Guardian, Saturday 26 October 2002
In early 1945 Evelyn Waugh was languishing in Yugoslavia, bored and dispirited, waiting for the war to end. He had recently completed Brideshead Revisited , the most important novel of his career, when Nancy Mitford sent him a copy of The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly. Waugh read and reread Connolly’s book and scribbled his reactions on the margins. The marginalia are extensive, full of insight and full of self-delusion. Waugh used the opportunity both to excoriate and to analyse his old acquaintance (“friend” is too loaded a word for their complex relationship) and the comments he made on the book are fascinating, not just for what they say about Connolly but also for the light they throw on Waugh himself.
For Waugh was obsessed with Connolly: fascinated and irritated by him; alternately admiring and contemptuous; secretly envious and publicly derisive. These are a set of contrasting reactions easily understood by Connolly fans (amongst whom I count myself among the most ardent) because you cannot read Cyril Connolly for very long without wanting to acquire – and then developing – a relationship with the personality of the man himself. This is rarely the case with readers and writers. Everyone is curious (I’m deeply curious about the character of Evelyn Waugh, for example) but the dislocation between the mind that creates and the man who suffers (in TS Eliot’s phrase) is usually happily observed. My admiration of Waugh’s novels is not diluted by his rebarbative personality. But with Connolly there is a marked difference and the difference is that the artist and the man are so conjoined and intermingled that you cannot savour the one without the other and vice versa. Connolly famously declared that it was the “true function” of a writer to try to produce a masterpiece “and that no other task is of any consequence”. Whatever the veracity of this claim there’s no doubt that one of the great frustrations of his life was that he himself so conspicuously failed to live up to his own stern injunction. Yet the more one reads and the more one learns about him perhaps the fairest conclusion to arrive at is that Cyril Connolly’s greatest memorial – his particular masterpiece – is precisely that conjunction of life and work: that both how he lived (1903-1974) and what work he produced form a unique and lasting whole. To invert the old saying: in Connolly’s case we cannot see the trees for the wood. It’s the wood – whole and entire – that interests us and not so much the individual oaks and elms.
This may seem harsh but, while almost everything Connolly wrote was stylish and intelligent, informed and passionate, there is no one book, or sequence of writings, that one can hold up as unequivocally excellent or fully achieved. The famous parodies are clever but finally lightweight and ephemeral; the millions of words of literary criticism and journalism suffer from the built-in obsolescence that undermines all journalism, however fine. Enemies of Promise , that precocious memoir, is good – but patchy. The Unquiet Grave is maddeningly flawed – pretentious, selfserving, arch – as well as achingly honest and true. The Rock Pool (Connolly’s one novel) is an interesting failure – and so on. Yet the sum of his uneven parts add up to something formidable. He’s a writer for all seasons, for all readers. Waugh sneered at his amateur psychoanalysing. “We love only once,” Connolly wrote, “and on how that first great love affair shapes itself depends the pattern of our lives.” “Nonsense,” Waugh mocked in the margin. But there was never a truer comment made about his own life and situation and perhaps it pained him to see Connolly hitting a personal nail so squarely on the head.
Thus one’s reading and relish of Connolly’s work is shaped and conditioned by what one knows of the man himself to a degree not shared by any other writers. More will be derived, for example, from reading the prefaces to the monthly issues of Horizon (which magazine he edited from 1939 to 1950) if you know about the history of Horizon , Connolly’s editorial lifestyle, his love affairs, the animosities and gossip that surrounded that period of London cultural life. The Rock Pool – self-conscious, straining for effect – becomes far less unwieldy once you know the background to its composition and who the thinly disguised characters are based on, and so forth.
This is not to denigrate or diminish Connolly’s skill as a writer and literary journalist. I first came across his work during the late 1960s and early 70s when he was writing a weekly book review for the Sunday Times . At school and university I read Connolly’s weekly review religiously, whatever the subject, with – at that time – no insider knowledge about the man. What stimulated me was, I think, his enthusiasm. This was no dry, jaded don routinely turning out his 800 words, no embittered hack assailing grander reputations for the sake of a weekend’s frisson. Though I now know the drudgery of the weekly review caused him intense pain it never seemed to come through in the writing. He could pick and choose, of course, and the books he wrote about reflected his passions – French literature, the classics, the Augustans, the great modernists – and his passion was contagious. From the reviews I moved on to The Unquiet Grave and was completely captivated by it. This “word cycle”, a loosely yoked collection of pensées , lengthy quotations, reflections on literature and autobiography, in many ways earns all of Waugh’s strictures – snobbish, fey, posturing, self-pitying – yet I can think of few better evocations of intellectual melancholy, if I can put it that way, of the dissatisfactions inherent in a life nurtured by and charged with European culture: of individual human insufficiency confronted by the great artistic ideals and achievements.
Connolly is no Montaigne, he has none of his calm, resigned sagacity (though Montaigne is one of the presiding spirits of the book), but Connolly captures something ineffably present in the human spirit. And as he roves through world literature trying to pin down these emotions, he does so with a candour and a kind of gloomy relish that is very easy to identify with (particularly when you are young: it is a perfect book for the young, would-be litterateur ). We have all felt like this, have reached to art for solace and found only more despair, but only Connolly could be so unashamedly candid about it and make a virtue of his inadequacy.
This honesty, try as he might to disguise it, surfaces again and again in his writings and I think is what makes him perennially modern. Connolly is always confessing his failures one way or another, and like all great confessors (Rousseau and Boswell spring to mind as real Connolly precursors and fellow-spirits) we are both appalled by what they tell us and at the same time drawn to them. We’re all human – all too human – but not all of us will admit to it in print. The vicarious thrill and recognition we take in confessional writings is one of the great literary pleasures and is nowhere more evident than in Connolly’s London Journal . Here we have the essence of the young Cyril, just down from Oxford, out of pocket, out of love, fretting and dissatisfied.
I think the London Journal deserves its place alongside The Unquiet Grave and Enemies of Promise as representing the best of Connolly. One regrets that this fragment is all we have (it seems Connolly was more of a notebook-jotter than a journal-keeper). On the evidence of these few pages he could have been our modern Boswell; and how wonderful it would have been to have Connolly’s journal in time to set alongside Virginia Woolf’s diaries – fascinating, yet highly contrived and self-conscious, written, unlike Connolly’s, with both eyes firmly fixed on posterity.
Connolly earns my further affection by being the great self-appointed anti-Bloomsbury figure. He drew up the battle lines himself early in life, placing himself in Chelsea (“that leafy tranquil cultivated spielraum… where I worked and wandered”) precisely to counter what he saw as the desiccated fastidiousness, the preciosity, the snobbism and the cliquishness of Bloomsbury. Chelsea, by contrast, was more open to Europe, grubbier, sexier, more rackety, more worldly and hedonistic. It was not simply a question of the new generation rejecting the values of the older, he saw instead a real opposition: of contrasting lifestyles, of political and cultural values, of attitudes to art. And it was an opposition that he maintained all his life: there was always in his life not just a love of European culture (especially that of France and Spain) but also a love of beauty, of women, of alcohol and food, of sea and sunbathing, of idleness and travel. Connolly is one of the great evokers of place and of pleasure: whether he is talking about a meal of a rough red wine and steak frites, or wandering through Lisbon or Rome looking at architecture, one feels through his words the physical relish he takes in the experience. He makes you want to do the same things and derive the same intense enjoyment as he does. When he writes that he wants to live in France, somewhere in a magic circle embracing the Dordogne, Quercy, the Aveyron and the Gers, in a “golden classical house, three stories high with oeil de boeuf windows looking out over water… [with] a terrace for winter, a great tree for summer and a lawn for games; a wooden hill behind and a river below, then a sheltered garden indulgent to fig and nectarine …” you respond, instinctively: “How true, that’s exactly where I want to live and how I want to live as well.” In a curious way he is both a great and dangerous role model: most of us share, to one degree or another, Connolly’s prodigious appetites, both venal and exalted, and most of us share, to one degree or another, Connolly’s failings, both petty and debilitating. This small, podgy, balding, pug-faced, funny, gossipy, lazy, clever, cowardly, hedonistic, fractious, difficult man somehow manages to enshrine in his work and life everything that we aspire to, and that intellectually ennobles us, and all that is weak and worst in us as well.
I think this explains both the fascination and repulsion that Waugh felt. Physically and temperamentally they were not far apart: both small, egotistical, selfish, stout and unhandsome. Waugh took the opposite route to Connolly and studiously and desperately reinvented himself as a parodic Tory squire-cum-reactionary man of letters. It is a facile over- simplification, but Waugh decided to live a lie while Connolly remained true to himself – however flawed or inadequate that self happened to be. Both men were consumed with self-loathing: both of them, Waugh said, were “always tired, always bored, always hurt, always hating”. Waugh became the rich and acclaimed novelist, with a large family, living in a country house; Connolly was always the indigent, the hard-up journalist scraping a living but, somehow, seeming to attract a succession of beautiful women prepared to put up with him.
Waugh’s life appears superficially the more successful and achieved and yet, for all his endless moaning, Connolly seems far and away the happier man. The secret, I think, was in his resolute secularity and worldliness: he did not seek solace in spirituality (as Waugh did), instead he took both simple and intelligent pleasure in what the world offered, whether it came in the shape of a building, a marsupial, the company of friends, a fine claret, a train journey, a cigar, a sunny terrace, a beautiful woman, a good book, a Georgian teapot or a painting. That relish of life and its potential joys (and the sense of their fragility and transience) permeates his work and gives it its enduring value – and, I suspect, for I never met him, permeated the man as well. There is a wonderful passage in the London Journal that, I believe, sums up the essence of the Cyril Connolly appeal. It was written in 1929. Unhappy in love, paranoid, fed up with London and duplicitous friends, the young Cyril Connolly flees to Paris for consolation and takes a room at the Hôtel de la Louisiane on the Left Bank:
Hôtel de la Louisiane
…I have a room for 400 francs a month and at last I will be living within my own and other people’s income. I am tired of acquaintances and tired of friends unless they’re intelligent, tired also of extrovert unbookish life. Me for good talk, wet evenings, intimacy, vins rouges en carafe, reading, relative solitude, street worship, exploration of the least known arrondissements, shopgazing, alley sloping, cafe crawling, Seine loafing, and plenty of writing from the table by this my window where I can watch the streets light up… I am for the intricacy of Europe, the discrete and many folded strata of the old world, the past, the North, the world of ideas. I am for the Hôtel de la Louisiane.
Yes, yes! you cry spontaneously, when you read this. So am I. I’m for all this too. I’m for the life of the Hôtel de la Louisiane. And this, in the end, also explains why we are for Cyril Connolly.