PICTURE HIM sitting in his library at Eastbourne,
Sussex, slumped in an armchair, surrounded by the first editions--of Joyce, Eliot and the other great moderns --which he has painstakingly collected. A glass of wine is within easy reach. Outside it is twilight in the garden, the evening already a bit chill. He is reading a biography of the decadent J.K. Huysmans, or the journal of Paul L,eautaud, or possibly a new translation of Petronius.
At teatime on Tuesday his weekly review is due at The Sunday Times. He will finish the book late at night and compose--in longhand--his essay in the morning, perhaps using stationery lifted from a hotel in Greece. The minuscule writing will begin at the very top of the page, leave virtually no margins and use dashes for most punctuation. Though apparently slapdash, the result will be a 1,200-word essay that combines learned criticism, a genial conversational style, and a flavoring of autobiography. For more than 20 years it will also be, in the words of scholar Richard Ellmann, "one of the few solaces of Sunday morning in London."
Who was Cyril Connolly? To Sir Kenneth Clark he was "the most gifted undergraduate of his generation." W.H. Auden thought him England's best literary critic, and he himself considered Edmund Wilson his opposite number. The Unquiet Grave, Connolly's aphoristic journey through a dark night of the soul, Hemingway declared was a book which, "no matter how many readers it will ever have, will never have enough." And yet for most Americans, eight years after his death at age 71, Cyril Connolly is already nearly forgotten.
"Whom the gods wish to destroy," Connolly wrote, "they first call promising." Born in 1903, he felt all his life the burden of great expectations. At St. Cyprian's school--where his friends included both the committed George Orwell and the dandy Cecil Beaton--he managed to earn a scholarship to Eton; while at Eton he contrived to be elected to Pop (an exclusive club) and to win the Brackenbury History Scholarship to Balliol. When he left Oxford in 1922, he connected almost immediately with the American litt,erateur Logan Pearsall Smith, who hired him as a private scretary and disciple in the practice of "fine writing." By the time Connolly broke with that esthete, he had become a gourmet, traveled in Europe, and met Joyce, Hemingway and Gide. He was 25.
By that age too his artistic tastes were formed. His temperament was elegiac, his outlook that of a connoisseur. He loved especially the wistful and world-weary: "I am secretly a lyricist; the works to which I lose my heart are those that attempt, with a purity and a kind of dewy elegance, to portray the beauty of the moment, the gaiety and sadness, the fugitive distress of hedonism; the poetry of Horace and Tibullus, the plays of Congreve, the paintings of Watteau and Degas, the music of Mozart and the prose of Flaubert." His favorite locale was sun-drenched Provence, his preferred art form the aphorism and the journal intime. He dreamed of living between 1760 and 1860, of being able to lunch at Holland House with Brummell and Byron and dine at Magny's with Flaubert and Baudelaire. Even in his twenties he was already in debt (as he was always to be, dying with several unfulfilled book contracts), and he said that his motto should be "Filez sanz payer"--slip away without paying. He once described his recreation as brooding, his philosophy as that of Aristippus, "who believed happiness to be the sum of particular pleasures and golden moments." All his tastes, even as a young man, reflect "a lyrical conception of humanity . . . a calligraphy of farewell."
In the late 1920s Connolly's first reviews began to appear--on "The Position of Joyce" and Gide's Les Faux- Monnayeurs--mostly in The New Statesman. (Later in life he was to say they were as good as any he ever wrote.) Notwithstanding early acclaim as a critic, Connolly found himself haunted by the need to compose a major work of art, for, as he said, "the more books we read, the sooner we perceive that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence."
At first he planned an epic poem, but eventually settled on a three-part Proustian novel, of which only the middle section was ever finished. Titled The Rock Pool (reissued by Persea Books; paperback, $5.95) and written in the early '30s, it traces the gradual decline of a young scholar named Naylor, who takes up with some raffish bohemians on the C.ote d'Azur and ends a drunkard. It is mildly witty in the way of early Waugh and Huxley, with dashes of Norman Douglas and Zola. Because the book was labeled obscene by English publishers, he sold it for 1,000 francs in 1934 to Jack Kahane of Obelisk Press, where its quality became an embarrassment to Kahane's line of pornography.
Unsuccessful as a novelist, Connolly continued to work as a free-lance journalist, turning out reviews, dispatches from the Spanish Civil War, and a number of brilliant parodies (the most famous being "Told in Gath," a takeoff of Aldous Huxley acclaimed by poet- laureate Sir John Betjeman as the best parody of the century). Following his dictum that "articles which cannot be reprinted are not worth writing," Connolly later collected these first 10 years of literary journalism in The Condemned Playground (1945). Near the end of the 1930s, with rumors of war in his ears, the young critic produced his now-classic analysis of why writers fail, Enemies of Promise, which begins with a discussion of the Mandarin and Vernacular styles and concludes with his celebrated memoir of Eton, "A Georgian Boyhood," and the theory of permanent adolescence: "The experience undergone by boys at the great public schools, their glories and disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development."
In late 1939 Connolly founded the English magazine Horizon, his partner Peter Watson supplying the cash (his father had invented margarine) and co-editor Stephen Spender the name (Connolly had wanted to call the monthly magazine Equinox). During the grim years of Blitz and shortage, Horizon kept alive the spirit of the arts, publishing Dylan Thomas, Randall Jarrell and Bertrand Russell, among others, and devoting special numbers to the cultural life of France, Switzerland and the United States. In Connolly's regular editorial "Comment" can be glimpsed the origins of his later reviewing style. Spender described that technique as "a kind of editorial flirtation with his readers, so that they were all in some peculiar way admitted to his moods, his tastes, his fantasies, his generous giving of himself, combined with his temperamental coyness."
This autobiographical candor yielded its finest fruit in The Unquiet Grave (also reissued by Persea; paperback, $5.95). Originally a special issue of Horizon, written by "Palinurus," this journal intime intersperses maxims from great moralists like Pascal and Chamfort with brief meditations on writing, marriage and the spirit of civilization. In despair Connolly had turned 40 with his promise unfulfilled, the world plunged into war, all that he most valued irredeemably lost. Most hurtful of all was the desertion of his wife: "For a dark play-girl in a night-club I have pined away. . . . If this thoughtless woman were to die there would be nothing to live for, if this faithless girl forgot me there would be no one for whom to write." Such Proustian moments of pain are threaded through this prose-poem of agony and gradual renewal. But the book also sparkles with acid humor, including the critic's most widely-repeated remark: "Imprisoned in every fat man a thin one is wildly signalling to be let out."
After 10 years of editing Horizon, Connolly decided te what he had had enough, finishing his last editorial with these words: "It is closing time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair." But within a short time Connolly cheerfully returned to journalism, becoming, at the suggestion of Ian Fleming, the weekly book reviewer for The Sunday Times. Despite a congenital, and congenial, sloth, his literary production accelerated.
In 1952 he wrote a short monograph called The Missing Diplomats on the Burgess-MacLean espionage affair. Three more essay collections were published at decade intervals: Ideas and Places, (1953), Previous Convictions (1963), and The Evening Colonnade (1973). He began work on a new novel; a section titled "Shade Those Laurels" appeared in Encounter in 1956. It describes the murder of an eminent novelist, who seems in part a comical wish-projection of Connolly himself. To accompany Les Pavillons, an album of photographs by Jerome Zerbe of 18th-century folies and country houses, he composed his most sustained piece of later writing, a brilliant love letter to an age of wit, beauty, and elegance. And finally, discovering that his own library had become "a memorial to the kind of writer that he would like to have been," he translated its contents into that charming and perverse bibliography, The Modern Movement: One Hundred Key Books from England, France and America 1880-1950.
And that was his career. Mostly brief pieces, characterized by "the two-thousand word look which betrays journalism." Even The Times' obituary cruelly said, "As he himself knew, he never fully lived up to his gifts." Yet who does? Though Connolly never produced that "perfect artifact, the fruit of . . . sensuous experience, as well as of intelligence and application," he managed to create for himself a persona and a voice unique in modern letters. Like Genet, he might say "My victory is verbal."
As a critic, Edmund Wilson is more forceful, V.S. Pritchett more sensible. But Connolly triumphs in his knack for the memorable phrase ("There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway"), his obvious pleasure in reading, and his conversational connoisseurship. "If I have a gift," he once observed, "it is that of being able to communicate my enthusiasm for literature and throw a little light on my favorite authors--and there are a great many."
Connolly usually begins his reviews with a personal comment about the writer or book in question (nearly always a biography or collection of letters), often linking his affection for the author to some incident in his own life. Generally, he then turns to a short biographical account of his subject, punctuated with an occasional quotation from the book, concluding with a summing-up of the writer's entire achievement. The result seems less a book review than a meditation by a man of engaging sensibility, wide reading, and an immense sympathy for the "ecstasy of all created things."
Connolly especially loved to play the literary godfather, offering mellow advice to his readers. Of that life of Huysmans he begins, "All who enjoy the French 19th century should lay hold of this volume and salt it away for the next wet evening." Of L,eautaud's journal he avuncularly suggests that "this is a book for a worldly guardian to slip into the hand of a young man who proposes to earn his living by his pen. It is guaranteed to make an underwriter of him." And of Petronius' Satyricon he wrote: "The analysis of such a book could help many young writers to give movement and montage to their characters, the lilt of transience which is the breath of readablity."
Repeatedly, Connolly's criticism dwells on the practicalities of the writing life. Enemies of Promise examines the temptations of journalism and advertising. A special issue of Horizon surveyed "The Cost of Letters," offering the opinions of Orwell, Elizabeth Bowen, Robert Graves and numerous others on how much money a writer needs and where he should get it. In his essays Connolly eagerly probes the health and sex lives of authors. He makes lists and chronologies to reveal the unexpected intersections among literary folk. He revels in timetables, catalogues and maps, always seeking to determine exactly what conditions will best allow a masterpiece to gestate and be born.
Cyril Connolly's imaginative world was almost animistic, enriched by the spirits of favorite writers, by the mana of sacred places: "Streets of Paris, pray for me . . . summer rain on quays of Toulon, wash me away." For him criticism became a form of spiritualism, the critic a medium who enables us to make contact with the artists and writers of the past, and who lives himself into their time. "I regard the burning of the Alexandrian library," said Connolly, "as an inconsolable private grief."
Never solemn, always delightedly alive to the esthetic and sensual, Cyril Connolly remains not merely the bon vivant of modern letters, but also our irreplaceable "interpreter between intellect and imagination, between reason and the physical world." MICHAEL DIRDA is the deputy editor of Book World.