologizing in four parts, curing himself of guilt. The terrible sayings of Pascal dominate the first; in the second there is grief and remorse over loss of love and youth; in the third Sainte-Beuve (whom he more than half resembles) and Chamfort bring cynicism, philosophical resignation, and drive off the suicidal ravings of Nerval; in the final section of catharsis he relives the early stages of his love affair. Goodbye, Sainte-Beuve. There is an apology for the pursuit of happiness and he affirms the values of humanism. The epilogue is a pastiche of psychoanalytical jargon and Jungian exegesis, and then he fusses happily with the scholarly disputes about the story of Palinurus. For example—how did Palinurus, the pilot, manage to fall off the ship? How could he so conveniently carry the rudder with him so as to be able to use it as a raft? What were the rival factions in Olympus?

Here is cunning, moody Connolly in all his moods. With astonishing virtuosity he has brought his ruins to dramatic life as he mingles his own words with the lapidary utterances of his betters. The actor has created many roles for himself in his string of private tragicomedies. But—the desired masterpiece? It is a work of high craftsmanship, a minor classic, I think, in the tradition, say, of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, which was also packed with quotations and notes on hypochondria. Connolly has the advantage in the crispness of his nostalgias. He does not plod. Like Palinurus he was lucky in the raft that kept him afloat—that hated weekly stint for The Sunday Times; he can certainly claim his Cape.

This Issue

March 15, 1984