A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Books that try to encompass everything under the sun rarely succeed, but I’m glad The Unquiet Grave literally fell on me as I was reorganising my bookshelves. The subtitle calls it a ‘word cycle’. At first sight, it is a fragmented book of quotations glued together with quotable passages of its own; but once you start reading it, it becomes infuriatingly difficult to describe. Written by Cyril Connolly (under the pseudonym ‘Palinurus’) during the Second World War, it is part fragmentary memoir, part a love-letter to European culture. Much of it is an elegy to a lost France and everything France represents to Connolly: culture, art, philosophy, history, peace, happiness – its tone teetering between shimmering nostalgia, painful personal memories, and universal observations. On top of all this, ‘Palinurus’ tries to make sense of humanity, romantic love, literature, the pursuit of wisdom and the concept of a good life. Among other things.
If I am to make sense of this book at all, I think I must try Palinurus’ own method: extensive quoting.
The more books we read, the clearer it becomes than the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence.
Parts of the book are very personal indeed, and rather bleak as they deal with depression. From this point of view, you might describe The Unquiet Grave as a book of misery and regret as well as strong passion for life, but one that encourages quiet reflection. During its depressive episodes, The Unquiet Grave has a tendency to be preoccupied with love affairs and the sorrow they can cause.
A love affair is a grafting operation. ‘What has once been joined, never forgets.’ There is a moment when the graft takes; up to then is possible without difficulty the separation which afterwards comes only through breaking off a great hunk of oneself, the ingrown fibre of hours, days, years.
One of the most significant themes is that of common ground. As Connolly writes in the introduction (which I didn’t quite enjoy, by the way – I thought it explained too much):
[Palinurus] chose his quotations to illustrate how we have gone on thinking the same things since the days of the ancient Greeks, how the present can always be illuminated by the past. He looked for sanctions rather than originality.
I find ‘Palinurus’ at his most inspiring when he’s writing about writing, or about humanity in the abstract; at his most tiresome, when he’s trying to make some feeble point about current politics; at his worst, when a petty prejudice shines through. Connolly is especially conflicted on religion (his characterisation of Jesus Christ as a neurotic prig was interesting, to say the least) and I do think he betrays his own ideas about the unity of humankind when he makes some throwaway comments with an unpleasant ring about Muslims and Jews.
His attitude towards women is likewise troublesome, though complex, and certainly not among the worst of his era (or this era, for that matter). But none of this actually makes The Unquiet Grave a less worthwhile read, because in its internal conflicts it enacts its subject matter: an artist struggling to find – and express – something universal, something eternal, but stumbling on his personal weaknesses and prejudices, as well as the constraints of his time and body. There is some very profound wisdom in this little book, and this wisdom made an even more profound impact on me because it was placed in such a flawed context. I didn’t really like ‘Palinurus’ as a person, but his occasional glimpses of genius made up for it.
So what is the book’s ‘message’? It will doubtless be different to every reader. To me, the elusive ideal chased by this book is a man at peace with himself and with nature.
When we reflect on life we perceive that only through solitary communion with nature can we gain an idea of its richness and meaning. We know that in such contemplation lies our true personality, and yet we live in an age when we are told exactly the opposite and asked to believe that the social and cooperative activity of humanity is the one way through which life can be developed.
On the other hand, nobody ever said it was easy: and Palinurus’ ideal isn’t necessarily even what he wants for himself.
To attain two-faced truth we must be able to resolve all our dualities, simultaneously to perceive life as comedy and tragedy, to see the mental side of the physical and the reverse. [. . .] Now that I seem to have attained a temporary calm, I understand how valuable unhappiness can be; melancholy and remorse from the deep leaden keel which enables us to sail into the wind of reality; we run aground sooner than the flat-bottomed pleasure-lovers but we venture out in weather that would sink them and we choose our direction.
Somehow, then, and without going mad, we must learn from these madmen to reconcile fanaticism with serenity. Either one, taken alone, is disastrous, yet except through the integration of these two opposites there can be no great art and no profound happiness – and what else is worth having?
But to reconcile them, within this book, seems impossible.
Connolly’s idea of wisdom also seems to be very much a writerly sort of wisdom.
If one is too lazy to think, too vain to do a thing badly, too cowardly to admit it, one will never attain wisdom. [. . .] A comfortable person can seldom follow up an original idea any further than a London pigeon can fly.
And the wise writer is, naturally, a reader as well:
We cannot think if we have no time to read, nor feel if we are emotionally exhausted, nor out of cheap material create what is permanent. We cannot coordinate what is not there.
Connolly’s style is very elegant, and he has some delicious turns of phrase; some of my favourites being ‘book-bed-bath defence system’ (a good antidote to reality, that) and ‘a womb with a view’. ‘No city should be too large for a man to walk out of in a morning.’ ‘Autumn is the mind’s true Spring’: oh, yes. And probably the most famous quote from this book: ‘Imprisoned in every fat man a thin one is wildly signalling to be let out.’
All that said, the book is sometimes opaque and confusing. It obviously assumes a Classical education in its reader, and there are lots of long quotations in French. (When I say lots, I really do mean lots.) But sometimes it seems to me that Connolly also assumes readers have access to private his thoughts and that they are nodding along enthusiastically, no matter how obscure his thinking. Or what do you make of this deceptively simple passage?
When all the motives that lead artists to create have fallen away, and the satisfactions of vanity and the play-instinct been exhausted, there remains the desire to construct that which has its own order, as a protest against the chaos to which all else appears condemned. While thought exists, words are alive and literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living.
Sentences like the second one above make me pause and wonder if I’m on the same page with the author or not. It looks simple. It sounds simple. The thought seems simple enough. It speaks to me. But do I understand it as it is meant to be understood?
Does it even matter, though, if I understand it my own way?
‘Palinurus’ would probably say it doesn’t.
Birthday resolution: From now on specialize; never again make any concession to the ninety-nine parts of you which are like everybody else at the expense of the one which is unique. Never listen to the False Self talking.
(The picture is of a Persea Books edition that is currently available (ISBN: 089255410X) but the one I read was a Penguin edition from the 90s. I don’t know if there are any differences between the two.)