The least you can do is read it
- Cyril Connolly: A Life by Jeremy Lewis
Cape, 653 pp, £25.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 224 03710 2
Cyril Connolly is famous now, and was famous in his lifetime, for not having written a masterpiece. A peculiar sort of fame: after all, many thousands of literary persons share the same distinction. Connolly, though, made a career out of insisting that his failure had a special poignancy, a poignancy which we should all attend to.
Others fail at literature because they don’t have the necessary talent. With Connolly it was different. It was not an insufficiency of giftedness that kept him from delivering the goods. With him it was something altogether more complex and intriguing: something to do with Eton, mother, Ireland, wartime, sex, the cultural Zeitgeist, laziness, food, money, publishers, disloyal or too loyal friends, and so on. Above all, and influencing most of the above, it was to do with his unfaultable – nay, altitudinous – Good Taste. And this Good Taste, he wished it to be known, was both a blessing and a curse.
Connolly knew a masterpiece when he encountered one. He couldn’t help himself: he had the palate. Furthermore he knew he possessed the kind of sensibility that went into the making of a masterpiece. He belonged, by natural kinship, in the company of high-art writers like Flaubert, Proust and James (or, as he contended for a while, Edith Sitwell, Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf), and therefore he could scarcely be expected to function at the same level as industrious pen-pushers like, say, Bennett or Galsworthy. He would much rather talk Proust over a posh dinner than sit at home and read a new novel by Jack Priestley. In many respects, and in spite of all the talk about becoming, or not becoming, a great artist, Connolly’s true vocation was to score points as a literary socialite. This being so, he had no wish to be praised for effortful near-misses. Far better not to try than to be thought of as a trier.
Of course, he did try – although, to judge from what we now know of his several inglorious false starts, he didn’t try too hard. The stance of ‘promise-victimised’ was picked up early on. At first, it was a self-defensive social ploy but over the years it was coaxed into a thoroughgoing style: a life-style and a work-style. Observing the dinner-table impact of lordly non-producers like Logan Pearsall Smith and Desmond MacCarthy, Connolly in his mid-twenties realised that failure, if worked on, could handsomely pay off. At worst, the notion of gifts wasted or withheld might lend a dark coherence to the most fragmentary output. At best, it might guarantee that any books he did vouchsafe would be greeted as provisional: mere preludes to the one that mattered. And if this book that mattered failed to happen, readers would scarcely blame its ‘author’. On the contrary, they might very well find in the book’s non-appearance both pathos and significance, a lesson to be learned.
And this, for almost five decades, was how it worked for Cyril Connolly – and still works, so it seems. His literary life is now studied as a kind of parable, or cautionary tale – which is pretty much how he saw it, and wished it to be seen. There have been five respectful books about Connolly since his death in 1974: about the same number as he himself produced, if we include collections of his book reviews. In the shops it is easier to find books about him than books by him. Nobody any longer wants to read The Rock Pool or The Unquiet Grave, except as period-pieces. Only Enemies of Promise (1938) has proved to have real staying power, and this largely because of a few golden phrases. And yet Connolly’s reputation is probably as high as it has ever been. Nice one, to be sure.