BOOKS: Enemy of promises
CYRIL CONNOLLY: A Nostalgic Life by Clive Fisher, Macmillan £20
Sunday 19 March 1995
Idleness, in the guise of indecision or self-doubt, was an impression Connolly gave often, especially to publishers. Clive Fisher's biography records the evasions and delays, as well as much else, with a degree of detail that allows them to be both funny and desperate. What made Connolly unusual, though, was that with Enemies of Promise - on one hand a study of how to write a book which would survive ten years, on the other an analysis of his own ills - he had foresuffered the temptations standing between promise and its fulfilment.
The dangers included journalism (working for "Mr Vampire"), overproductiveness, lack of private means, too much talk, or drink, or sex, or success, plus domesticity ("the pram in the hall") and politics. Connolly may not have fallen into all the traps, but he fulfilled his quota. To be famous for what you haven't written may be nice work if you can get it; to be admired at the same time for minor but genuine achievement is a triumph of having it both ways. Connolly remarked: "in authors who have dried up, who have put their hobby before their vocation, who now are doing well in the city or who collect first editions or old dustwrappers, who run chicken-farms or set and solve Greek crossword puzzles ... there is one fact in common. They have all been promising." Connolly differed: his promise survived sine die, and if his employment of self-knowledge as an accessory to self-indulgence now looks like another vice to be added to the list, then so be it.
The self-inculpation was very skilful. In Fisher's witty and sympathetic account, Connolly supplies the evidence, admits the sin and writes the judge's summing up. At the same time, Fisher makes it clear how much hard work was involved in not working, as well as how much merely mortal in- dustry Connolly also put into his reviewing and, during the 1940s, his editorial work on Horizon.
This peculiar duplicity - and indeed, most of what's interesting about Connolly - seems to have found its focus at Eton, source of both nostalgia and disability, which he attended from 1918 to 1922. "The flaw in the Eton education," he remarked, "was that work was unpopular." This meant working by night and devoting the days to the cultivation of those he risibly refers to as "the important boys". Perhaps there is little new to be said about the role of such schools in encouraging cruelty, vanity and sexual repression, but Con- nolly's precocious machinations, and his success in becoming a figure of note there, seem to have counted against the adult world. Despite endless travel, hospitality and applause, real life was less well-arranged than school, especially when it came to the necessary evil of making a living (this book is especially interesting about money).
Fisher records that when Connolly won a scholarship to Balliol and, against the odds, election to the Eton Society, a friend remarked: "You know I shouldn't be surprised if you never did anything else the rest of your life." Certainly he never did as much as his friend Orwell or his rival Waugh (whom Fisher depicts gloating on the sidelines), but given Connolly's disposition it might be fairer to say that he simply went on to do more of the same, in the erotic as well as the literary sphere.
Though Connolly was much loved by women, and (despite that) liked by them, his affairs and intrigues and stylised desperations often seem adolescent, a way of raising the stakes of what had begun as the in-house game of a closed and specialised society. Thus it sounds barmy but not surprising to hear that in 1950, five days after marrying Barbara Skelton, his second wife, Connolly announced that marriage made him feel trapped. In this instance he had clearly met his match in power and attraction. The couple's effort at country life - he groaning in the bath, she acquiring a pet coatimundi which took to biting him - has a farcical dimension; just as well, since otherwise the sense of waste and unhappiness would be chilling.
Despite the evidence of experience, and the long separation of his own ill-suited parents, the married state remained necessary for Connolly. He was fortunate in his third marriage, and in becoming a father at the age of 57. But dandyism doesn't sit very easily with responsibilities or age (he died in 1974). The fascination lies in the years up to 1945, in the tolerant patronage provided by Logan Pearsall Smith, in Connolly's progress as a literary professional, in what we overhear of his efforts to accommodate the Left politics of the time without sacrificing his snobbery or his aestheticism. What's most interesting, though, is his response to the difficulties of having reputation in advance of achievement.
The failure of his novel The Rock Pool, published in Paris in 1938 by the Obelisk Press (which also published Frank Harris, Durrell's The Black Book and Miller's Tropic of Cancer), seems to have created a permanent inhibition. Connolly described the book to Orwell as "lousy". Orwell, whose respect for Connolly was considerable, was equally severe: "Even to want to write about so-called artists who spend on sodomy what they have gained by sponging betrays a kind of spiritual in-adequacy." Yet the popularity of the epigrammatic The Unquiet Grave (1944) shows that he could strike a chord with the public.
Given his powers of sensory evocation, as well as his appetite for "ecstatic moments", it's tempting to suggest that Connolly should have been a poet. But that would still have required unrewarding hours at the desk. Perhaps the problem was that Connolly treated life itself - its parties, friendships and romantic excursions, its practical rather than literary humanism, its air of importance - as a form of work, to the exclusion, too often, of the serious thing whose sternest judge would have to be himself.
He has deservedly found a fine (although apparently "unofficial") biographer, a scholar who can write. Clive Fisher not only tells but shows us the life and times and personalities, recreating Connolly's charm and dissatisfaction, and inviting new readers for his books. The "authorised" version of Connolly's life, now in preparation, will do well to match this.
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