Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"There is an integrity in true worldliness which a saint would envy," or, Some Cyril Connolly gossip!

A couple of weeks ago I built a post about London around a couple of descriptions from Elaine Dundy's biting comic novel The Old Man and Me (1964), which the New York Review of Books Classics has just republished. When I decided the post needed fleshing out, I turned, as I so often do, to Cyril Connolly, taking a couple of lines from his amusing collection of wildly contradictory journal entries, "England Not My England."

Then a few days ago, nyrbsara--who runs the New York Review of Books Classics blog, A Different Stripe--left a comment on that post:
The choice of of Cyril Connolly for your quotes was intentional, right? If not, then you've just blown my mind!
Cryptic, no? And these days, what do we do when faced with something cryptic? We hie ourselves to the Google! . . . Where I learned, from the Guardian's 2008 obituary for Elaine Dundy, that The Old Man and Me was
derived from attentions paid to her by the critic Cyril Connolly.
Now, even after acknowledging that Connolly did more than his share of sleeping around and that I tend to fall back on Connolly regularly, in connection with all manner of other writers, I remain pleasantly surprised by the coincidence. And if I'm willing to imagine that the overweight, unhealthy, dissipated middle-aged literary critic C. D. McKee of Dundy's novel was such a faithful portrait of Connolly that it subconsciously brought him to mind, it does make me wonder just how obvious the portrayal must have been at the time. Imagine if she'd given McKee a lemur or two!

Interestingly, Jeremy Lewis's big biography of Connolly barely mentions Dundy; she's almost entirely relegated to a footnote:
Her first novel, The Dud Avocado, was a best-seller (Connolly unkindly suggested that it should have been called The Dud Dundy, by Elaine Avocado). A few year later, Dundy published The Old Man and Me, the heroine of which is a young American adrift in literary London. She falls in love with a stout, blue-eyed writer in his late fifties, beside whom all the young men in her life seem dull dogs indeed. He pores over menus in restaurants, has a passion for collecting antiques, and casts "dazzling and worshipful glances" in her direction.
I think I detect the fell hand of England's stringent libel law there, Lewis's circumspection surely prompted by fears that Dundy, still alive when the biography was published in 1997, might sue him.

Dundy, meanwhile, did mention Connolly in the new introduction she wrote for The Old Man and Me in 2005--but only to quote, without context, some advice he gave her about her private life:
"Make up your mind, you can either be a monster or a doormat." I opted for the former.
Advice that perhaps Connolly found occasion to regret?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:50 PM

    Dundy gives a more detailed account of her relationship with Connolly in “Life Itself”. But that was published in 2001. Similarly I don’t think there’s any mention of Elizabeth Jane Howard in either of the two Connolly biographies, but she confessed in passing to an affair with him in her own autobiography “Slipstream”, 2003. The full details won’t be revealed until 2025, since his letters to her are restricted. If I remember correctly there was at least one instance of a lover being referred to by a pseudonym in one biography but by her real name in the other.

    - matthew davis