The Selected Essays of Cyril Connolly
When Cyril Connolly was at Eton, the Master in College, J. F. Crace, wrote that the sixteen-year-old Connolly was “in danger of achieving nothing more than a journalistic ability to write rather well about many things.” That this prediction proved accurate was both the triumph and failure of Connolly’s life. He became one of England’s leading literary journalists but was dissatisfied with being merely a critic. This dissatisfaction emerges in several of the pieces in The Selected Essays of Cyril Connolly, but so do his wit and insight. As his friend Peter Quennell writes in the introduction to this collection, Connolly was a reluctant journalist but, nevertheless, a born critic.
Connolly began his career as a regular reviewer for the New Statesman in 1927, founded, with Stephen Spender, the literary magazine Horizon in 1939, edited it until its demise in 1950, and became the main book critic for the London Sunday Times in 1951. He also published one novel, The Rock Pool (1935), and two highly regarded, partly autobiographical works, Enemies of Promise (1938) and The Unquiet Grave (1944). The thirty pieces in The Selected Essays of Cyril Connolly are taken from three previous collections: The Condemned Playground (1945), Ideas and Places (1953), and Previous Convictions (1963). Divided into sections dealing with travel, life and literature, and satires and parodies, the essays reveal Connolly’s passion for literature, art, and several sacred shrines of art and literature and his equally passionate disgust for nationalism, tourists, snobs, “the increasingly illiterate rich,” philistines in general, and, frequently, his native England. Only true genius meets with his approval, and there is too little of that around.
Despite Quennell’s claim that Connolly is the finest satirist-parodist since Max Beerbohm, the final section is the weakest in the collection. In “Felicity” and “Felicity Entertains,” Connolly pokes fun at the Bright Young Things of the period between the world wars and those who wrote about them, but he is much less amusing than Evelyn Waugh in Vile Bodies (1930). In “Bond Strikes Camp,” Connolly captures Ian Fleming’s style only in the catalogs of trivial details. Once he gets Bond into drag, he does not know what to do with him. Funnier are “Told in Gath,” an Aldous Huxley parody, and, especially, “Where Engels Fears to Tread,” purportedly the memoirs of a pseudointellectual who abandons going to parties for the Party: “I realize I shall never understand eclectic materialism but I’m terribly terribly Left!” Connolly is at his best when he simply stoops to Wodehousean silliness: “There were beaches where summer licked me with its great rough tongue. Ah, summer! There’s a crypto-fascist for you!”
The travel pieces combine appreciations of England, the Continent, and Egypt, focusing mainly on their art works, with complaints about the travails of sightseeing. Travelers too often have the wrong attitudes, acting as if they...
(The entire section is 1276 words.)