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In his introduction to the 1950 edition of The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly wrote at length about his intention for the work, which, as he acknowledged, could look very much like a loose, somewhat precious series of melancholy comments upon life, supported by lavish quotations from an impressively wide range of literature and philosophy. It could also be read as simply a kind of vade mecum, an English gentleman’s vaguely autobiographical record of emotional states precipitating snatches of elegant quotation.

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It was, in the main, on this level that its early success rested, and it became something of a cult book among sophisticated intellectuals, particularly in Great Britain. Although the book was supposedly written by someone hiding behind the name “Palinurus,” it was well-known that Cyril Connolly, one of the brightest members of the British literary world and the editor of its finest literary magazine, Horizon (in which the work was originally printed), was its author. It was no surprise that Connolly, admired for his astonishingly deep knowledge of world literature, would be able to put so much of his knowledge so gracefully into this modestly sized work.

The source of the book was a set of journals that Connolly wrote in London between autumn, 1942, and autumn, 1943, during World War II. During this time he was unhappily attempting to deal with the failure of his first marriage and with his sense of not attaining the success as a writer which his brilliant career as a student had suggested was inevitable. “Palinurus” was the fictional guise he rather halfheartedly hid behind in print, but the comments are clearly those of Connolly about his own life.

In his introduction, Connolly suggests that the book goes beyond aimless, if intriguing comment by a man in emotional turmoil. He suggests that it has a definite structure. In the first section, his views of life in general, of love, of religion, and of literature are placed in the context of his middle-aged crisis. In the second section, the crisis is discussed in terms of two kinds of philosophers, those who espouse pessimism and destructiveness and those who teach one to accept failure with courage and the determination to get on with life. In this section, the contemplation of innocent nature leads him out of his despair. Finally, he remembers the happy times in his past and is brought around to accept life with all of its pains and pleasures.

The reason Connolly chose this form of self-examination can best be understood if something is known of his failures as a husband and as a writer. He was, in fact, a very famous man, and his work as the editor of Horizon was widely acclaimed. That might well have satisfied anyone else, but Connolly from the time that he was a schoolboy had been singled out for even finer things. He won a scholarship to Eton College, the most prestigious boys’ school in Great Britain, and while there he proved that his intellectual and literary gifts were of the highest order, at a time when Eton was educating some of the finest literary minds in the country. As a result of his work there, he won a scholarship to Balliol College, University of Oxford, and he was again recognized as one of the most promising students of his generation. Connolly, however, did badly in his examinations, and he came out of Oxford rather at loose ends. He taught for a time, and then he drifted into journalism. He wrote one novel, The Rock Pool (1936), which was well received but hardly a work of genius, and he watched as his contemporaries developed literary reputations of far more substance than his. He was supposed to have led them all but had found himself on the fringes of success. The failure of his marriage seemed to confirm his failure as a man, consonant with his failure as an artist. The Unquiet Grave might be seen, then, on its surface, as an exercise in self-pity, if expressed with a formidable show of learning.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 53

Baker, Carlos. Review in The New York Times Book Review. L (October 7, 1945), p. 6.

Erdman, Irwin. Review in Saturday Review. XXVIII (November 17, 1945), p. 12.

Marshall, Margaret. Review in The Nation. CLXI (October 20, 1945), p. 405.

Pryce-Jones, David. Cyril Connolly: Journal and Memoir, 1983.

Time. Review. XLVI (November 5, 1945), p. 108.

Wilson, Edmund. Review in The New Yorker. XXI (October 27, 1945), p. 88.

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