BOOKS: Enemy of promises

CYRIL CONNOLLY: A Nostalgic Life by Clive Fisher, Macmillan £20

IN his best-known book, Enemies of Promise, written in 1938 and published in his thirty-fifth year, Cyril Connolly wrote: "There is but one crime; to escape from our talent, to abort the growth which, ripening and maturing, must be the justification of the demands we make on society." A few pages further on, this noble injunction is adapted to include doing as one likes: "To accuse writers of being idle is a mark of envy or stupidity."

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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition