Discussed in this essay:
Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly. University of Chicago Press. $17.00. 288 pp.
In the late 1970s, the poet and critic Stephen Spender once appeared on an episode of a PBS series hosted by William Price Fox and George Plimpton called “Inside the Writer’s Workshop.” In connection with Auden, who in his view had accomplished everything he possibly could have (“he set out to write, and succeeded in writing, the Complete Works of W.H. Auden”), Spender listed a number of recently deceased friends whom he felt had not quite lived up to their promise, naming last among them Cyril Connolly. He “used to write reviews that were extremely witty,” Spender said, “every week for the Sunday Times. He’d write [a thousand-word review] in a taxi going to the airport, he could do it so easily.”
As if exasperated by this memory, Spender burst out with a rhetorical question: “How can one understand a person so gifted, who could do something so easily, [that he] should use his gifts so little?”
Intentionally or not, Spender that day articulated the question at the heart of Connolly’s best-known work, Enemies of Promise. But in that work, Connolly doesn’t simply interrogate his own failure to make full use of his gifts: he also examines the whole range of circumstances, circa 1938, that he felt encouraged all promising writers to fall short of what they could otherwise accomplish. And despite the passing of seventy-one years, and the arrival of a complex, global context for Anglophone literature, the considerations he raised then—or more accurately, his peculiar way of raising them—have an enduring relevance today.
* * *
Often described as the Edmund Wilson of Britain, Cyril Connolly wrote Enemies of Promise in a time and place where the future was much more uncertain and looked much darker than our own: southern France from the summer of 1937 to that of 1938. The Spanish Civil War was raging to the west, and German fascism threatened the continent with smoldering aggression to the east. (The book was released the week of the Munich Agreement, which ceded a chunk of Czechoslovakia to Germany in an effort to forestall war.)
In such a world, Connolly had thoroughly lost faith in the idea of posterity. “At any moment the schools of Athens may be closed, the libraries burnt, the teachers exterminated, the language suppressed,” he writes, and the most posterity he was willing to hope for was a single decade. In the opening pages he asks, “what will have happened to the world in ten years’ time? To me? To my friends? To the books they write?” Far from writing for the ages, he hoped at most to write a book that would “outlive a dog or a car.”
With that severely limited aim in mind, Connolly embarks upon a critical inquiry into what qualities of a writer’s style, and of a writer’s life, make for a book that will still be read ten years after publication.
Connolly deduces those qualities and then does a rather unusual thing: having outlined circumstances fatal to promise, he goes on to write a memoir of his youth that simultaneously exemplifies his ideal style and reveals the circumstances of his life that have, in his view, prevented him from fully achieving his own promise. It’s an impressively strange performance, and perhaps something of an odd gamble too, though it’s not clear Connolly expected Enemies of Promise to participate in the endurance contest he proposes. If not, it’s ironic that Enemies of Promise is the work of his that has most ably lasted beyond its allotted decade.
* * *
Connolly begins his inquiry by considering an author’s style: he is convinced, like his near contemporaries the New Critics, that everything of relevance exists on the surface of prose. An author’s “technique remains the soundest base for a diagnosis,” he claims, so “it should be possible to learn as much about an author’s income and sex-life from one paragraph of his writing as from his cheque stubs and his love-letters”; plus “an expert should be able to tell a carpet by one skein of it,” if it has any distinction at all. Today the discussion would be pitched a little differently, as critical emphasis has shifted from the surface style to the philosophical and political assumptions that are seen to underpin it, leaving detailed discussion of stylistic choices themselves to writing manuals. (Avoid adverbs!) Yet Connolly, despite this (now) somewhat naive way of discussing style, and his almost complete failure to account for the effects of genre or of any other context (except by way of dismissing it), turns out to be interested in much the same issues: he views style mostly as a product of literary influence combined with its underpinning assumptions about the world and politics.
He identifies and traces back to the 17th century two tendencies current in the 1920s and ’30s, which he calls the Mandarin and the Vernacular. The Mandarin style arises from a commitment to formal elegance and elaboration (it is composed in Ivory Towers of varying height), and the Vernacular style arises from a commitment to directness and the colloquial touch. Huxley is a Mandarin, as is Woolf, whereas Hemingway and Lawrence are bivouacked in the Vernacular camp. Writers sometimes switch allegiance, by degrees or by leaps; Joyce, for example, starts off as a Vernacular writer with a touch of the Mandarin (Dubliners, Portrait), moves on to a mixture (in Ulysses, where Connolly says Joyce is “trying to make his mind up as to which side he will take”), and by the time of Finnegans Wake (still called “Work in Progress” when Connolly wrote) he has solidly barricaded himself in the Ivory Tower of the Mandarins.
Who then are the Vernacular writers, and who are the Mandarins? It’s almost a party game, and Connolly seems to have played it for many hours, drawing up a huge year-by-year list in which he names the works of his contemporaries and follows each with an M or a V, according to his judgment. Eliot? M, definitely. Dreiser? V. Isherwood? V. Orwell? V. Faulkner? M for sure.1
Though Anglophone literature has evolved and complicated significantly since 1938, it’s easy enough to trace these stylistic tendencies down to our own day. In fact, Zadie Smith inadvertently did something of the sort in her much-discussed essay, “Two Paths for the Novel,” published in The New York Review of Books last November.
In that essay, Smith considers two books that I have not yet read: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and Remainder by Tom McCarthy. In her view, the former is an exemplar of the dominant mode in contemporary Anglophone fiction, which she terms Lyrical Realism. She views it as coming from Balzac and Flaubert, although we can toss in the Joyce of Dubliners as well, as Netherland’s narrator seems preternaturally capable of having epiphanies. Lyrical Realism is that old Vernacular style, with just a touch of Mandarin elegance, applied to contemporary life, a stance by now so well-worn that even the finest exemplars are wearying (“everything must be made literary,” Smith writes of one passage, almost with an audible groan). According to Smith, Netherland only succeeds by maintaining a relentless irony in regard to every clichéd trope it employs, a success somewhat undermined by its sentimental ending (and needless to say, its de rigeur final epiphany).
Whatever mode Remainder belongs to, Smith doesn’t give it a name, though it’s clear that it has more than a little to do with the metaphysical skepticism of Robbe-Grillet and Beckett. Taxonomy would have been of little use to Smith’s purpose, which was to diagnose a crisis of authenticity in the contemporary novel, but she does place it in a tradition starting with Finnegans Wake and including such high stylists as Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, and Wallace, so it’s easy to see how that second path of hers runs through the Mandarin grove.
All dichotomies necessarily simplify, but it’s clear that Connolly is on to something. You might call it the basic tension in Anglophone literature, one explored at some length by Jonathan Franzen in his famous Harper’s essay, “Why Bother?”: whether to write for everybody, or just for those relative few who enjoy (and have the leisure and education to appreciate) verbal acrobatics and complexity of structure.
As Connolly progresses in his examination of each major writer, he dissects their worst qualities—the things a future stylist should avoid—as well as praising their strengths; thus, this section is packed with memorably apt aphorisms on his contemporaries. He starts with the Mandarins. Huxley is noted for his “peculiar brand of prolific sterility,” Eliot is a master of expressing in verse “the afternoon impotence which is curiously unpoetical,” Woolf’s greatest fault is “the ability to spin cocoons of language out of nothing,” and Proust suffers more than others from “the failure of the writer’s intellectual or emotional content to fill the elaborate frame which his talent plans for it.”2
So much for the Mandarins. As to practitioners of the Vernacular, Connolly’s principal complaint is that they all sound alike, and to prove it he weaves together a long passage from sentences by Orwell, Isherwood, and Hemingway. A confession: though I’ve read all of Orwell and most of Hemingway, I didn’t notice anything amiss until he revealed his sources. Only then did I recognize the lines and remembered their original contexts. Perhaps I simply wasn’t paying attention, but I think Connolly has a point here.
Ultimately, all his efforts are directed toward finding a third way forward, a style that will incorporate the best of each school and leave the worst. “It is the privilege of living in the 20th century that one can take both sides in such controversies,” he writes, and goes on to sum up his findings with a memorable prescription for the promising writer:
For a book to be produced with any hope of lasting . . . it must be written against the current, in a prose that makes demands both on the resources of our language and the intelligence of the reader. From the Mandarins it must borrow art and patience, the striving for perfection, the horror of clichés, the creative delight in the material, in the possibilities of the long sentence and the splendour and subtlety of the composed phrase.
And from the Vernacular writers one should take
the cursive style, the agreeable manners, the precise and poetical impact of Forster’s diction, the lucidity of Maugham . . . the timing of Hemingway, the smooth cutting edge of Isherwood, the indignation of Lawrence, the honesty of Orwell. . . . But above all it is construction that can be learnt from [these], that discipline in the conception and execution of a book, that planning which gives simply written things the power to endure, the constant pruning without which the imagination like a tea-rose reverts to the wilderness.
One could do worse than to follow that advice even today. And a look at the contemporary scene reveals many writers who would seem to walk this line; to name the first dozen practicing writers that come to mind: Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, William Vollmann, David Means, Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill, Aimee Bender, Junot Diaz, Alexandar Hemon, Rivka Galchen, Joyce Carol Oates, and George Saunders. (Not to mention Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith herself.) Some of these are more experimental than others, but given that all of them enjoy healthy sales and fame, and that their artistic achievements are not in question, Connolly’s lines begin to sound like a description of the road mainstream English-language literature would actually take in the decades after he wrote. This closing passage suggests the thought that Smith’s Lyrical Realism represents an overgrown cul-de-sac (to continue with her path metaphor), and what remains to be done, for those who find themselves trapped there, is to cut a path back to the main road using the tools of the more innovative writers—something very like what the writers named above have actually achieved.
* * *
Now that Connolly has determined how one should write, he moves on to how one should live. Organizing his argument around a poem by Crabbe, he identifies the principal enemies of promise, circa 1938, as the following: “the thistles” of politics; “the nodding poppies” that are daydreams, conversation, religion, drink, and drugs; “the clarion call of journalism,” success (and failure); “sex with its obsessions;” and “the ties of duty and domesticity.” (At this point, one begins to imagine that Connolly led a dull life.) Beyond these principal enemies, he soon finds others: the need to make a living, over-production, publishing too early, and beyond those, the vices of sloth, gluttony, pride, and envy, which are timeless and universal.
It is perhaps this second section of the book that is the most relevant to writers in 2009; however, it’s also the most difficult part to summarize, owing to Connolly’s nearly total refusal to take a firm stance on anything. He describes indecisiveness as one of his worst faults, learned in childhood—”I found that by hesitating for a long time over two toys in a shop I would be given both and so was tempted to make two alternatives seem equally attractive”—and this indecisiveness is the defining quality of the book as a whole, especially of this middle section. It is an indecisiveness accentuated by his anxiety for the future (expressed throughout) and regret over squandered opportunity (fully expressed in the memoir). It could be said, without irony, that Connolly’s answer to every question is an unqualified “it depends”; he tends to make a general statement, then explore that idea at length, and then proceed to explore mitigating factors at greater length. There is always another facet to consider.
Much of this section has not worn well with time, especially his remarks on domestic life and homosexual writers. Although, for a heterosexual man writing in 1938 from the center of mainstream British culture, Connolly is admirably non-judgmental regarding homosexuality, he makes an argument that would sound absurd today, after the feminist movement and the emergence of numerous openly homosexual authors: that men who intimately know women only as mothers and sisters face an enormous challenge in depicting them as wives and lovers and thus tend to create male characters in drag.
As to the question of marriage, Connolly is infamous for declaring that “there is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” This line is almost always misunderstood to mean that he advocates childless bachelorhood for the artist, but in fact it comes at the end of an argument strongly in favor of marriage and family life, wrapping up a description of the (male) artist’s ideal wife: a woman intelligent and sensitive enough to keep the pram out of the hall during working hours, so to speak. But his point is not that women should subordinate themselves to men and keep house; rather, his point is that if a man wants to be a writer, he had better find an understanding spouse or his work will be compromised from the start (the opposite scenario never occurred to him). It’s interesting to imagine how a 2009 version of this chapter would go on to feel its way toward a role for a woman as an independent creative agent, how children would impact that, and what a husband ought to do about the pram in order to fully enable her creative work.
The third portion of Enemies of Promise is a memoir of Connolly’s school days. It’s safe to say that this section would still be a minor classic if it were published on its own, forming a comprehensive portrait of a way of life and of schooling that is more or less gone today. (And for good reason: Connolly’s evocations of the arbitrary beatings and the semi-feudal aristocratic snobbery encouraged by these schools is not for the faint.) One of the great highlights of this third part are the vignettes of George Orwell as a youngster, when his friends nicknamed him “Cynicus.” “Of course you realise,” he is quoted, apropos of the First World War, “that whoever wins this war, we shall emerge a second-rate nation.” Connolly continues: “Orwell proved to me that there existed an alternative to character, Intelligence.”
In the memoir, Connolly takes his own counsel on style and writes a beautiful and terrifying memoir of his youth, from all the coddling he received in childhood to the abuse he endured from adults and older boys at his schools, as well as the intense schooling in ancient languages that left him “unable to write in any living language” at the time he left Eton for Oxford after that, his first few tentative steps into an independent life in Britain and France during the mid-1920s.3 Take for example this passage about discovering reciprocated platonic love with a fellow schoolmate at Eton:
To say I was in love in again will vex the reader beyond endurance, but he must remember that being in love had a peculiar meaning for me. I had never even been kissed and love was an ideal based on the exhibitionism of the only child. It meant a desire to lay my personality at someone’s feet as a puppy deposits a slobbery ball; it meant a non-stop daydream, a planning of surprises, an exchange of confidences, a giving of presents, an agony of expectation, a delirium of impatience, ending with the premonition of boredom more drastic than the loneliness which it set out to cure. . . . At the house-match [nb. a cricket game between two houses at Eton] I asked Nigel who he liked best in the school. Langham? “Second best,” Loxley? “Fourth best,” and so on. He also asked me. We realized that we had both omitted “first best” and that the only people we had not mentioned had been each other. I experienced the thrill not untinged with apprehension by which the romantic recognizes reciprocated love.
Or this passage, on the cruelty of being caned by the older boys at Eton:
The beatings were torture. We were first conscious of impending doom at Prayers when the eyes of [these older boys] would linger pointedly on us. They had supper in a room of their own and a special fag, “senior” who was excused ordinary duties, like other police spies, was sent from there to fetch the “wanted” man. From Upper Tea Room “Senior” set out on his thrilling errand, past the boys chatting outside their rooms. “Who’s ‘wanted’?” “Connolly.” “What, again?” At last he reached the fags who were shivering with terror—for this was always an agonising quarter of an hour for them—in their distant stalls in Chamber. Those who were sitting in their tin baths paused with the sponge in the air—they might have to get out again to dress. The talkers ceased their chorus simultaneously, like frogs, [and] even the favoured . . . stopped giggling and fear swept over the wooden partitions. . . . Sometimes the fag was sent beforehand to get the canes with which he would himself be beaten.
Or this amusing passage:
I had four editions of the Satyricon. The best I had bound in black crushed levant and kept on my pew in chapel where it looked like some solemn book of devotion and was never disturbed. To sit reading it during the sermon, looking reverently towards the headmaster scintillating from the pulpit and then returning to the racy Latin, “the smoke and wealth and noise of Rome” was “rather a gesture.”
For all of Connolly’s sociological concerns in the central section of the book, he is content in his memoir to ascribe his failure as an artist, thus far, to his own vices, principally sloth and indecision. (In yet another memorable line, he writes that “like many lazy people, once I started work I could not stop; perhaps that is why we avoid it.”) Although he felt he had more or less wasted his gifts on criticism, he refused to believe that he was doomed to do so ever after, even if “having discarded the alibi of promise,” he might only “end up in the trenches or the concentration camp.”
* * *
Perhaps the best that can be said for Connolly’s book is that it forces us to consider just how much the enemies of promise have changed—or haven’t—in the last seventy-one years. Reading the book, it is hard not to attempt to answer his large questions: What does it mean to be promising today, and what are the enemies and allies of that promise? Here are five major changes and some questions:
1. Anglophone literature is no longer, as it was in 1938, a monopoly owned by non-Jewish whites from Britain and the United States. Jews, women, writers of various ethnicities and sexualities, and others have permanently claimed a place in the mainstream, and English-language literature now encompasses works created in Canada, India, Australia, parts of the Caribbean, parts of Africa, and elsewhere. How to understand these overlapping traditions as a single tradition? What constitutes a masterwork within this context?
2. Globalization and the Internet have vastly expanded an author’s potential geographic reach. What do success and failure amount to in a world where a readership can plausibly be drawn from several continents? If you’re an American writer little known at home but your small domestic readership is supplemented by equally small readerships in other Anglophone countries, does this constitute a career success? Or what if you happen to write in a country like Pakistan, home to make English-language novelists but largely ignored by the Anglophone literary center until recently, when its status as a flashpoint in the War on Terror has suddenly generated interest in certain brands of Pakistani literature?
3. With ongoing upheavals in publishing and newspapers, with the emergence of Internet-based critical outlets, and with great changes in the role of academia, who are the ones to determine what writers are fulfilling their promise? And how do you build a lasting reputation when fame is cheap and authority is diffuse?
4. Connolly reports that in 1938 a 2,000-word review was considered abysmally brief. An argument can be made that television has by now conditioned shorter attention spans, and that the Internet and electronic media are eroding literary culture. But: the Internet has also enabled exactly the opposite tendency to flourish in reaction, where websites dedicated to the long-form review and essay can be maintained on a level playing ground (for now) with the giants of the old media. So is the Web an enemy of promise, or an ally?
5. And lastly, building on the previous point, are the Internet and marketing too much of a distraction? Take for example Connolly’s thoughts on authors who are “good talkers”: “By the silence which he commands, the luxury of his decor, and by the glow from the selected company who have been asked to meet him, a good talker is paid almost before he opens his mouth. . . . [But] most good talkers, when they have run down, are miserable; they know that they have betrayed themselves, that they have taken material which should have a life of its own, to dispense it in noises upon the air.” How much material is being dispensed in tweets upon the ether?
It is in considerations such as these that we discover the enduring relevance of Enemies of Promise, and also the peculiar optimism furnished by this book. Remember that Connolly opens with a general pessimism about even the possibility of posterity. We are fortunate to live in a time when posterity—for Anglophone literature, anyway—seems less threatened by such a Dark Age; despite environmental and economic ravages, we remain more hopeful for a future than did democrats such as Connolly making their stand in 1938.
In the last pages of Enemies of Promise, Connolly sounds a defiant note: “In spite of the slow conversion of progressive ideas into the fact of history, the Dark Ages have a way of coming back. Civilization—the world of affection and reason and freedom and justice—is a luxury which must be fought for, as dangerous to possess as an oil-field or an unlucky diamond.” It’s a warning to bear in mind: the enemies of promise and posterity, big and small, are always with us, always waiting for their chance to strike at the center of culture. Civilization, in Connolly’s sense, is a dangerous thing to possess indeed—but worth more blood than any oil field or diamond could ever be.
Jeremy Hatch is a book reviewer for various websites and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him blogging on arts and literature at JeremyHatch.com.
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