Sha-sha-sha through the open windows

John Bayley

  • Friends of Promise: Cyril Connolly and the World of ‘Horizon’ by Michael Shelden
    Hamish Hamilton, 254 pp, £15.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 241 12647 9
  • Coastwise Lights by Alan Ross
    Collins Harvill, 254 pp, £12.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 00 271767 0
  • William Plomer by Peter Alexander
    Oxford, 397 pp, £25.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 19 212243 6

The war is a long way back and young people take little interest in it, or in the feel of what was being said and written at the time. Lawrence, Yeats and Eliot go marching on, attracting obedient attention from each new generation of students, but this form of academic perpetuity does not extend to the writers who give each literary age its actual and particular flavour. Once it was Sir John Squire and Edward Shanks – obviously the most significant and influential voices of the time. During or just after the last war it was Connolly and Koestler and Spender, William Plomer, Alun Lewis, Dylan Thomas, Peter Quennell. Some still have life or fame or both, some not: but then, not now, was their moment.

Was Connolly himself any good as a writer? The question means little because the point of Connolly turned out to be Connolly not producing the masterpieces which he touchingly felt to lurk just a few months’ hard work away. He was not, like Byron or Stendhal, both a poet or a novelist and a legend. At the same time he was obsessed with the possibility. Probably the best account of his youthful self is in the first volume of Anthony Powell’s memoirs, Infants of the Spring. ‘He was one of those individuals – a recognised genus – who seem to have been sent into the world to be talked about. Such persons satisfy a basic human need. Connolly’s behaviour, love affairs, financial difficulties, employments or lack of them, all seemed matters of burning interest.’

The self-obsession with literary status, with the uncertainty, as Powell puts it, ‘whether it is better as a writer to be a success or a failure’, makes his more ambitious surveys of the literary scene, Enemies of Promise or The Condemned Playground, seem oddly feeble and indecisive today. His casual journalism was far better: witty, irreverent, unmistakable, a keen pleasure to read in the Sundays till the day of his death. I recall his comment on the pretentious lamentations of some Italian existentialist. ‘Duro formaggio, old bean.’ I also have memories of his own lamentations in The Unquiet Grave about his ‘marked Palinuroid tendencies’, and his fancy for an imaginary ancestor Palinurus Palinurus, ‘the common Mauritanian lobster, dapple-plated scavenger of the resounding sea’, who is invoked to ‘free us from guilt and fear’. All that is affected perhaps, but not pretentious: though it would attract few readers today, the book had something genuinely winning and intime about it. Barbara Pym’s journal records her love of it, as of the books of Denton Welch, another colourful figure from Horizon and the Connolly epoch. That common Mauritanian lobster, apparent survivor from the days of Gérard de Nerval and the dandies of Paris, touched an unexpected chord in the common reader of our own Home Counties. The success of The Unquiet Grave amazed its author.

It probably also finalised his block. Many of its obiter dicta, including probably the famous mot about the thin man inside the fat man, dated from the commonplace book of a much earlier period, almost undergraduate days. This is revealed by Anthony Powell, to whom it was submitted for possible publication when he was a junior at Duckworth’s in 1927, Connolly characteristically pleading: ‘If your firm doesn’t like it, make some excuse when you give it back to me. Say the Autumn List is already full, or something like that. Not just that they don’t think it good enough to publish.’ The same diffidence made him choose later the sobriquet of Palinurus, the steersman of Aeneas in Virgil’s poem (after whom the lobster presumably was named). Perhaps he saw himself as the expert helmsman who nodded off and drowned on his way to a masterpiece. He inscribed in Powell’s copy:

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