The Selected Essays of Cyril Connolly

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1276

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....

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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 were cramming for exams or clocking “into a museum like an office, arriving fresh and leaving with jangled nerves and a furious hunger, still several rooms behind schedule.” Another annoyance is other tourists, as when Connolly visits Saqqara and the Pyramids: “Surrounded by honking cars and Sunday crowds, they are more like two indestructible film stars signing autographs. If only one could get them alone!” Despite the tourists, the hectic pace alternating with boredom, the occasional revolution, Connolly must continue to travel, pursuing the spirits of famous travelers of the past such as Henry James, searching for some sort of revelation, perhaps even a rebirth.

Connolly most often fulfills his quest through works of art. The cave paintings at Lascaux represent “holy ground” for “all who have not quite given up hope for mankind.” Unfortunately, the sacred quality of most art is diminished by its being too accessible: “Great paintings should be kept under lock and key and shown as seldom as wonder working images.” For Connolly, “life has no moral, and the moral of art is that life is worth while without one.” A major problem with art is that society, which tolerates the artist without appreciating him, cannot perceive the same magical qualities as does Connolly. The capitalist sees not beauty but an object to be possessed. Culture as a whole is “precarious, like a match lit in the surrounding darkness that everyone is trying to blow out.” It is difficult for any form of culture to win a place in a society motivated entirely by “money, sex, and social climbing.”

Literature possesses the same spirituality as art: The memory ofgiants like Henry James and Flaubert, or Baudelaire and Mallarmé, [must be] always before us, even if we never read them, for they are the saints of modern bourgeois art, whose virtues—sensibility, intellectual courage, renunciation, and consecrated devotion—emanate even from the mere storing of their books in our rooms. They are sacred relics which we need not too often disturb.

Connolly, however, does not easily bestow sainthood upon supposed literary giants. Marcel Proust and James Joyce, for example, are writers of enormous talent “crippled” by “elephantiasis of the ego.” Joyce failed to achieve greatness because he concerned himself with the mediocre lives of mediocre men: “He fed his queen bee of a mind with inferior jelly.” Oscar Wilde failed because he preferred to talk about art rather than produce it, having the gifts of a great writer but not the conscience of one. The writers Connolly truly loves elicit not only his praise but also some of his most evocative writing, as with Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767): “Slow though the action moves, he will always keep his balance and soon there will follow a perfect flow of words that may end with a phrase that rings like a pebble on a frozen pond.”

Regardless of the subject, Connolly’s love-hate relationship with England seems always to be on his mind. He loves the “superb wretchedness of English food”: “What a subtle glow of nationality one feels in ordering a dish that one knows will be bad and being able to eat it!” The young Connolly writes in 1929 that “England is a problem: parts of it so beautiful, a few people in it so intelligent, yet never can I manage to fit in.” He continues to feel an outsider in his native land because of the “smug hostility” of the English to all forms of art. He wishes that “our philistinism (which also expresses the English lack of imagination and fear of life)” could be made a criminal offense. Still, he occasionally feels an unexpected rush of affection for his country, “just as we may suddenly prepare to forgive someone who has deceived us before the memory of their infidelities swarms in on us again.”

Connolly has similarly mixed feelings about his work. He calls reviewing “the white man’s grave of journalism”: “The work is grueling, unhealthy, and ill-paid, and for each scant clearing made wearily among the springing vegetation the jungle overnight encroaches twice as far.” The reviewer “may simply wear out in praising or abusing—(it matters not which)—the never-ceasing flow of second-rate and worthy productions—but eventually the jungle claims him.” He considers the artist to be striving for greatness, art to be eternal, while the critic’s work is, in Connolly’s bitter self-estimation, ephemeral. The work of the critic who takes his task seriously, however, who attempts to elucidate entertainingly, can be more lasting. When Connolly is at his best, as he is in “Writers & Society, 1940-3” and “Beyond Believing,” he is more than simply a critic; he is a witty, impassioned witness to the best and worst Western culture offers. As long as this culture exists, Connolly will not be claimed by the jungle.

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