David Pryce-Jones: Cyril Connolly: Journal and Memoir; Ticknor & Fields; New York.
A Chime of Words: The Letters of Logan Pearsall Smith; Edited by Edwin Tribble; Ticknor & Fields; New York.
Logan Pearsall Smith: All Trivia: A Collection of Reflections and Aphorisms; Ticknor & Fields; New York.
Leslie Fiedler once observed that “in our day, it is . . . possible to be a writer without having written anything.” Although it would be grossly unfair to apply this generalization to Cyril Connolly and Logan Pearsall Smith, one cannot help but believe that these “men of letters” represent a triumph of image over substance. For all of the words that these two actually published, they are remembered today more for who they were than for what they did. What Mrs. Q. D. Leavis said specifically of Connolly is true of both: they revealed “the relation between knowing the right people and getting accepted in advance of production as a literary value.”
Because Cyril Connolly began his career as secretary and protege to Logan Pearsall Smith, these men were linked together in life. It is therefore fitting that the concurrent publication of Connelly’s journal and Smith’s letters and the republication of Smith’s All Trivia should link them after death. What these books remind us of is that literary genres, which are peripheral for great writers, were for Connolly and Smith final forms. Connolly was a prolific journalist who from 1952 to 1974 was mainbook reviewer for the Sunday Times of London; however, he produced no distinguished fiction or poetry nor any lasting critical work. His two most enduring books – Enemies of Promise and Unquiet Graves – were both autobiographical. Despite his valuable scholarship on Jeremy Taylor and Henry Wotten, Smith is best known as the composer of aphorisms – as if his life’s ambition were never to write a passage that didn’t have a chance of making it into Bartlett’s.
The life and times of Cyril Connolly are of particular interest to the literary historian. From the l930’s through the 70’s there were few important British writers whom he did not know. During this time he was considered by many to be the most talented member of his generation. And yet, his real gift seemed to lie in producing excuses for his failure to realize that talent. As David Pryce-Jones (the editor of his journal) observes: “Nobody could argue the if-only case more plausibly. If only he had been born in another age he might have been an elegiac Roman poet, a classical English wit and essayist, a French philosophe or poete maudit – if only he had inherited an estate and a fortune to free him from drudgery – if only he were handsomer, lived elsewhere, with someone else.”
Unfortunately, these excuses tend to pale when Connolly’s imagined hardships are measured against the very real impediments faced by his contemporary George Orwell. A prep-school classmate of Connolly’s, Orwell was plagued by ill health, financial difficulties, and the indifference of those upper-class dilettantes who fawned over lesser writers and lesser men. When Orwell came back from Burma, his old school chum recalled, “His greeting was typical, a long but not unfriendly stare and his characteristic wheezy laugh, ‘Well, Connolly, I can see you’ve worn a good deal better than I have.’ I could say nothing for I was appalled by the ravaged grooves that ran down from cheek to chin. My fat cigar-smoking persona must have been a surprise to him.” Then, after the Spanish Civil War, Orwell wrote to Connolly: “A pity you didn’t come up to our position and see me when you were at Aragon. I would have enjoyed giving you tea in a dugout.”
Although one should rarely judge a writer for the eccentricities of his personal life, it is hard not to do so when the text in question is autobiographical. Both Connolly’s Journal and David Pryce-Jones’s accompanying Memoir make much of Cyril’s youthful homosexuality. It seems more than a little surprising that Connolly did not discover until well into his adult years that his most genuine sexual desires were for women (the British prep school ambience was such that during early puberty he was, in effect, a closet heterosexual). Once the truth was known, however, Connolly devoted himself to making up for lost time. He married a rich American girl and then discarded her when a glandular operation rendered her fat and infertile. (“It was like cutting a ring of bark off a healthy tree,” he complained.) Nevertheless, she continued to send him a monthly allowance for as long as her own fortune held up. ”In his homosexual stage,” Pryce-Jones writes of Connolly, “he had seen himself as punished by loneliness and poverty. As a married man, he saw himself punished by company and worldliness.”
When Connolly described the artist as “a member of the leisured classes who cannot pay for his leisure,” he was speaking of himself and not his mentor Logan Pearsall Smith. Son of a prominent family of American Quakers, the independently wealthy Smith settled in England in 1888 and dedicated the rest of his life to writing whatever struck his fancy. Unlike his young friend Connolly, he committed himself to writing to the exclusion of other pleasures. (When one ladyfriend asked why he had never proposed to her, Smith replied that it was because she had no central heating in her house except on the ground floor.) Perhaps as a function of his image, he abjured the crassness and vulgarity of his homeland, saying “I am willing to love all mankind except an American.” And yet, he maintained good relations with a wide range of American authors – from an aging Walt Whitman to an adolescent Dwight Macdonald.
According to his friend John Rus sell, “Logan Pearsall Smith lived for letters.” He was a voracious correspondent who apparently planned his life around the postman’s arrival at his house (an amazing four times a day). Thus, it was inevitable that a selection of his letters be published. Because they are designed for communication with other people, these epistles lack the cloying self-reflexiveness of Cyril Connolly’s journal. They also give us fascinating personal glimpses of the many interesting people whom Smith knew. Still, one must wonder whether a life “lived for letters” is not the mark of a first-rate friend but a second-rate artist. As Smith himself admitted: “It grieves me when people I like like my writing; I had hoped that they had better taste.”
Although Smith’s friends were always aware of his talents as a letter writer, his fame among general readers rested on his aptly named collection of aphorisms All Trivia. Properly considered, an aphorism is a memorable statement which arises out of the context of a writer’s thought and work. However, when such statements have no context, and are produced as ends in themselves, they must strike us as superficial and self-indulgent. Countless undergraduates have tried to speak aphoristically for about a month after reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Most outgrow this tendency. Logan Pearsall Smith never did.
This one virtue which partially redeems Smith’s own writing from the criticisms which can be justly leveled against it is its wit. In a letter to his mother he tells of “a high church man at Oxford – a very learned man – who would not go out at night because he had read in the Fathers that devils went about at night. He afterwards . . . joined the Catholic Church.” Then, there are Smith’s coinages of needed words. My favorites include: “An Abednego – one who has walked in that fiery furnace and has not been scorched. . . . Sheepgoating separating authors, painters, and all one’s friends and acquaintances into right hand and (mostly) left hand pens. . . . Gluebottom – a visitor who won’t go away.” Unfortunately, far too many of Smith’s observations are the kind of high-minded nonsense we might expect from an apostate Quaker.
More than a century elapsed between the birth of Logan Pearsall Smith in 1865 and the death of Cyril Connolly in 1975. During that time, the modernist revolution transformed English literature in a way not seen since the invention of the Guttenberg press. In a sense, though, both Smith and Connolly were throwbacks to earlier times. Gore Vidal, who has struggled to assume the mantle of an all around man of letters, finds “it startling to think that someone like Pearsall Smith actually lived most of his life in our century.” By the same token, Cyril Connolly was no modernist, but a fin de siecle decadent born too late. Rather than end his life early by falling off a bar stool (like Lionel Johnson) or suffer martyrdom for the love that dare not speak its name (like Oscar Wilde), he became a national institution – for nearly 50 years the most promising young writer in England. For both Cyril Connolly and Logan Pearsall Smith, promise may have been its own worst enemy.