A True Blast from the Past
The Evening Colonnade, by Cyril Connolly, Harcourt Brace Janovitch, London and New York, 1975, HB, 469 pages
Cyril Connolly was a type of writer that no longer exists. He was a literary critic—an occupation from the last century with social utility and some prestige now wholly supplanted by flacks and bloggers, which is to say, by minds that serve up more opinion, fewer facts, far less interest in human understanding and no interest at all in its accumulation. Bloggers serve the market, pursuing whatever notions are ascendant and popular generally without questioning their relevance or their long term effect on the planet and/or human species. Connolly once wrote, “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.” This from a critic who spent his entire writing career in the public eye. It was a different world, as they say, and we are not better for its cultural submergence.
Connolly was faithful to his own advice. He was also among the sharpest critical minds of 20th century lit/crit, one who was prepared to calmly stand in the shadow of other writers to illuminate them accurately. In the 1930s, he was the first prominent critic to recognize the genius of George Orwell and Henry Miller, two writers who could hardly have been more different, but were equally in danger of being disappeared by the combination of reviewers unwilling to engage with the unfamiliar and the tacit disapproval that—still—faces any writer who challenges orthodoxy.
Connolly was the sort of critic who knew virtually all the important European and English language writers personally, thought well of most of them (he did loathe Virginia Woolf), and himself lived a chaotic private life characterized by incessant travel, domestic pet menageries, wild marriages and wilder divorces, and constant partying. As literary critics go, he led an extraordinarily active and interesting life, one that would have challenged the best of his contemporaries to capture in fiction. A few tried, achieving at best, caricature.
I was brought to Connolly by an uncle in England, who pushed into my hands when I was just eighteen, The Unquiet Grave, Connolly’s dyspeptic memoir of divorce and exile from all his beloved travel locations during the Second World War. Connolly had been entering his forties when he wrote the book, and not surprisingly it and its sensibility sailed over my head and devoured me at the same time. I had no wins and losses in my life, but I was itching to get into the game. There was no way I could understand someone trying to come to terms with a record of, say, eight wins and fourteen losses.
That said, I have somewhat circumspectly kept a copy of The Unquiet Grave in my personal library since, but hadn’t cracked its covers since I returned to North America in 1963 until a few days ago. I did read Connolly’s 1938 collection of essays, Enemies of Promise well after I returned to Canada, and because it is a brilliant book, I’ve reread it several times since, along with The Condemned Playground (1945), and his single—and curiously bland—novel, The Rock Pool (1936). Toronto bookseller David Mason gave me The Evening Colonnade (1973) a few years ago, and it has sat on or near my bedstead since, unread but oddly cherished, until a few weeks ago.
The book’s “oddly cherished” status has a story behind it that’s worth telling. While I was living with the Connolly-reading uncle and aunt in rural Sussex, I confessed to them my ambition to become, someday, a writer. They didn’t laugh. In fact, they didn’t even blink. Instead, they began to pile books on me to read—to be a writer, they said, one had to read. My aunt, one day, decided that if I was to become a writer in the wilderness of Canada, I’d better meet a real writer while I could. She sent me off to meet the playwright John Osborne, who would have eaten me but was, luckily, out of the country. With Osborne off the table and under pressure to choose someone else, I suggested Cyril Connolly.
She somehow obtained his address in London—for all I know, she may have phoned him—and a day or two later, I was standing on Connolly’s doorstep, somewhere close to Hyde Park, ringing his doorbell, a freshly printed calling card in my hand, my heart in my mouth and absolutely nothing to say. When a stout little butler with a kind face came to the door, I asked him if I could speak to Mr. Cyril Connolly. The stout little butler asked me to wait, and with a tired smile, disappeared into the house. He returned a few minutes later with the news that Mr. Connolly was indisposed, and couldn’t speak with me. I scurried off, perfectly satisfied, and very relieved that I hadn’t had to make a fool of myself in front of someone famous. Much later, when I purchased a second hand copy of Enemies of Promise that happened to have a decent photograph of Connolly on the back cover, I understood that I had met my famous writer after all. Connolly, who probably had as little to say to an 18 year old Visigoth from the Colonies as I had to say to a British literary critic in his late 50s, had impersonated his own butler.
The Evening Colonnade, as its rather pompous title suggests, is, at the surface, a Patrician literary critic’s summing up of his intellectual milieu and its cast of luminaries. As such, it could have been a mine-field of late-in-the-game revisionisms, score settlings, and the awkward self-aggrandizements of an older writer who senses the world accelerating past him. Happily, it has none of those flaws. It is a readable book by a remarkable man and a very fine writer and I was foolish to have ignored it as long as I did. It was published in Britain in 1973; the U.S. edition, which I have, was published in 1975, a few months after Connolly’s death at age 71.
Like his book’s title, Connolly’s tone and literary persona is Patrician. But what an odd Patrician he was. His class roots are closer to those of George Orwell—lower middle class—than to most of the friends and acquaintances in whose company he spent his life. He was garrulous and yet deeply civil, seemingly to everyone regardless of class or nationality. He was generous to writers of evident talent, and he seemed open—and oddly attractive—to beautiful, damaged women, particularly if they had a penchant for adventure, of which his private life seemed to have one after another.
What particularly strikes me about Connolly is how heteroclite his literary interests were, and how open and sanguine his judgments, both throughout his long career and in the essays of The Evening Colonnade, most of which were occasioned by the publication of books by or about writers of the recently deposed modernist canon (v. DWEM lit). Few critics in any era write without envy, and fewer still without malice. Connolly wrote without detectible envy. When and where malice appears, it is only in the service of an irresistible line or literary joke. Lifelong, his most generous judgments seemed to be his most perceptive ones—a true rarity.
The Evening Colonnade is divided into four sections. The first consists mainly of travel pieces—no small matter, since Connolly traveled extensively, particularly in Africa, and was a gifted observer. If more people had read his penetrating 1964 piece on South Africa, a country in which he spent part of his childhood, and both loved and disapproved of, Apartheid might have become visible to the world a decade before it did.
The book’s second section—this time mainly made up of his reviews of recent biographies or critical studies published in the Times—covers writers from Lafontaine and Pope through to a trio of essays on Marcel Proust. The best of these are the tender essays on Oscar Wilde and Henry James, in one of which he argues that Wilde was tricked into vulgarities by sexuality, with James dying of erotic thirst because he couldn’t come to terms with its primacy.
The book’s third and longest section consists of essays; again most begun as book reviews of or about his contemporaries. And what a marvelous and inclusive range it is: it begins with W.B. Yeats and runs all the way to Basil Bunting and Solzhenitsyn.
Most of the writers and subjects he treats in this section might seem like well-trodden or even trampled ground, and consequently, ho-hum. Yet time after time, Connolly manages to write something witty and perspective-altering: “It is significant”, he begins an essay on W.B. Yeats, “that Yeats was born in the same year as Kipling. Who could foretell, when both attained their half-century in 1915, the reversal of fortune which would relegate the universally acknowledged laureate (in prose and verse) of the world’s greatest empire to semi-oblivion when his hundred was up, while the long-haired floppy-tied survivor of the Celtic Twilight, the last Pre-Raphaelite “companion of the Cheshire Cheese” who refused to write a war-poem, would have amassed yet another bibliography…solely of books about him since 1950?”
One of the three essays on Ezra Pound provides the best summary (and in five pages) of the issues in Pound’s imprisonment by the Allies in 1945 through his incarceration in St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital for 13 years and his return, after his release, to Rapallo. And I know of no better description of the elderly Pound than this one from the second of the three: “I had not seen Pound in two years. He seemed if anything younger. He was not so thin, he was not so depressed, he did not pick at his hands; he wore a well-cut light blue suit, a felt hat and carried a Malacca cane. He was silent as ever, silent as the lanes of Venice after London traffic, but the silence held no more terrors; it was of two kinds, benevolent or else simply abstracted, like a light switched on or off. It did not prevent him from jumping in and out of launches and vaporettos or striding around Torcello.”
The essays on Orwell, Joyce, Mary McCarthy, Aldous Huxley, Fitzgerald and Hemingway and many others are all equally penetrating, although the Hemingway pieces, in particular, are deflating.
The fourth section begins as a miscellany of intellectual influences—Max Ernst, Art Nouveau, Freud—and becomes the purest, or rather, most direct, memoir the book provides. But really, the entire volume is memoir, and of the best sort, filled with fascinating characters finely drawn, and of historical moment.
I have just two quibbles with Cyril Connolly and with The Evening Colonnade. First, reading the essays has cost me well over $200 in orders for second hand editions of books I should have read and haven’t, and a few I’d forgotten were as good as he’s reminded me they are. He even inspired a fleeting urge to read Finnegan’s Wake, one that, so far, I’ve been able to resist. He did induce me to reread Pound’s Pisan Cantos, and for that I’m grateful.
Second, Connolly has always had a damnable habit of quoting from foreign language texts without bothering to translate them. I resented this when I was eighteen and I still do—although now what I resent most is not having his translations of the passages—something he occasionally provides, and which are nearly always more interesting than they ought to be.
One more thing—aside from recommending to anyone that should they stumble across any book by Cyril Connolly that they buy and read it. Reading The Evening Colonnade has made me regret that I didn’t recognize Cyril Connolly standing in front of me 53 years ago, and that I had nothing to say to him. If I had it to do over, it now would be so very simple.
“Thank you, Mr. Connolly.”
2000 words, July 27, 2015