The 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II has occasioned an outpouring of nostalgic literature in Great Britain. The elegiac note may be appropriate: the year 1939 was, after all, a great point of rupture. Out went big houses, servants, elegant restaurants, and high fashion; in came universal military service, rationing, government canteens (euphemistically named “British restaurants”), and a general leveling-down of all personal, economic, and cultural styles. This was exactly the moment that two determined Englishmen chose for launching a highbrow review of arts and letters. The magazine was Horizon, and Michael Selden, a professor of English at Indiana State University, tells its story in Friends of Promise.
The men were Cyril Connolly, a talented literary journalist who up till then had never quite discovered his métier, and Peter Watson, a wealthy art collector and patron now separated from his beloved Paris and looking around for a way to recapture the spirit of Bohemia. Horizon was obviously the ideal vehicle for both. There was no competition for what they set out to do—indeed, several major literary reviews, including T.S. Eliot’s Criterion, closed down in the first weeks of the war. Nor could the challenge have been greater: to justify high culture in wartime, at a time when anything “highbrow” ran the risk of being labeled “escapist.” As Selden puts it compactly, “At Horizon it was Connolly’s self-appointed duty to remind the country that the survival of its culture was threatened as much by philistines at home as by hostile armies overseas.”
What an unlikely pair. The only thing Connolly and Watson had in common was self-indulgence. Connolly preferred beautiful women, expensive food and wine, and when he traveled, first-class accommodations. He continually lived beyond his means, usually by collecting advances on books he never wrote. (The American publisher Cass Canfield once called him “one of the most charmingly devious literary gentlemen not actually behind bars.”) Watson’s taste was for a luxury wholly prohibited in those days by British law—young men. He liked them American, predatory, and self-destructive, and he was rarely disappointed in his finds. Around these two characters revolved a group of devoted, self-effacing women littérateurs, including Sonia Browning (“the Euston Road Venus”), who married George Orwell on his deathbed, and Lys Lubbock, who shared Connolly’s flat, bed, and eventually his name (she changed it by deed poll, a futile gesture which did not lead to marriage). Without Browning and Lubbock/Connolly there would have been no Horizon at all, since the editor had a tendency to fritter away his time, often outside the office.
Nonetheless, when Connolly did focus on his task, he was unrivaled in his editorial judgment. Horizon was responsible for discovering George Orwell as a social critic, publishing his unconventional excursions into British popular culture. It also introduced British readers to Truman Capote, Mary McCarthy, Ignazio Silone, and Octavio Paz, among many others. In fact, the magazine’s principal problem was never money, subscribers, or contributors—it was fabulously successful almost from the first issue—but paper, glue, and other materials, which were rationed according to a silly system which extrapolated from the amounts used by magazines before the war, when, of course, Horizon had not existed at all.
The issue of government interference in cultural life (even to the extent of rationing paper) is an interesting subtheme of this book that Selden might have developed a bit more explicitly. Like most British intellectuals of his generation, Connolly considered himself a man of the left, and favored, as a matter of principle, government funding of the arts. However, he had the good (or bad) fortune to start his magazine during World War II, when all of the collectivist impulses which had been kept at bay by British domestic politics in the 1930’s were suddenly given license to overrun every quarter of national life. Connolly’s first experience with public policymaking for the arts was thus wholly negative.
But things did not improve after the war, since the Labour government which came into office in 1945 prolonged rationing for six more years, and even extended it into new areas. For example, in 1947-48 the government banned the importation of foreign books. The ostensible reason was to save currency, but Connolly saw through the ruse; the Labour mandarins were offended, he observed, by “margins immorally wide and paper indecently thick.” The postwar period saw the founding of the Arts Council I of Great Britain, which coincided with (and no doubt to the extent that it could, promoted) a rapid decline of the quality of British writing and painting. Indeed, the appropriate cultural monument to the Atlee government is the ghastly “Festival of Britain” style.
Under these circumstances, Connolly and Horizon found themselves looking to America, where there were already more subscribers to the magazine than in Britain itself. By 1946 much of the most vigorous writing in the English language was being produced in the United States. In fact, Connolly’s characterization of the British cultural scene is not wholly irrelevant forty years on:
Here ego is at half-pressure; most of us are not men or women but members of a vast, seedy, overworked, overlegislated neuter class, with our drab clothes, our ration books and murder stories, our envious, stricken, old-world apathies and resentment—a careworn people.
Horizon could not, however, survive as a British literary review largely filled with contributions from American writers. In any event, Connolly was wearying of his task, and Watson was looking around for new ways to deploy his money and interests. Both were involved in new relationships which diverted their energies elsewhere—Connolly with Barbara Skelton, formerly mistress of King Farouk, Watson with a worthless American who fled London to be a bookstore clerk in Rio de Janeiro, condemning his lover to an expensive, lengthy commute. The magazine closed down in 1950, and its editor-went back to literary journalism. His articles and reviews have since been collected in Previous Convictions (1963) and The Evening Colonnade (1973)—two books that are a source of continuing delight, revealing a firstclass intelligence, and making us regret that Horizon could not have endured a decade or two more.
Michael Selden has written a wonderful book—claiming for his own the terrain formerly closed to Americans by the incestuous clique of British literary historians. It was with considerable interest that I read on the jacket that “he has been commissioned by the Estate of George Orwell to write Orwell’s authorized biography.”
[Friends of Promise: Cyril Connolly and the World of Horizon, by Michael Selden (New York: Harper & Row) 254 pp., $24.95]