The Unquiet Grave

by Cyril Connolly
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1104

What saves The Unquiet Grave, in large part, from being simply a lachrymose exercise in elegiac regret is the way in which Connolly imposes one kind of literary form upon another. The basic form is that of the occasional essay, which has a centuries-long tradition in European letters. Indeed, the question of the value of life (which is part of Connolly’s theme) can be seen in the dialogues of Plato— sometimes with a very serious tone, sometimes with a kind of sophisticated playfulness. That thinking about subjects of importance can, in itself, be entertaining as well as enlightening was an idea put into practice throughout the history of Western literature, by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne on the Continent and by Sir Thomas Browne, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, and Charles Lamb in Great Britain. Connolly is at one with that tradition, knowing that his personal problems can, if expressed intelligently and within the context of other writers’ work, go beyond the particularity of the single situation and can, in the best sense of the word, “delight” the reader.

The essay, however, is not the only form used in The Unquiet Grave: Connolly imposes another structure on top of the civilized musings about life which are common to the essay tradition. What he develops is a prose version of what is commonly known in poetry as the “dramatic monologue,” which reached its most successful expression in the work of the nineteenth century English poet Robert Browning. A character, possessing some qualities, some social position, some peculiar gift or task, is brought by those peculiarities to a moment of crisis; sometimes the character is quite deeply affected by the situation, sometimes he or she is insensitive to what is happening, but ultimately the pattern of the poem leads to a moment of enlightenment. The poem itself, in its pattern of working through the problem, provides the solution, and the character is able to move forward into conduct consistent with the understanding of what must be done to survive. In “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” Roland is full of doubt, chagrin, and a sense of betrayal; in the end, having thought the problem through as he approaches his task, he is prepared to fight—whatever the odds, however badly he has been used. Melancholy stasis gives way to action. That is exactly what Connolly, through the character Palinurus, achieves in his prose version of the usually poetic form.

Palinurus, the pilot of Aeneas’ ship in the epic poem (c. 29-19 b.c.e.) by Vergil, falls asleep at the helm. He falls overboard and manages to get ashore, but he is killed by savages. Since Palinurus is left unburied, his soul cannot be carried over the River Styx to eternal peace in the Underworld. Connolly identifies with him, in part, because there is, in some versions of the myth, a suggestion that Palinurus deserts Aeneas. Palinurus’ fall from the boat is a failure to do his duty, just as Connolly failed to fulfill his early promise as a writer. Moreover, Palinurus’ moping on the shores of the River Styx parallels Connolly’s unhappiness about his personal life, surrounded by and mirrored in the chaos of wartime London.

Connolly’s use of Palinurus is, in part, comparable to T.S. Eliot’s use of Tiresias in The Waste Land (1922), which had some influence on The Unquiet Grave. In both works, figures from classical myth are used to represent modern man, caught in the dilemma of twentieth century angst. Yet, Palinurus has a much more specifically personal connection: He stands for Connolly, and the details of his life are drawn from Connolly’s own life (including his tendency, given his enthusiasm for the food and drink of the good life, to overindulge himself). More seriously, it is Connolly’s voice that is heard, and his impressive intelligence is displayed in the short, informal comments upon life, love, literature, philosophy, religion, and social change.

Just as his life is on the decline, literature—the novel especially—has peaked with the successes of Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. There is no chance for the fame to which he had aspired, and life in general comes to nothing. The dominant figures of the first section are the great pessimists Blaise Pascal, Giacomo Leopardi, and Gerard de Nerval, the latter advocating suicide as a solution. Connolly remembers four friends, all of them suicides. While this section is despairing, the narrator has such an energetic and astonishingly informed personality that the work is never simply an exercise in self-pity.

The second section, though no less entertaining, tends to be tied more often to a kind of diary entry which relates the material more intimately to the personality and personal habits of the author. Connolly remembers his life in Paris and traces his difficulties back to that time, but, in the process of remembering, he moves slowly from bitterness and defeat to memories of the pleasures of that time. Ultimately, he remembers, with some considerable tenderness, the lemurs which he and his first wife kept for a few years. These memories of Paris at its best, and the affection which he had for those animals, slowly soothe him, and he turns away from the negativism of the first section to see life as both comedy and tragedy. Happiness must be man’s goal, even in the face of the destruction of the war, which is still going on as the book ends.

The latter part of the book is much less agitated, often sweet-natured, without sacrificing the keen intelligence which Connolly establishes at the beginning. Palinurus in the very process of complaint, recrimination, revaluation, and remembering has learned how to make the best of a bad job, to bear the pain of being human, and relish the pleasure. He has reached the shore.

By turning his personal dilemma into a work of art, Connolly has exorcised his demons. He does not, however, stop there. In what may seem an artistic error, he adds an epilogue, in which he explores the Palinurus myth with the help of modern psychological theories, theories which he uses in an unsystematic way throughout the work. He sees this exercise as a relief from the emotional passages extolling the pursuit of happiness, and it has a pawky charm about it as an exercise in scholastic hairsplitting. It may, however, seem to some to undermine the feeling of quiet exultation which is so successful in bringing Palinurus to an understanding of how life can be lived serenely. Thus, while intellectually amusing, the epilogue may be an artistic error.

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Critical Context