BOOK REVIEW : Chronicles of a Mandarin shark

CYRIL CONNOLLY: A NOSTALGIC LIFE Clive Fisher Macmillan £20 John Walsh on the first Life of Cyril Connolly, man of letters, wastrel and "cocktail critic"

"Apes are considerably preferable to Cyril," confided Virginia Woolf, who thought his "cocktail criticism" no more than "a sheaf of feathers in the wind". Fans of Cyril Connolly have long been aware that he is not everybody's cup of tea. For every advocate who insists on his brilliance -- as critic and wit, as editor of Horizon, the pilot-light of literature in the war years, as the author of Enemies of Promise, with its unsurpassed analysis of prose style - you can find an equal number keen to tell you about Connolly the self-pitying talent-squanderer and to insist that he never amounted to anything beyond a single skinny novel (The Rock Pool), a pretentious anthology of diamant modernist shards (The Unquiet Grave) and some collections of book reviews. Can the man whose career seems to embody the literary history of the 20th century really have been such a lightweight?

Clive Fisher's is the first attempt at a full-scale biography. Many tried before him, but were thwarted by the non-cooperation of Connolly's widow, Deirdre, who refused to authorise a life or release her late husband's multitudinous notebooks and journals. Possibly emboldened by the example of Peter Ackroyd, who circumvented a similar embargo to write his life of T S Eliot, Fisher elected to go ahead without permission - to which Mrs Connolly (now Mrs Peter Levi) responded by commissioning a rival biography from the journalist Jeremy Lewis, publication date as yet unannounced. Fisher has done wonders to quarry so many facts about Connolly's life, but the mercurial Cyril still slips through his fingers.

Connolly's ancestors were a vivid amalgam of the swashbuckling and the snooty: English vice-admirals on the male side, Anglo-Irish high sherrifs on the distaff. His parents, Matthew and Maud, were a fearsome soldier whose crusading work on non-marine mollusca outlasts most of his son's jewelled ephemera, and a poetically-disposed gardener who worried about her son's habit of sitting for hours with his lower lip stuck out (he was afraid of developing a double chin). Connolly was a child of empire, shipped hither and thither; when his parents moved to Hong Kong he was consigned, aged six, to an English prep school. Fisher does not indulge in cheap psychoanalysis about Cyril's feelings of betrayal, but notes that his memoir, "A Georgian Childhood", portrays him as "a virtual orphan".

"Is there anything in reality more dangerous than early success?" Connolly later asked. His own success was prodigious. At St Cyprian's, he astonished Cecil Beaton by revealing (at 12) his knowledge of which masters had a financial interest in the school. At Eton with Orwell and Powell he dived into the poetry of Yeats and Flecker like an addict taking his first hit. By the time he reached Oxford, he was a fledged sophisticate, astonishing the young Kenneth Clark with his knowledge of Silver Latin and 19th- century French criticism. Inevitably, he was taken up by the corrupt salons of both "Sligger" Urquhart, Balliol's seedy dean, and Maurice Bowra the manipulative warden of Wadham, who used to introduce him by announcing: "This is Connolly. Coming man. Hasn't come yet." Through their hot-house nurturing, he was introduced to the things that obsessed his life: modern literature, Mediterranean travel, profligate spending and haut-Bohemian luxury.

Through Kenneth Clark, Connolly met the man who launched his career, Logan Pearsall Smith, an infinitely ludicrous figure, devoted to euphonious but redundant epigrams, who lived in a Tudor farmhouse called Big Chilling, a name fatally evocative today of some sort of Yardie retirement home. As his amanuensis, Connolly cultivated his own airy, Mandarin-shark style and filled in the gaps in his literary education.

Fame, after this protracted apprenticeship, came swiftly. Connolly's magisterial New Statesman reviews rang with startling assurance in Georgian studies. But with fame came indolence. His life hit a kind of extended plateau state for 20 years, with the war as a disobliging hiatus: he worked for the Observer, went on foreign trips, conducted affairs, attended parties, moved flats, argued with (and was reconciled to) his wife - then went through the whole cycle over and over again. Fisher is at his worst in these pages: trivial, clichd ("The late Twenties were a golden age of outrageous parties") and vague ("It is safe to assume that the conversation, when not interrupted by the antics of the exotic pets, revolved around literature"). The pets - lemurs, mongooses, cockatoos - that Cyril kept to lend a raffish air to his apartments are about the only things that change in this sterile landscape. When the Forties and Horizon come to a simultaneous close, the book enters a downward spiral of amorous intrigue and weekly journalism.

Three themes emerge, however. One is the epic solipsism with which Connolly kept the world (and his biographer) at bay. A confessional fragment in his journals reads, "I am only interested in myself. Have I charm enough, I wonder, to interest you?" and its tone of preening satisfaction and fake disgust reverberates through the book. No matter how many indentities he affected in his career - reviewer, editor, lover, war correspondent, patriot - his true passion was for his own early genius. Never managing to write the masterpiece of which everyone assumed him capable, he dreamed up a shelf of impractical book ideas with ghastly titles - Lives of the Weak, Happy Deathbeds - and drowned his doubts in rationalisation: he couldn't write after editing Horizon, he explained, because people would expect only a masterpiece and he wasn't sure he could manage one. He embraced failure like an old flame. "I think you are one of the few people," wrote his ex-wife Jean perceptively, "whom self-pity or unhappiness develops rather than shuts in".

Another recurring theme is Connolly's extraordinary way with women. Gross and lard-complexioned though he was, he existed in a permanent state of satyriasis. trying to bed every woman he met, happy only when settled with two at a time. A succession of strong but compliant girlfriends, helpmeets and groupies - and, almost incidentally, three wives - flit through the pages with bewildering speed. Unfortunately, Clive Fisher betrays little interest in what attracted this misguided seraglio, nor in the changing nature of Connolly's sexual being.

Fisher's book is at its most enjoyable when evoking the Atlantis-like lost world of London literary society, in which every bookish luminary, bar none, could be found at a party in Connolly's Sussex Place flat, eating ortolans and bitching about each other, a world in which a New Statesman review could reverberate across the Atlantic, and in which people bore grudges against each other for years because one of them had once made a slighting reference to Houseman. For this, Fisher's book is worth reading; but inside this baggy, repetitive chronicle of wasted time, a slimmer portrait of a magnificently selfish talent is wildly signalling to be let out.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future