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.
I’m treating the 1938 Club week as a Shelf of Shame opportunity to read a book that has long intrigued me: Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise. I wanted to find out what lay behind the string of quotable quotes that was all I knew of it (the notorious ‘pram in the hall’ being possibly the most famous). For this blogging week, Bookfox Simon has also retrieved it from the depths of his To Read pile; have we been reading the same book, I wonder? Well, we are two different readers, so the answer is a very interesting No!
Connolly himself, who died in 1974, puzzled me – he represents a kind of writer who does not seem to exist in quite the same guise any more: a man with a literary career who was not a novelist, poet or playwright. In fact, I doubt if his career served as a pattern for any other writer. Between university and the second world war he led a hand to mouth existence of travel, reviewing, working as secretary to Logan Pearsall Smith and attempting to get a foothold in the literary world. Ultimately, after the second world war, during which he founded and edited the influential journal Horizon, he became a literary journalist, stalwart of the New Statesman and Sunday Times, but he set out to be a creative writer first. What he wrote and published, as exemplified in the two books that endured, is hard to place in a genre; Enemies of Promise is (to over-simplify) one third literary theory, one third literary criticism and one third heart-on-sleeve memoir. The Unquiet Grave is described as a ‘Word Cycle’, a book of observations and aphorisms. His one published novel did not succeed in establishing him in a career in fiction.
In Enemies of Promise, which was first published in 1938 in the week of the Munich Crisis, he certainly found his voice – and it is such an exciting one, full of bold energy and elegance, conveying a rare intellect and a gift for penetrating analysis and startling candour. This unclassifiable book reveals his frustration at the failure of his literary career to catch light, yet it demonstrates his effortlessly brilliant prose and command of language. It is the most exhilarating, page-turning read – even though reading literary criticism for fun is right out of fashion. However, from first to last, from title to final page, Connolly’s frustration about his own career and prospects colour a pessimistic outlook on the future of literary endeavour – this reads like a final warning before literature of eternal quality is snuffed out. Which may be just a bit petulant.
The first of the three sections plunges the reader straight into Connolly’s purpose: to determine what might make a book endure, specifically a book that will ‘hold good for ten years’ – not a huge ambition. ‘Contemporary books do not keep.’ he states, in 1938 (a delightfully ironic motto for this week, don’t you think?). He fears for the long term reception of many writers we now regard as canonical – so it is fascinating to see back in time to their reputation then. He examines the work of his contemporaries and isolates the elements of style that he thinks will contribute, or not, to their durability. He concentrates on an analysis of Style: the one he calls the Mandarin and its variants, characterised by complexity and a search for beauty of expression; and the new Vernacular, seeking to overturn it in a search for a pared down realism. He sees a battleground between them, with vernacular realism gaining the upper hand over what is dismissed as fine writing, sees impoverishment of language and ideas driving out what is good in the imaginative richness of the Mandarin style, and asks if there there might not be a synthesis. Connolly’s wide and deep reading of the writers of his age and their works means that he can effortlessly bring examples to bear to make his points.
Part two is even more startling and original, taking a passage from George Crabbe that describes the beautiful weeds that strangle the growth of vital crops. These are the influences on a young writer’s life that he fears might strangle his talent at birth.
It is now necessary to analyse the conditions which govern the high rate of mortality among contemporary writers, to enter a region ‘where the thin harvest waves its wither’d ears…’, a sombre , but to those for whom it is not too late, a bracing territory.
[passage from Crabbe’s The Village]
Let the ‘thin harvest’ be the achievement of young authors, the ‘withered ears’ their books, then the ‘militant thistles’ represent politics, the ‘nodding poppies’ day-dreams, conversation, drink and other narcotics, the ‘blue Bugloss’ is the clarion call of journalism, the ‘slimy mallow’ that of worldly success, the ‘charlock’ is sex with its obsessions, and the ‘clasping tares’ are the ties of duty and domesticity. The ‘mingled tints’ are the varieties of talent which appear; the ‘sad splendour’ is that of their vanished promise.’
And we’re off, as each of these pretty weeds heads its own chapter. This is bracing territory, because this section takes in turn these enemies and attempts to teach the writer to know and defeat them. Not many of them that a private income and a room of one’s own cannot cure though, it has to be said, but the message is know yourself, and face up to these obstacles – recognise them as such and decide what is most important, to succeed or retreat.
Then part three takes a completely different tack – it is a candid memoir of Connolly’s schooling, in his prep school, and then at Eton as a King’s Scholar, entirely focused on the formation of the author’s intellect and literary potential by his education at these two schools. Along the way, it throws wide the windows into public school education, and the men who are formed there, dwelling on those it has made and those it has marred. Connolly’s first few terms were bleak and cruel, as he was oppressed by his seniors in time-honoured fashion, but once he had risen through the school in seniority, he adapted and made it his element – this is not a ‘misery memoir’ in the final analysis. But it is eye-opening to this modern (female) reader. The culture of this tiny universe is so intricate, so codified, that it builds at an early age and as a substitute for family life a hugely significant area of shared experience for a limited number of privileged men. The description of Eton life is complicated and alien so that all I could do was hang on for the ride, and then reflect on just how influential such a detailed upbringing must be on future relationships and outlook on life. It gave Connolly, who mixed in far different circles, a greater fellow-feeling with his contemporary Orwell than with others in his social milieu, and left me with the question of how far that tribal bonding and imaginative sympathy continues to be true today. If confined to the establishment that shapes our high culture that is significant enough – how much more so if it also affects the establishment that shapes the world we live in. This memoir is a secret-exposing, subversive read.
Enemies of Promise is in many ways utterly and completely of its time. The writer is a man, of course. Women can be part of the problem, or part of the solution, but they only connect at the margins. Domesticity and the ‘pram in the hall’ undermine the priorities of the writer, unless the partner in life understands the risks and acts accordingly in support of his genius. A muse, preferably one rich enough to remove everyday concerns, is the perfect role (although Connolly summons the cognitive dissonance in part one to explore sensitively the work of Virginia Woolf). Someone else who seems to be missing in this work is the ordinary reader, who doesn’t seem to figure in the formula for literature of enduring worth. This is a bible for the writer as monomaniac. But it is a book well worth reviving today – for its style, for its entertainment value, for its insights into British culture that have not gone away – or if they had gone away, seem to be on their way back. If we think the public school elite is dominant once more, assuming it ever really went away, this is essential reading. Connolly’s political sympathies were on the left, and he observes, in 1938, ‘There is so much side-choosing, heresy-hunting, witch-burning and shadow-cabinet-making among the parties of the left, so much victory mentality among people for whom victory is most uncertain, that caution in a writer should be welcome. It is no time to quarrel with our own side.’ Sage (or cowardly?) advice today. And then there is the whole risky area of ‘promise’:
Promise! Fatal word, half-bribe and half threat, round whose exact meaning centred many tearful childhood interviews. ‘But you promised you wouldn’t’, ‘But that wasn’t a promise’, ‘Yes it was – you haven’t kept your promise’, till the meaning expands, and the burden of the oath under which we grew up becomes the burden of expectation we can never fulfil. […] Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.’
I felt the same frisson when writing this review that I felt when writing about Flann O’Brien, another brilliant stylist – sheer brilliance of Connolly’s prose, the incisiveness of his discovery of cliche, challenges me almost to the point of giving up on writing about him. Really, this piece should just say ‘Read This! You’ll be excessively diverted, even while you are made to feel very angry at times’.
The book is out of print – why on earth? Many of its views are unfashionable to say the very least, one has to read historically not to be irritated by the constant male voice and the persistent male privilege. But he did have an unerring eye for the writers who would endure – and it is worth it for the memoir of a Georgian boyhood alone, which is so very brave and honest. The last reprint was in 2008; there is an excellent review by Christopher Hitchens here in which he marvels as I did at Connolly’s preoccupations coming full circle.
I bought a secondhand copy of the Penuin Modern Classics ed of 1961, and if you want to know what a 1960s Penguin edition looks like after 50 years, here it is – pages turning brown and beginning to flake away. It has lasted more than ten years, but won’t make 100 – unlike Connolly’s work, which I am sure will be discovered and rediscovered by future generations of curious readers.
Cyril Connolly: Enemies of Promise. London: Penguin Books, 1961. 283pp
First published 1938.