Cyril Connolly Reconsidered

In an essay in the current TLS, Brian Dillon reconsiders the career of Waugh’s contemporary and friend Cyril Connolly. The essay is entitled “Cyril Connolly and the literature of depression” and was originally published in Dillon’s collection Essayism.  Dillon recognizes this topic is a challenge because Connolly published very little and most of that (a single novel and collected reviews) is justifiably forgotten. But while most critics would name Enemies of Promise as the one book for which Connolly should be most remembered, Dillon thinks that role should be assigned to The Unquiet Grave:

…the odd, fragmentary “word cycle” he published under the pen name Palinurus in the autumn of 1944. This is the book – an essay, an anthology, a complaint – in which the contradictions in Connolly’s talent and personality fail to resolve with the strangest, most seductive results. Here he anatomizes his worst traits: laziness, nostalgia, gluttony, hypochondria, some essential frivolity of mind that means his writing will always be summed up as “‘brilliant’ – that is, not worth doing”… You can hear that his pensées are already on the turn; his taste is for the overripe. Connolly’s perfectly wrought, disconsolate phrases revert to what one suspects they had been in life, before reaching the pages of his notebooks: jokes, that is, one-liners and gags.

After reviewing Connolly’s book and describing its links to contemporary European thought, Dillon considers its distinctly mixed critical reception:

The Unquiet Grave had a brief celebrity before it began to look antique. Elizabeth Bowen, Philip Toynbee and Edmund Wilson all admired it; Hemingway even wrote to say that he was “almost sure it will be a classic (whatever that means)”. Others remained unconvinced. An anonymous reviewer in the TLS spoke of the book’s “bleak silliness”. Waugh, who never missed a chance to pick on the sometime friend he called “Smartiboots”, complained that “Cyril has lived too long among Communist young ladies”.

Waugh’s review of the book was entitled “Palinurus in Never-Never Land or the Horizon Blue-Print of Chaos.” It appeared in the Tablet and was later included A Little Order and Essays, Articles and Reviews. The Waugh quotation in the TLS article, however, comes from a letter to Nancy Mitford, dated 7 January 1945 written from Yugoslavia. Letters, 196. Waugh’s negativity toward the book lived after him; Connolly discovered his friend’s handwritten marginal notes written in the copy Waugh received in Yugoslavia that was displayed at a US exhibit to which Connolly was invited. According to Waugh scholar Robert Murray Davis who was present, those notes reduced Connolly to tears.

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