The least you can do is read it

Ian Hamilton

  • 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.

Philip Larkin once wrote that Connolly was ‘at his best when able to assimilate his subject into the scenario of his own temperament’. But for connolly such assimilation was compulsive. Almost everything he wrote was touched with woe-begone selfconsciousness. His humblest book reviews gave out an air of grievance: why am I doing this? If things were otherwise, he seemed to say, if he were richer, thinner, better-looking, luckier, more disciplined, we wouldn’t be reading this review, and he would hot have had to write it.

When other people wrote scornfully about these same reviews, he got annoyed. He wanted to be admired for his professionalism almost as badly as he wanted to be pitied for his damaged promise. He liked always to be in-between: in between art and its enemies, in between wives, in between books, in between countries, North and South. He liked to draw up self-dissecting lists: ‘I can’t bear to be unpopular, though I enjoy being hated’; ‘I am too much of a snob to be a bohemian’; ‘I am always trying to wound others, while remaining infinitely vulnerable.’ To be Cyril Connolly meant being ‘a lazy, irresolute person, over-vain and over-modest, unsure in my judgments and unable to finish what I have begun’. It also meant being pitilessly self-revealing (or tediously self-obsessed, as some believed). ‘In myself,’ he used to say, ‘I recognise three beings. 1. The romantic, melancholy artist. 2. The 18th-century hedonist. 3. The efficient 20th-century left-wing intellectual.’ Small wonder, runs the subtext, that I’m finding it difficult to write a book. As Jeremy Lewis’s admirable biography shows, Connolly’s life was pimpled with ‘if onlys’. His dream, he once testified, was to ‘live in one lovely place always pining for another, with the perfect woman imagining one more perfect’.

Sexually, he was forever in a state of indecision. At school, he pined for perfect boys, and with boys his wooing style was spiritual and bookish. These Eton crushes were more painfully intense than anything that afterwards happened to him in this line. Once he discovered women, he became more casual and abrupt in his liaisons, though always likely to set up a mighty howl when things went wrong. Women were like mothers (Connolly’s own mother was mostly absent from his childhood, having run off with her husband’s boss): he liked them to cuddle him and give him pocket money. There was always a feeling, though, that he blamed them for not having been to Eton. ‘A certain austerity of taste,’ he once observed, ‘has made me always revolt from the curves of the feminine shape.’ As with his writing, women could never quite shape up, could never be the masterworks he yearned for. Only now and again was he fortunate enough to find ‘a lovely boy-girl ... like a casual, loving, decadent Eton athlete’. Connolly’s conduct with women was alternately bossy and babyish – a winning formula, to judge from his strike-rate. Lewis amiably guides us through Connolly’s numerous affairs and marriages without ever being able to tell us what these women saw in him. But then the women themselves seemed not to know, much of the time. He was – well, he was just ‘poor Cyril’.

In Enemies of Promise, Connolly divided current fiction into the Mandarin and the Vernacular (this was the late Thirties). To which mode did he belong? Needless to say, this was not altogether clear, except that his testy judgments on the Mandarin were pretty mandarin: lots of showy condescension, and not much substance. Most readers were probably left with the idea that connolly was too gutsily realistic to be like Virginia Woolf, and too elegantly mannered to be like D.H. Lawrence. As always, he was somewhere in between. This was his natural terrain. When there were two things to be had, he wanted both. He wanted to be old-fashinoned. He also wanted to be up to date. He preened himself as a high-grade connoisseur of bygone beauties. At the same time, he liked to be seen as a rule-breaking avant-gardist. He dreamed of being a bookman of vast leisure, with a private income, a well-stocked cellar in the country and a great library of first editions, but he also got a kick out of studying the mechanics of down-at-heel Grub Street survival. He wanted to be left-wing; he wanted to be right-wing. Most of all, and without equivocation, he wanted his equivocations to be talked about. And talked about by people who knew how to talk, and who spent lots of time talking to each other. Waughs, Flemings, Mitfords, Bowras, Nicolsons, Woolfs, Powells, Clarks: the list was wonderfully challenging, ineffably discordant in its inner workings. What, though, if they could all be made to love Cyril as they ought to: love him but never finally quite fathom him?

It is perhaps not surprising that Connolly’s peak writing triumphs – the words of his we want to keep – turned out to be in modes like parody and aphorism: humble modes which nonetheless thrive on a rhetoric of self-assurance, modes in which his irresolution could be projected as a form of social dominance. As jester or as sage, he was loldly above the fray and yet mysteriously on the ball. Another winning formula, and Lewis traces its drawing-room effects in ardent detail. The kind of people Connolly most wanted to impress, and did impress, were the kind of people who wrote lots of determinedly well-written letters. Lewis is skilful in his use of these – would indeed be somewhat lost without them. His intelligent and conscientious book ought not to be described as ‘gossipy’, but almost everybody in it was a gossip. And Cyril, as he himself had hoped and planned, was first-rate gossip fodder.

Connolly’s parodies of his literary contemporaries were rightly considered to be brilliant at the time, and they still raise a laugh, but were they intended to be spiteful or admiring? When pressed, Connolly would own that they were probably a bit of both. His aphorisms (heavily indebted to Logan Pearsall Smith’s Trivia books: he worked as Smith’s secretary for a time, and envied his employer’s well-heeled other-worldliness) were in general less sparkling than his literary take-offs but quite a few have now become part of the language. One need only check the standard dictionaries of modern quotations to realise that here, if anywhere, lies Connolly’s true immortality. The best of his maxims were from the heart: ‘Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising’; ‘There is no more sombre enemy of art than the pram in the hall’; ‘Imprisoned in every fat man a thin man is wildly signalling to be let out.’ (According to Lewis, incidentally, this fat man/thin man trope was probably lifted from George Orwell.) The worst of them – indeed the average – now seem pompous and banal: ‘No one can make us hate ourselves like an admirer’; ‘All charming people have something to conceal, usually their total dependence on other people’; ‘Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice: journalism what will be grasped at once.’ But even with these lead balloons we are meant to catch a whiff of the authentic Cyril: meant to marvel at his stoic poise, then scratch our heads. Poor Cyril. Poor impressive Cyril.

During the war years, Connolly’s inbetweenness found its perfect monthly outlet, in the magazine Horizon (1940-50). In Horizon’s early issues, Connolly found himself, he said, caught between the ‘aesthetic Twenties’ and the ‘puritan Thirties’. Prewar he had dabbled in both manners, without settling for either – at least not for long. Now he could change his stance from month to month. In May he could be aesthetic: September might find him veering just a shade towards the puritan. Some readers followed his fluctuating moods with fond solicitude. Others found them to be symptoms of an irritating spinelessness. Connolly was sympathetic to both points of view – although, when feeling particularly spineless, he preferred the fond approach.

On the subject of the war itself, Connolly was also in-between. War was anti-art, he’d say, and therefore artists should keep it at a distance: get on with their proper work while fighters fought. On the other hand, he was no pacifist and had no wish to be thought of as a shirker. This war was a just war, he decided, after a few months of dithering, and Horizon was a legitimate contribution to the war effort. Its offices had, after all, been bombed during the Blitz. He bridled when people reproached him for even thinking about Culture at a time like this. He disliked it intensely when ‘warriors’ (his name for the soldiery) put on their butcher-than-thou airs. Of one writer-conscript who attacked Horizon for its artiness, he wrote that ‘unless the dashing captain has now left these shores, it is he who is under the obligation to us for carrying on through the craters, and amid the looped and windowed raggedness of our offices, to provide him and his stern followers with something to read in their quarters in the West Country.’ This note of ‘you’re lucky you have me’ cropped up rather often, and never more irascibly than when Connolly got onto the subject of his magazine’s subscription list: ‘If we can go on producing a magazine in these conditions, the least you can do is read it.’

Although Horizon is now thought of as Connolly’s most substantial achievement, the truth is that during the war years his self-centred elegiacs were bound to grate on many people’s nerves. On the other hand, nobody took him seriously when he tried to present himself as a jaw-jutting patriot. He simply did not have the style, or the sensibility, for times like these: times of moral urgency, of selflessness. Almost any note he struck was sure to be the wrong one; and nobody was more relieved than he was when the war came to an end. At last he could resurrect the old world-weary plangencies, the old disdains. The marquee of civilisation had collapsed, he wrote, and there was relish in his sonority. Europe, he declared, was finished. Even France was no longer the last outpost of Good Taste. She, too, was on her knees. Towards the end of the Forties, he began smiling towards America. American food parcels were arriving at the office, in response to an appeal, and Connolly was first in line. In October 1947, Horizon published a double issue on ‘The Arts in America’ and exhorted its readers to look to the New World for cultural renewal:

As Europe becomes more helpless the American are forced to become far-seeing and responsible, as Rome was forced by the long decline of Greece to produce an Augustus, a Vergil. Our impotence liberates their potentialities. Something important is about to happen, as if the wonderful jeunesse of America were suddenly to retain their idealism and vitality and courage and imagination into adult life, and become the wise and good who make use of them.

Even this, alas, produced no US funding for the magazine, and by 1949 the food parcels had stopped coming. Horizon, Connolly announced, would close down for a year, then reappear in ‘an invigorated form’. It never did, and to judge from what proved to be its final editorial, it never really thought it would. ‘It is closing time in the gardens of the West,’ the editor intoned, ‘and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair.’ But what about that wonderful American jeunesse? What about ‘idealism and vitality and courage and imagination’? We can be fairly certain that no regular reader of Horizon, or of Connolly, demanded an explanation. After all, as he himself would surely have retorted, that was two years ago – and anyway, it didn’t work.