Spoilt, slothful sprinter

Cyril Connolly: a life by Jeremy Lewis, Cape, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
'I do not like that smarty-boots Connolly," Virginia Woolf used to say. The most sophisticated socio-literary analyst of her day later confided in her Diary the awfulness of having to dine with "baboon Connolly and his gollywog slut wife". Jeremy Lewis's sparkling biography is full of such judgements, and of peevish testimonies to his subject's social shortcomings. "Cyril is not perhaps the ideal guest," wrote Harold Nicolson to Vita Sackville-West, "He is terribly untidy in an irritating way. He leaves dirty handkerchiefs in the chairs and fountain pens (my fountain pens) open in books. Moreover it is rather a bore having a person who has nothing of his own - not a cigarette or a stamp ..."

What he did have only served to irritate people further - his greed, his sulkiness, his conceit, his endless mickey-taking, his pet lemurs, his ingratitude for favours, his pretentiousness, his lechery, his occasional larceny (he once filched three avocado pears from Somerset Maugham's garden at Cap Ferrat), his political naivety. All these unlovely traits, minutely charted by victims and ex-friends, are now faithfully verified by Jeremy Lewis, until one is forced to ask, with Anthony Powell, "What, in short, was the point of Connolly? Why did people put up with moroseness, gloom, open hostility? ... He was one of those individuals ... who seem to have been sent into the world to be talked about".

Or written about. This is the second major biography of the great critic to be published in two years, following Clive Fisher's Cyril Connolly: A Nostalgic Life in 1995, which itself followed Michael Shelden's Friends of Promise, a lively account of the Horizon years, and David Pryce-Jones's Memoir that accompanied the publication of Connolly's War Journal.

The new volume is the first to have been written with the blessing of Cyril's widow, Deirdre, who rejected all previous overtures from prospective life-writers and refused to release her husband's voluminous correspondence, diaries and self-pitying belles-lettres.

But what is the point of Connolly? There has been no convincing reassessment of his stature as a writer - at least not enough to justify reprinting the essays in Condemned Playgrounds or Ideas and Places or The Evening Colonnade or his only novel The Rock Pool. His study of literary style and literary frustration, Enemies of Promise, remains in print, but not that smug, hedonist's companion, The Unquiet Grave. Jeremy Lewis does not make fancy claims for Connolly's "greatness". He calls him "In literary terms ... a sprinter rather than a marathon runner" and "a miniaturist of the human heart", whose genius lay in the sparks and shards that flew off from his journalism, a writer in a constant state of almost-brilliance, subverted by a thousand retarding influences, from war and women to jealousy and ennui.

What is important about him, however, when all the explanations about failure and writer's block have ceased, is a life that spans and sometimes embodies 20th-century literature. Connolly was at the snobbish St Cyprian's school with Beaton and Orwell; at Eton, he turned from being a grubby, ink-stained, miserable weed to a lovelorn romantic and precociously melancholic ironist, falling in love with Noel Blakiston and Bobby Longden and the waxed silk hats of the "Pop" elite. At Oxford, by comparison, he mostly travelled in pursuit of a new horizon to compensate for the paradise he'd left behind. His literary apprenticeship was as secretary and factotum to Logan Pearsall Smith, the fusty American epigrammatist who used to laugh aloud at the mere thought of Cyril's letters and bankrolled his debts and travels with fond, if ill-advised indulgence.

Connolly spent most of his 20s and 30s in a head-spinning round of travels across the Mediterranean, of lunches, spongings, seductions and hotels, renting apartments from Betjeman or Jebb, travelling with Longden or Quennell, encountering Christopher Sykes or Bob Boothby en route to stay with Lees- Milne or Nicolson ... the names recur and intertwine like motifs in a German opera. What allays the tedium is the gradual, Kraken-like rising to the surface of Connolly's heterosexual satyriasis. Self-confessedly "emotionally homosexual" until then, he investigated the stews of Limehouse and Whitechapel and, more decorously, fell in love with Racy Fisher, daughter of Admiral William Fisher, who refused to let her near him. Then he met Jean Bakewell in Paris (introduced by the mother of her lesbian lover) and a new Connolly emerged - dedicated only to lotus-eating excess, to luxury food, drink and cigars, to living for pleasure at other people's expense, for dispersing his talent in journalism, talk, sex and soft fruit.

As the century rolls by, Connolly's life falls into an entertaining but predictable succession of bullying and/or grief-stricken encounters with women, little snatches of exquisitely judged descriptions of places and people, an ever-more ex-cathedra tone to his critical writings and much self-exculpatory examination of his conscience. Some of this makes for revealing reading, such as his itemised criticisms of his girlfriend Diana, demanding inter alia that "when being unfaithful, go outside your spouse's circle of friends" ("Why should I? You don't," was her marginal reply). The three-hander affair with Barbara Skelton and George Weidenfeld is played for laughs but the mood darkens in the closing chapters, as Connolly's self-pity turns alternately rancid and infantile.

What makes this biography special is Jeremy Lewis's stylish and funny narrative. Fans of Lewis's memoirs and biography reviews will know of his fascination for the revealing ad hominem detail, and this book is crammed with them: Connolly's father spending afternoons at the Windmill Theatre "appraising and re-appraising the same row of nearly naked chorus girls"; the "disconcerting habit inherited from Bloomsbury" by both Pearsall Smith and Desmond McCarthy "of putting the telephone down at the end of a conversation without saying 'goodbye'". And Lewis supplements an already anecdote-crammed narrative with the most entertaining footnotes seen in hard covers since The Third Policeman. He clearly admires Connolly's writing, editing skill, broad human sympathies and frequent kindnesses. If he cannot help portraying him as something of a monster - or as the vexed, spoilt and capricious baby which he most often resembled - he does so with an indulgent chuckle. The result is a study of the literary spirit and the literary century which is unflaggingly entertaining, evokes a lost world of grand houses and unemployable geniuses, and gives you Connolly, warts, lemurs, avocados, debts, absurdities and all. By the end, despite all the snipings from Virginia Woolf and the rest of the anti-Connolly club, you feel you understand why Philip Larkin should have said, on being asked if he'd like to meet him. "It was like being asked if you wanted to meet Matthew Arnold".