Sunday, March 09, 2008

"No doubt Cyril was an exceptionally lazy man."

The headline is from a review Anthony Powell wrote of Cyril Connolly's posthumously published journals, seemingly a good opening to an odds-and-end post to close Cyril Connolly week. Powell opens his review by writing,
On one thing everyone was agreed--schoolmasters and dons, patrons and fellow competitors, friends and enemies--Cyril Connolly was not in the least like anyone else.
George Orwell, meanwhile, in a review of The Unquiet Grave that focuses on the author's struggle between sympathy for socialism and a fear that it would render obsolete his own position and the individual artistic achievements he so prizes, claims one can draw a portrait of the author from simply reading the book:
"Palinurus" is the easily penetrable pseudonym of a well-known literary critic, but even without knowing his identity one could infer that the writer of this book is about 40, is inclined to stoutness, has lived much in Continental Europe, and has never done any real work.
Even the prospect of Connolly working was enough to trouble Evelyn Waugh, at least jokingly; in a letter to Nancy Mitford on April 8, 1951, he wrote of Connolly (whose Mitford-assigned nickname was Boots):
Boots said: "I am going to become a waiter at a fashionable restaurant so as to humiliate & reproach my friends for their ingratitude." He saw a worried look, I suppose on my face & said: "Ah, I see now I have touched even your cold heart." So I said: "Well no Cyril it isn't quite that. I was thinking of your fingernails in the soup."
Perhaps his fingernails were the source of the problem in a terrible lunch he once suffered through with Edith Wharton. Unlikely, I know, but as Powell points out, the bald notation of the event in Connolly's journal leaves us begging for more detail:
Connolly said the luncheon had aged him ten years.
If, as we might more reasonably infer, Wharton found Connolly uncongenial, she was by far not the only one--anyone who reads memoirs of biographies from the period is bound to come across descriptions of rows and sundered friendships, for, as Powell points out,
He had an utter disregard of other people's well-being and convenience, and often abominable manners.
Which makes the behavior of his second wife, Barbara Skelton, as described in a letter by Nancy Mitford, if not excusable then at least a bit more understandable:
Heywood writes that Boots' wife marks him for tidiness, lovingness etc & if less than 6/10 she turns him into Shepherd Market where he spends the night.
If he could be that unpleasant, why pay attention at all? For his friends, the boorish self-absorption was balanced by his reliable intelligence and flashes of charm, while for us there is the simple fun of watching, from a safe remove, such a complicated and often silly character wander through a rich literary scene. But even that would make him only a period curiosity, were his prose not such a pleasure, brimming with personality, and his opinions so strong and subjective. He was an enthusiast, and his criticism seems largely to be a wander through the bookshelves that held him entranced for a lifetime. Earlier this week I quoted Sven Birkerts on Connolly's enthusiasm; Powell also picked up on that characteristic, raising it to the level of a foundational critical position:
One of the things Connolly understands very well--and many contemporary critics fail completely to grasp--is that, as Rilke remarked, it is no good approaching a work of art in any spirit but sympathy. It is perfectly easy to make fun of Shakespeare or the Sistine Chapel if you apply only that treatment.
There is little in Connolly's shambles of a personal life that one is tempted to imitate, but when it comes to literature one could do worse than to set his critical approach as a model, and root one's own efforts in that same rich soil of sympathy.

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