Promise! Fatal Word

A recondite fusion of factors produced a particular crop of English, left-wing, homosexual public-school, Oxbridge boys, which prevailed in literary, artistic and espionage circles in the 1930’s. Cyril Connolly is the quintessential example.This overcast afternoon was spent reading parts 1 and 2 of Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, and dipping into the memoir of Eton that comprises the third part.

. . . in fact were I to deduce any system from my feeling on leaving Eton, it might be called The Theory of Permanent Adolescence. It is the theory that the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools, their glories and disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development. From these it results that the greater part of the ruling class remains adolescent, school-minded, self-conscious, cowardly, sentimental and in the last analysis homosexual. Early laurels weigh like lead and of many of the boys whom I knew at Eton, I can say that their lives are over. Those who knew them then knew them at their best and fullest; now, in their early thirties, they are haunted ruins.

The first part offers acerbic and forthright criticism, contrasting overly ornate writing that Connolly terms Mandarin style with its opposite Vernacular style. The second looks at a variety of hazards that stand between writers and posterity: journalism, politics, escape into alcohol or drugs, sloth, sex, success and domesticity.

In general it may be assumed that a writer who is not prepared to be lonely in his youth must if he is to succeed face loneliness in his middle age. The hotel bedroom awaits him. If, as Dr. Johnson said, a man who is not married is only half a man, so a man who is very much married is only half a writer. Marriage can succeed for an artist only where there is enough money to save him from taking uncongenial work and a wife who is intelligent and unselfish enough to understand and respect the working of the unfriendly cycle of the creative imagination. She will know at what point domestic happiness begins to cloy, where love, tidiness, rent, rates, clothes, entertaining and rings at the doorbell should stop and will recognise that there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.

Connolly’s 100 key books of the modernist movement include many of the works praised in Enemies of Promise.If you didn’t follow the link above please read William Boyd’s portrayal of Cyril Connolly. It is very good.

…I have a room for 400 francs a month and at last I will be living within my own and other people’s income. I am tired of acquaintances and tired of friends unless they’re intelligent, tired also of extrovert unbookish life. Me for good talk, wet evenings, intimacy, vins rouges en carafe, reading, relative solitude, street worship, exploration of the least known arrondissements, shopgazing, alley sloping, cafe crawling, Seine loafing, and plenty of writing from the table by this my window where I can watch the streets light up… I am for the intricacy of Europe, the discrete and many folded strata of the old world, the past, the North, the world of ideas. I am for the Hôtel de la Louisiane.

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