A British novelist and literary and social critic, Cyril Connolly (1903-1974) is best known for two works which combine criticism with autobiography, Enemies of Promise (1938) and The Unquiet Grave (1944).
Cyril (Vernon) Connolly was born on September 10, 1903, in Coventry, England, to Matthew and Muriel (Vernon) Connolly and died in London on November 25, 1974. The father, an army major, was an eccentric, according to critic Peter Quennell, who had known Connolly since their school days, and the mother, judging by Connolly's own account of her, was a rather restless person for whose love the son yearned in vain. Whether she might actually have loved him more is less important than the fact that he perceived that she might have and that he felt this yearning in later years. Eventually the parents separated.
Shortly after the author's death Quennell, in describing Connolly in their days together at Balliol College, Oxford, called him "gaily cynical," and noted in his young schoolmate a lack of ambition which was also apparent to Stephen Spender, the poet, who was also a friend of Connolly. Far from denying the charge of laziness, Connolly refused to make any excuses for not having accomplished more in his lifetime: "I would say only myself prevented me from doing the writing" was his candid confession. He confessed, too, that his parents had been ambitious for him and had wanted him to enter the Foreign Office or to clerk in the House of Commons or Lords. He doubted, he said, that he would ever write his masterpiece.
Like Quennell, another friend, John Lehmann, also remembered Connolly's gift for parody, a gift which prompted Spender to term him "the spectator of his own life," because parody, especially self-parody, presumably enabled him to achieve a kind of detachment.
Lehmann looked on Enemies of Promise (1938) as Connolly's attempt to write a masterpiece, but like a number of others he considers the last essay of the book, "A Georgian Boyhood," to be the most memorable one. Pritchett declared himself impressed with the earlier sections which try to put even present English literature in perspective by comparing past and present trends; yet certainly it is the last section in which the poignancy and immediacy of the description narrow the gap between writer and reader.
The account of the British public (actually private) school system—the sometimes sadistic headmasters, the severe or stupid teachers, the institution known as "fagging," which made it possible for the boys of the upper forms or classes to make virtual slaves of the boys of the lower classes—is unforgettable. According to colleague David Pryce-Jones, Connolly asked the adult Eric Blair (George Orwell) "to corroborate the horror of the past they had once shared at St. Cyprian's, then a relatively new school where both had been students before going on to Eton. Out of this request came Orwell's Such, Such Were the Joys, in which, Pryce-Jones says, St. Cyprian's "and all its work stand, in miniature, for everything that Orwell thought wrong with England."
To Spender The Unquiet Grave, which was first issued in 1938 but then revised in 1944, is "a masterpiece-non-masterpiece of a peculiarly modern kind" which deliberately aimed at fragmentariness. To Pritchett the book is "Connolly's mythical confession and elegy," and he points out the author's obsession with Palinurus whose name Connolly adopted as a pseudonym in writing the book. He took the name from Virgil's Aeneid in which Palinurus is the pilot who falls overboard with the ship's rudder and uses it as a kind of raft which enables him to reach shore. Here, however, he is killed by the natives. It is during Aeneas's visit to the underworld that he learns of Palinurus's fate. Now that unfortunate begs help in finding rest from his ceaseless tossing in the sea. His is the "unquiet grave."
The book is also filled with, as Pritchett puts it, "exotic flowers, fruits, animals, birds and insects" which were to Connolly "texts." One rather moving but brief section of the book is devoted to a pet lemur that had died. Pritchett thinks that the book had the effect on Connolly of "curing himself of guilt."
Connolly's novel The Rock Pool well repays reading today. In the 1930s British publishers were reluctant to publish it, Lehmann recalled, and Quennell suggested in his introduction to the 1981 re-issuing of the novel that its theme of lesbianism had been objectionable. Quennell disclosed that the novel, though no roman a clef is actually based on people whom Connolly had known, and that in the protagonist, Naylor, a good deal of the author is to be found. He sees the book as an attack on the English social system and on the competitiveness stemming from it, but he sees the true subject of the novel as the collision of two cultures, the elitist culture of the English world as it is represented by the unhappy Naylor and the remnants of pagan culture that Naylor himself sees as stubbornly persisting among the inhabitants of Trou-sur-Mer (Cagnes), who stubbornly follow their most primitive instincts. On the other hand, Pritchett regards the book as a kind of satire on what he calls "the typical sententious English youth" who deserted his public school and Oxford for "his first spree." The book also demonstrated Connolly's fascination with the Mediterranean and "the passing dissipation of foreign artists" of the town. Quennell thought the novel showed Connolly's "satirical wit and unfailing grasp of the cruelly descriptive image." This was no doubt an accurate judgment; yet the author lacked the more mordant wit and savage satire of, say, Evelyn Waugh, whom he knew. Still, as a picture of the France which was a mecca to many expatriates, including many Americans, in the 1920s and 1930s, the novel should be of interest today. Connolly tells a story well, shows an eye for detail, and makes the reader want to know more about the characters.
David Pryce-Jones, who met Connolly when the author was 50, speculated that he had allowed himself to grow fat and may have been unhappy with himself. Connolly struck him as "sloppy" and "bad-mannered." Pritchett used the metaphor of Connolly in a baby carriage to capture for the reader Connolly's character in middle age: willful, wanting what he could not have, and throwing it away if he got it and then wanting it again. He calls Connolly a good critic, inveterate traveller, and frank autobiographer who was kept back from greater things by his desire for pleasure, good food, women, "spendthrift habits," and his love of talk. As a literary critic Connolly had "a clinching gift for images," according to Pritchett. Apparently no critic would say that any one of Connolly's books was a masterpiece, and certainly no one book made him wealthy. As he confessed: "I don't think I could have lived on the profits of any single one of my books." Still, though he may have been a disappointment to himself as well as friends and family, many of his works continue to interest readers and his reputation survived his death. Nor must one forget Connolly's career as a journalist: from 1927 until the time of his death he was a practicing journalist, working for such newspapers as the New Statesman and the Sunday Times. He even founded Horizon, a journal for which he was editor and writer from 1939 to 1950.
Further Reading on Cyril Connolly
For information about Connolly, see "Connolly, Cyril," in Contemporary Authors-Permanent Series (1978); Stephen Spender, "Cyril Connolly," Times Literary Supplement (December 6, 1974), a "memoir" by a poet and man of letters which reveals things of interest about Connolly's life and character and tells something about his oeuvre; Peter Quennell, "Cyril Connolly," Encounter (May 1975), in which, despite a friendship of long standing with the author, nevertheless estimates his friend, man and work, without glossing over the defects of either; John Lehmann, "Friend of Promise," Encounter (May 1975), in which another man of letters and old friend of Connolly reminisces about the man and his work; J. W. Lambert, "To Hell with Masterpieces," Encounter (May 1975); David Pryce-Jones, Journal and Memoir (1983); V. S. Pritchett, "Surviving in the Ruins," a review of various works of Connolly which were re-issued, some with interesting introductions or afterwords.
Sources by Connolly include "Richard Kershaw Speaks to Cyril Connolly," The Listener, April 11, 1968; David Pryce-Jones, editor, Journal: 1928-1937, which glitters with the names of the British cultural, scientific, and political worlds though his comments are brief to the point of being almost cryptic.
Additional Biography Sources
Fisher, Clive, Cyril Connolly: the life and times of England's most controversial literary critic, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Hobson, Anthony, Cyril Connolly as a book collector, Edinburgh: Tragara Press, 1983.
Pryce-Jones, David, Cyril Connolly: journal and memoir, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1984.
Shelden, Michael, Friends of promise: Cyril Connolly and the world of Horizon, New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Spender, Stephen, Cyril Connolly: a memoir, Edinburgh: Tragara Press, 1978.