Monday, August 25, 2008

"However wise we are, we are only worldly wise for others."

Though he wrote extensively and astutely on novelists major and minor throughout his life, Cyril Connolly himself produced only one novel, The Rock Pool (1936), a brief satire of life among a community of expatriate bohemians and ne'er-do-wells on the Mediterranean coast. As he was wont to do in all aspects of life, Connolly made some effort at preempting the criticism he anticipated of the novel, explaining in his introductory letter to the book, addressed to his friend Peter Quennell,
If one has criticized novels for several years one is supposed to have profited from them. Actually one finds one's mind irremediably silted up with every trick and cliche, every still-born phrase and facile and second-hand expression that one has deplored in others. The easy trade of reviewing is found to have carried banality with it to the point of an occupational disease.
Connolly's worry is misguided: the language of The Rock Pool is far too careful to fall into cliche, though at the same time it is less animated than that of his critical writing. A more accurate, if too harsh, critical account is given by Jeremy Lewis in his biography of Connolly:
None of the characters comes alive; the dialogue is as stiff and awkward and unconvincing as that of a group of incompatible strangers, reluctantly introduced to one another and unlikely to take things any further; there is no sense of drama or involvement or interaction between its wooden-seeming puppets, and its ostensibly shocking subject-matter--bohemian life in the South of France, with its obligatory dashes of sex, drugs, drink and general dissipation--seems irremediably tame, lacking even the faintest whiff of brimstone or depravity.
At its best, The Rock Pool's jaded, brutal humor rivals that of the early comic novels of Anthony Powell or Evelyn Waugh, who ruthlessly stripped those books of any hint of sentiment or lyricism, leaving only terse, Hemingway-esque prose and a slashing, cynical wit. Connolly, however, never seems fully comfortable in that mode, alternating awkwardly between that sort of genuinely funny passage and the more lyrical, sentimental, melancholy, and self-lacerating effusions that make The Unquiet Grave and Enemies of Promise so intimate and compelling. Those interludes do deliver the occasional gem--
I shall cultivate obscurity and practise failure, so repulsive in others, in oneself of course the only dignified thing.

[T]he habit and profession of cynicism can often exist without the requisite gold reserves of emotion to back them.
--but they draw attention to the fact that the book is neither emotionally involving enough to be a straight novel nor spare and biting enough to be a first-rate satire. It's a tough no-man's-land to attempt to hold--Dawn Powell did it, but Connolly can't quite pull it off. You can sense the difficulty he had in the writing, can instantly apprehend why, in Quennell's words, this "aesthetic idealist and . . . literary perfectionist" never wrote another novel.

Despite that, The Rock Pool is often a pleasure to read, offering some wonderfully deadpan dialogue. I particularly liked the fresh strangeness of this exchange:
At the main road Toni turned round. "You must walk back with me to my room, Rascasse--because--because--"

"Because what?"

"Because I am afraid of a ghost there."

"What kind of ghost?"

"Oh, well--she is a woman with very red hair, very cold, sometimes she is thin and sometimes she is fat. She comes very close and goes away at the same time like a pendule. She is the ghost of a mountain in Finland and she wants me to go back because I promised never to leave her."

The midnight bus from Nice could not have arrived more opportunely.
Later, Naylor chats up a drunk German blonde named Sonia:
"Ich bin so mude, so mude," she sighed and went on in labored English. "It is terrible. I get so easily drunk. Let us talk philosophy. What is your philosophy?"


"What is that?

"Making the most of my chances."

"Pah--how material."

"Well, why not?"

"But you are young. Later you can be material--now is the time to believe."

"But I do believe--I believe in opportunism."

"How silly--what about life--what is life--what is progress--what is growth?"

"But I do believe in growth and progress. I believe that one is young, then not so young, then old, then very old, then dead; timid, then bold, then cautious, then crusty, then feeble; fresh, then stale; innocent, then guilty, then totally indifferent; first generous and then mean; thin then fat; thoughtless then selfish; hairy then bald--what more can you want?"
Later, Naylor learns more about Sonia from Rascasse, a painter friend, who explains:
"I'm just a little bit in love with her."

"Is she in love with you?"

"No, but she's sorry for me, because she's a virgin and so she tries to make it up to me."

"Well, that's something."

"Yes, but she's sorry for the colonial too, because he takes her everywhere in his car."

"He finds her a virgin as well?"
Connolly also presents a couple of splendid descriptions of hangovers:
Naylor woke late, with a hang-over. It was relatively a new sensation for him, for he was proud of a certain donnish temperance. He would take two whiskies at night and suddenly round on those of his friends who had a third one. Not that he minded, only it seemed rather childish; remember the law of diminishing returns? And why make yourself sick the next day? But strangely enough he was not sick--instead he seemed to be spun up in a kind of voluptuous cocoon. The sun streamed in over the purple bougainvillea. He tottered down to the sea. Lying on his back, the curious sensation was stronger, his stomach seemed made of wool, his throat felt some rich sensual craving, his mind floated among a multitude of sensations, all his senses were slowed up to an unusual delicacy. He masticated a line of Eliot: "The notion of some infinitely tender, infinitely suffering thing." Opening his eyes, the sky and sand were grey as a photograph, his antennae played over the tiny crystals, women's brown legs passed him on the board-walk, but he could not look up. "You see in me a creature in the most refined state of intoxication," he thought, and waves of sensual and lotophagous reminiscence swept over him.
That time, one gets the sense that Naylor had the good fortune to still have some alcohol in his system when he woke, thus avoiding the worst of drink's punishment; on another day, he's not so lucky:
This time he woke up with the real thing. Somebody was tapping his skull as if it were a breakfast egg. When he moved loose flints rattled inside it. His mouth seemed full of corrosive sublimate. He had a breath like an old tyre on a smoking dump. . . . Naylor closed his eyes, opened them, and was sick. For some time after he lay like a crushed snail on a garden path.
Connolly was probably right to decide that his gifts lay in criticism rather than in fiction, but anyone whose writing on hangovers deserves to be mentioned in the same boozy breath as Kingsley Amis's has accomplished something to be proud of; if Connolly were still with us, I'd gladly stand him drink after drink on the strength of those paragraphs alone.

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