Although he wrote and published from the late 1920s until the mid-1970s, Cyril Connolly is commonly associated with the 1930s and 1940s. This is due to the lasting impact of his assessment of the period in Enemies of Promise (1938). The book merges Connolly’s personal memories, their historical backdrop, and his views on selected authors, mostly Modernists, but also from his favorite period, the 18th century. Enemies of Promise sets the tone for Connolly’s career as an essayist, but it also hints at his restricted outlook and the contradictory impulses which shape his essayistic work.
As the editor of Horizon Connolly went on to produce one of the most stimulating periodicals of World War II and the immediate postwar years. First published in 1939, it survived financial and organizational difficulties until 1950. In Ideas and Places (1953) Connolly assembled essays from Horizon (but also from Art News, World Review, Go, the Geographical Magazine, Partisan Review, the New Statesman, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Listener) and prefaced them with a summary of Horizon’s intention and problems. Born from the idealistic idea of a “renewal of the world and of letters,” the journal maneuvered through left-wing politics, a disenchantment with Russia, and an equally thorough disappointment by the “philistine attitude of the Labour government to culture.” Already in 1947 it showed signs of turning away from politics and drifting into an increasingly monotonous condemnation of postwar society. Halfway between initial enthusiasm and eventual decline, Horizon produced some of the most inspired antiwar essays of World War II. The fictional “Letter from a Civilian” of September 1944, which placed the suffering of the so called “homefront” against the shallow heroism of the fighting troops, especially caused a stir. The wartime issues embraced an eclectic mix of
Georgian writers, 1930s authors around W.H.Auden, and new names, such as Alun Lewis, William Sansom, Julian Maclaren Ross, and Laurie Lee. Toward the end of the war Horizon began to feature the literature of the French Resistance.
The problems of Connolly’s cultural politics and the internal rift of many of his writings derive from a deeply ambivalent attitude toward the relationship of art and society. His claim to be working for “a new humanism which considers human life vulgar but sacred” encapsulates the impasse. Marxist critics such as Julian Symons were as little pleased with “the quite frankly belles-lettrist Horizon” and its “fagends of the Twenties… bound together by no organized view of Life or Society” as the conservative media who resented Horizon’s struggle against puritanism, identity cards, and the death penalty. On the positive side, Connolly used Horizon to fight, among other things, for prison reform and—interestingly enough—a culturally united Europe. Like many authors who grew up in the 1920s, Connolly was torn between a traditional privileged education (he went to Eton and Balliol College, Oxford) and the attempt to transcend it in the direction of a
socially responsible, if not socialist perspective. His essentially elitist outlook and its source, his nostalgic and anachronistic orientation toward classical Greece and Rome, the French and English Enlightenment, and the fin de siècle, eventually pushed him toward nostalgia and cultural pessimism.
In a 1946 survey called “The Cost of Letters,” for instance, Horizon had still sought to demonstrate in a very materialistic vein the link between art and real life. The questionnaire on authors’ incomes was answered by John Betjeman, Elizabeth Bowen, C.Day Lewis, Robert Graves, Laurie Lee, Rose Macaulay, George Orwell, Stephen Spender, and Dylan Thomas, among others. In the “Centenary” essay of 1948, on the other hand, Connolly complains about the “continuous decline in all the arts.” After lamenting the deaths of Joyce, Yeats, Woolf, Valéry, Freud, H.G.Wells, and J.G.Frazer, he goes on to state that “their places are not being filled. This is not because there is a decline in talent, but on account of the gradual dissolution of the environment in which it ripens. There is a decay in communication owing to the collapse of that highly cultivated well-to-do world bourgeoisie who provided the avant-garde artists—writer, painter, musician, architect—with the perfect audience.”
A traditionalist liberal humanism which often collapses into an art for art’s sake position is perhaps the best characterization of Connolly’s essays. Yet even his critics applauded the grace and wit of his style. As a confirmed francophile Connolly also introduced a large number of French authors to the British audience. He translated Alfred Jarry’s Ubu plays and promoted Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Francis Ponge, Raymond Queneau, and Maurice Blanchot. His continued praise for Paul Valéry showed Connolly once more establishing his idiosyncratic connection between modern writing, the 19th-century aestheticism of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Huysmans, and his beloved 18th century. Connolly’s old fascination with Modernism (incidentally, he seems to have been the first to write about Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in an essay entitled “The Position of Joyce” of 1929) found an outlet in his book The Modern Movement (1965).
After the demise of Horizon, Connolly continued to contribute to the intellectual debates of the postwar years, though his voice sounded more and more outmoded.
Despite his unflinching attachment to his favorite subjects (which culminated in a book on 18th-century French pavilions), he also wrote approvingly about Francis Bacon’s rather antihumanist paintings. The contradictory nature of his politics is evident from the fact that he had no problems working as literary editor for the Observer and writing for
the New Statesman, but also for the conservative Sunday Times.
Four volumes of essays arranged by Connolly himself give an overview of his career:
The Condemned Playground (1945), Ideas and Places (1953), Previous Convictions (1963), and the rather somber The Evening Colonnade (1973). There, Connolly’s perceptive literary studies are united with his art criticism, but also with often surprisingly superficial travel writings. All this adds up to the curious impression of a Modernist traditionalist, a profoundly English snob with an interest in social reform, in short (and in the words of Peter Quennell): a “jet-propelled armchair.”
Cyril Vernon Connolly. Born 10 September 1903 in Whitley, near Coventry, Warwickshire. Lived in South Africa as a child, 1906–10, and Ireland, 1910–14. Studied at St. Cyprian’s school, Eastbourne, where he met Eric Blair (i.e. George Orwell), 1914– 18; Eton College, Berkshire, 1918–22; Balliol College, Oxford, 1922–25, B.A. in history, 1925. Tutor in Jamaica, 1925–26; secretary to Logan Pearsall Smith, 1926–27. Reviewer for the New Statesman, London, 1927–29. Married Frances Jean Bakewell, 1930 (divorced, 1947). Founder, with Stephen Spender, and editor, 1939–50, Horizon; literary editor, the Observer, London, 1942–43. Married Barbara Skelton, 1950 (marriage dissolved, 1954). Columnist and book reviewer, London Sunday Times, 1951–74.
Married Deirdre Craig, 1959: one daughter and one son. Fellow, and Companion of Literature, 1972, Royal Society of Literature; Commander, Order of the British Empire (CBE), 1972; Chevalier, Legion of Honor (France). Died in London, 26 November 1974.
Essays and Related Prose
Enemies of Promise, 1938; revised edition, 1948
The Condemned Playground: Essays, 1927–1944, 1945
Ideas and Places, 1953
Enemies of Promise and Other Essays: An Autobiography of Ideas, 1960
Previous Convictions, 1963
The Evening Colonnade, 1973
Selected Essays, edited by Peter Quennell, 1984
Other writings: the “word cycle” The Unquiet Grave (1944), two novels (one unfinished), letters, journals (included in Journal and Memoirs, edited by David Pryce- Jones, 1983), and The Modern Movement (1965), a study of Modernism.
Fisher, Clive, Cyril Connolly: A Nostalgic Life, London: Macmillan, 1995
Kramer, Hilton, “Cyril Connolly’s Horizon,” New Criterion 8, no. 1 (September 1989):5–11
Lewis, Jeremy, Cyril Connolly: A Life, London: Cape, 1997
Ozick, Cynthia, “Cyril Connolly and the Groans of Success,” New Criterion 2, no. 7 (March 1984):21–17
Sheldon, Michael, Friends of Promise: Cyril Connolly and the World of “Horizon”, London: Hamilton, 1989
Spender, Stephen, Cyril Connolly: A Memoir, Edinburgh: Tragara Press, 1978
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