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.

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