“What is there to say about someone who did nothing all his life but sit on his bottom and write reviews?” Thus the subject of this biography, who saw himself as a modern Sainte-Beuve, once excoriated Sainte-Beuve in a private letter. To his biographer, Cyril Connolly’s lament is so self-revealing, so emblematic of the life he chronicles that he uses it as the epigraph to this exhaustive, at times almost maddeningly detailed, critical biography. P’or Jeremy Lewis as for Connolly, the artist is above all his own artistic sensibility, even if sterility, obesity, and torpidity (to say nothing of humbuggery and plain old buggery) should be the objective final result of his endeavors. “Were it that I would have such a champion!” is every literary poseur’s chops-licking thought from here to Timbuktu.
Certainly the fantastically decorative bridge between the artist’s consciousness and his life’s tangible achievement has the closing decades of the last century for its main support. The ornate wrought iron span, shaped like the grille of a monastic locutory whose fanciful prototypes one can find in the selfless solipsism of Dostoevsky and Huysmans and Wilde, is clearly outlined against the mother-of-pearl, slightly chipped Watteau of English sky between the World Wars, and in retrospect it may well be argued that the sometimes invisible, though always measurable, stress of nostalgia inherent in the rationally tenuous structure is exactly what was making the “music of time” all along. Now and then Lewis’s book is too passively descriptive even for an enthusiast of period ephemera, and yet as a detailed architect’s drawing of that most miraculous of 20th-century cultural miracles—England’s amazing musical bridge 1890-1930—it is simply invaluable.
What Connolly meant to say, by way of socratically boastful self-abasement, was that if he was Sainte-Beuve (“a better artist, yet a weaker one, than any of the contemporaries whom he criticises”), then Stephen Spender was Hugo, W.H. Auden was Lamartine, and Loins MacNeice was A’lusset. No argument there, especially if, uncharitably, we equate weakness with getting out of bed before noon, or charitably compare it to being inept at the kind of public relations for which literary careerism in the 20th century is famous: concealing one’s appetite for (even innocent) pleasure, eschewing genuine eccentricities like keeping lemurs and ferrets (instead of deadlines), and holding sufficiently implacable (or at least fashionably timed) leftist views. No argument there, as I say, except that Connolly’s contemporaries also included his schoolmate at St. Cyprian’s and later at Eton, George Orwell.
Even if one does not identify Orwell with that sobering, slap-hard sense of truth for which the century may be remembered long after so many of the delicately evasive sensibilities of both the “weaker” Connolly and of his stronger contemporaries have been forgotten, the fact is that among the literary figures active at the time and moving in the same or intersecting London circles were —in alphabetical order, ransacking the index to Lewis’s book and leaving out the expatriate Paris of Hemingway and Joyce where Connolly liked to frolic whenever he had enough money for the ferry—A.J, Ayer, John Betjeman, Lawrence Durrell, T.S, Eliot, E,M, Forster, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, Arthur Koestler, Wyndham Lewis, Somerset Maugham, Malcolm Muggeridge, Anthony Powell, ‘V,S, Pritchett, Peter Quennell, assorted Sackville-Wests, Sitwells, and Stracheys, Dylan Thomas, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf. . . . The names are only a hint at the true dimensions of that amazing rainbow-like bridge, and whichever way you look at it, up or down, Connolly’s playing Sainte-Beuve against the three contemporaries he had hand-picked for the purposes of benign self-identification is reminiscent of Mayakovsky’s ingenious claim that his deadliest competitor for the position of Russia’s greatest living poet was “Nick,” meaning a certain Nikolai Aseev.
And yet the Connolly case is more complicated than that. Just as Eiffel’s engineering represented the power of reason, so the amazing feat of English culture bridging the centuries was meant to glorify irrationality, imagination, joviality, mysticism, childishness, paganism, capriciousness, uselessness, playfulness, ambivalence, narcissism, all surviving precariously in the wrong place at the wrong time, and all ultimately doomed. And just as to subsequent generations the giant lacework pylon in the middle of Paris is a hopelessly old-fashioned folly, so what was expressly meant as a folly, an indulgence, and an act of nostalgia is looking less foolish with every passing day. It is our respect for the triumph of Connolly’s peers, and of the rainbow-high arch they have left behind to commemorate it, that prevents us from dismissing an individual toiler like Connolly as a pompous babbler full of strong liquor and quaint bluff.
Hence the title of Connolly’s collected essays, The Condemned Playground, and hence the longing for Eden that runs through the chapters of Lewis’s biography like a spinning top. For Connolly as for so many of his contemporaries, “Eden” was consonant with “Eton” to the end of the lapsarian thereafter: “Few things are more disturbing than the barren aspect of the present world when the taste of honeydew still lingers in the mouth,” he wrote, and Lewis comments on “the notion—familiar to generations of public-school Englishmen, albeit in cruder, more boisterous form—of life thereafter as intrinsically anticlimactic.” One inevitable consequence was the self-confessed “curse of one’s creative intelligence being always so many years younger than the critical,” with the result that Connolly was never able to write anything as complete or coherent as his milieu expected of him. His only attempt at a novel, The Rock Pool, was published in 1935.
And yet the Connolly case, I repeat, is less straightforward than one of arrested development or literary failure. Even without extolling the two books that lift him with any degree of flying-carpet objectivity above the epoch’s raconteurs and unsuccessful novelists—the patchwork quilts of The Unquiet Grave and Enemies of Promise—one is quite sure that the person capable of writing the following lines was endowed with a critical intelligence that was also creative:
I am too much of a snob to be a bohemian and much too fond, not only of security, but of a sense of respect and social power. I can’t bear to be disapproved of by waiters, porters, hotel managers, hunting men, barbers, bank clerks, though I wouldn’t mind writing anything that would annoy them—I can’t bear to be unpopular though I enjoy being hated.
Elsewhere he writes, in the same vein: “I hate colonels, but I don’t like the people who make fun of them.”
What I would argue is that far from being ordinarily clever, Connolly’s self-deprecating self-aggrandizing is a direct descendant of Dostoyevsky’s “underground man” and the obsessively introspective literary culture, in Russia, France, and elsewhere on the Continent, of the 1890’s. By the 1930’s, it lived on only in England, that condemned playground of Connolly’s milieu, and today it lies buried deep under the volcanic debris of egalitarianism and collectivization where a modern-day Sainte-Beuve like Connolly, to say nothing of a modern-day Dostoyevsky like Orwell, would instantly suffocate. Not surprisingly, reviewing Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, it was the “delicious cynicism” of the book that Connolly most admired, “that subtle, metallic kind” of humor “which, more than anything else, seems a product of this generation.” Equally unsurprising is the fact that Orwell referred to Connolly in print as “almost the only novel-reviewer in England who does not make me sick.”
The hero of The Rock Pool, Connolly’s stab at a novel, reasons that “if sex and snobbery, at which he was a failure, were going out, he was no better fitted for the Communism and hope that were coming in.” His solution, which his creator could never afford to put into practice despite a clumsy attempt to marry into a little American money, is to buy a house in the English countryside, Palladian ideally, there to “cultivate obscurity and practice failure, so repulsive in others, in oneself of course the only dignified thing.” Instead Connolly turned to publishing, and the unexpectedly successful Horizon ran throughout the 1940’s, filling the void left by the war-time closing of such journals as Eliot’s Criterion and Geoffrey Grigson’s New Verse. To the commie pinko Herbert Read, the new magazine was “the last flicker of pre-war decadence, a post-Proustian inquest on a dead epoch.” Connolly himself saw it accordingly:
Editing a magazine is a form of the good life; it is creating when the world is destroying, helping where it is hindering; being given once a month the opportunity to produce a perfect number and every month failing, and just when despair sets in, being presented with one more chance.
“We must be serious,” he wrote in a letter, fusing, in his customary way, the narcissism of one of fortune’s darlings with the aplomb of a perfect failure. “We must live as though the world is going to end.” And end it did, because the Battle for Britain was not only the World War. It was also a battle “against the politician, the culture-diffusionist, and the victorious common man” in which Connolly’s modest, and only, weapon was presenting himself as “the last literary gent” left on earth.
Certainly by the time he died, in 1974, that description was almost literally true. The battie in defense of individualism had been lost the world over. But because it was in Etonian, puerile, fey little England that unserious Connolly and his flippant generation had made their last stand against the encroaching adulthood of concentration camps and hamburger chains, history will surely record that it is in stubborn, contrary England that the “music of time” has sounded the longest before dissolving, like the arc of a rainbow or an imaginary bridge or some other amazing mirage, into the grey, demotic sameness of totalitarian drizzle.
Connolly used to say that memorials were only important to social climbers, so I may as well end on this vanishing note.
[Cyril Connolly: A Life by Jeremy Lewis (North Pomfret, Vermont: Trafalgar Square) 675 pp., $50.00]
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