Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Cyril Connolly and the "faintly Mephistopholean Jack Kahane"

I can't resist following up Monday night's discussion of Cyril Connolly's The Rock Pool with two additional points of incidental interest, drawn largely from the pages of Jeremy Lewis's Cyril Connolly: A Life (1997).

1 Connolly's initial efforts to find a publisher for The Rock Pool were stymied by the houses' squeamishness about its perceived obscenity. Though it's difficult now to fathom how the novel--which stoops no lower than a lot of drunkenness and the occasional frank use of the word "lesbian"--could be considered obscene, recent obscenity prosecutions had made publishers reticent. Multiple houses, including Faber and Faber and possibly the Woolfs' Hogarth Press, declined to publish the book, leading Connolly to consider chucking the whole project, as he explains in his introductory letter to his friend Peter Quennell:
I know there is a theory that a book, if it is any good, will always find a publisher, that talent cannot be stifled, that it even proves itself by thriving on disappointment, but I have never subscribed to it: we do not expect spring flowers to bloom in a black frost, and I think the chill wind that blows from English publishers, with their black suits and thin umbrellas, and their habit of beginning every sentence with "We are afraid," has nipped off more promising buds than it has strengthened.
Fortunately for us Connolly fans, English expatriate Jack Kahane came to the rescue, offering to publish the book under his Paris-based Obelisk Press imprint. Kahane, who enjoyed flouting English convention, was known among the cogniscenti for his publication of standard-bearers of obscenity Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and Lawrence Durrell; according to Jeremy Lewis, Kahane
seemed to Alfred Perles the quintessential Englishman, sprucely turned out in a grey business suit with a carnation in his buttonhole, enjoying a bottle of Bass for lunch, and suffering from the occasional "touch of halitosis"; he liked to live well-at one stage he owned seven bulldogs and fifty pairs of trousers.
Kahane admired the book, but he was known to later say, only half-facetiously, that the relative tameness of Connolly's novel was a disgrace to his list.

In the United States, meanwhile, The Rock Pool was published by Scribner's, who sold 300 copies.

2 Though the novel's protagonist, Naylor, clearly serves at least part of the time as a mouthpiece for his creator, he also was based at least in part on an acquaintance of Connolly named Nigel Richards. Jeremy Lewis's note offering more detail about Richards made me gasp--it could have come straight from the more brutal precincts of a Waugh novel:
He abandoned stockbroking to become a tea-planter in Burma, where his first wife, an alcoholoic, fell overboard into a crocodile-infested river, and was eaten (or, as Norman Douglas used to cry, "The crocs got her!"). Some time after publication of The Rock Pool, Connolly and [his wife] Jean were having a drink in the Cafe Royal with Betty Fletcher-Mossop and Robin McDouall, the source of the above information, when Nigel Richards unexpectedly walked in: Connolly was, apparently, overcome with embarrassment, and blurted out "My God, I thought you were dead!" Nigel Richards later married Betty Fletcher-Mossop.
As my friend Marc says, why does anyone bother to make anything up, when real life is always providing more than we can ever use?

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