Cyril Connolly

by | Dec 16, 2006 | Approaches to Writing, Literature

Fortunately, it’s taken me this long to get around to writing about Part II of Connolly’s Enemies of Promise.  Fortunately, because in the meantime I’ve also read his novel Shade Those Laurels.  As you may recall, Part I of Enemies is a sort of a survey or dissection of literary style.  Part II is an examination of all the stumbling blocks that keep potential writers from fulfilling their early promise.  This is a topic particularly close to Connolly’s heart, as he, like Dr. Peter Halfen in Max Brod’s Prager Tagblatt, was widely seen as having a great future before him.  At the time we meet him, Halfen is an old man, and his greatest achievement seems to be an autobiographical essay in the third person in which he looks back on his life:

At 18 he was held to be a great hope; he is that still, and if God grant him life and health, he will be a great hope at 80, one that unfortunately is never fulfilled.

Of all the blocks a writer may stumble over, Connolly says that working as a journalist is the worst because it trains a writer to write for immediate effect, whereas ‘real’ writing is a distilled and subtle draught which at first may seem nothing at all but whose potency catches up with the reader over time.  He should know.  He was a literary critic for decades.  One of the few volumes of original prose he wrote, which was left unfinished at his death, is the short novel Shade Those Laurels. 

It’s a whodunit, of all things, and a particularly flimsy one.  And the characters?  They walk and talk like cardboard cutouts.  And on top of that, it’s about writers and writing.

Except for rare exceptions like The Sun Also Rises, when writers write about writers it’s a bad sign.  Like when lyricists start writing songs about being a musician or a lyricist.  Art ought to be about something other than artists, methinks.  Actually, The Sun Also Rises is not about writers.  But Shade Those Laurels is.  In fact I will hazard a guess that it is the psychological autobiography of one writer, whose name is Cyril Connolly.

Part III of Enemies of Promise is an autobiography, up to about the age of eighteen, of a brilliant but failed writer.  He blames his education: “Since I was unable to write in any living language when I left Eton I was already on the way to becoming a critic.  He didn’t like much else about school, either, but he learned to suck up to and become a part of what he hated.  At one point he calls himself “the outstanding moral coward of my generation.”

The self-vivisection begins: “I have always disliked myself at any given moment; the total of such moments is my life.”

Shade Those Laurels is about Stephen Kemble, a book reviewer, 26 and a male virgin, who is ‘working’ on his own book, which sounds vaguely awful, and who gets taken up by Sir Mortimer Gussage, the literary lion of the age.  There is a dinner, with the usual cast of dubious guests, after which Gussage dies in bed.  Kemble is in bad favour due to an obituary of Sir Gussage, which he didn’t actually write, that was found on the dead man’s pillow and was supposed to have brought on an apoplexy.  We’re supposed to believe that members of the dinner party recognized the piece of paper in his breast pocket as an obituary, and not any obituary but precisely Gussage’s, and that one of them, a rival, stole it while ostensibly settling Kemble’s handkerchief.  Why Kemble carries papers around in his handkerchief pocket is not explained.

But Kemble is hot on the trail of the supposed killer.  Turns out Gussage was a fraud.  He wasn’t a writer at all, but only the public face of a dastardly gang of editors and critics whose fiendish plot was to write books by committee and then talk them up in literary magazines, thereby fooling the public into reading what everyone seems to agree is great literature.  Holy first editions, Batman!  Kemble has been asked to ‘touch up’ Gussage’s upcoming novel, which is actually stuff cobbled together by the dubious guests at the dinner party, all of whom knew Gussage would die and one of whom supplied the poison that he ingested of his own free will.  See, he had insisted on writing the next novel himself, so he took the proffered poison; get it?  I don’t either, but when Kemble gets to the bottom of it, he chooses to take a share in the business and continue the scam in the role of final editor of all future posthumous work by Sir Mortimer Gussage.

Like Connolly, Kemble walks away from his own work in order to become a tool for others, who in this case are old and dead people, and he doesn’t get the girl.  There’s a love interest, see?  She’s Sir Gussage’s daughter, Laurian, “the great man’s most finished masterpiece.”  For ‘most finished,’ read ‘only authentic,’ for she represents the legacy, the addition to the corpus of literature, that authors pass on to the new generation.  And does she ever give him the glad eye!  Then, after a false start or two, the two of them get down to business in the drawing room.  Except that a certain bottle of reputed old tokay in Kemble’s coat pocket, that he had forgotten was there, breaks under the strain.  Kemble clearly has trouble with keeping things in his pockets.  His suit and the sofa are a mess, and, having yogurt instead of blood in his veins, he declares that he is no longer in the mood.

At the same time, he is being willingly pursued by the old man’s widow, for whom he feels a certain attraction that’s a bit difficult to understand given the descriptions of her.  The first time he tries to let her seduce him, he buries his face in the black hairs surrounding the navel of her ample belly, but then gets cold feet.  Shades of Oedipus, I should think.  But the next time she goes for it he behaves like a good little boy, gives up Laurian in order to burnish the unearned laurels of a dead man.

On the other hand, there is some clever writing, sometimes too clever by half.  From what I’ve read so far, Connolly is best at writing about failure and it’s causes.  His descriptions of the traps that lie in wait for the weak-willed writer are positively lyrical.  This whole Connolly discursion, has left sort of a bad taste in my mouth.  Shakespeare has been calling to me.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read King Lear.