Cyril Connolly, Aphorisms, and Other Aphorists
May 10, 2002 4:51 AM   Subscribe

Cyril Connolly, who once quipped, with himself in mind, Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising, wrote The Unquiet Grave, of which Ernest Hemingway wrote, A book which, no matter how many readers it will ever have, will never have enough. For one, I am curious what smilar books you would add to Hemingway’s nascent list, and for another, what you may have regarding Connolly. (More within)
posted by y2karl (30 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Connolly was an aphorist, oh, was he an aphorist:

Our memories are card indexes consulted and then returned in disorder by authorities whom we do not control.

The more books we read, the sooner we perceive that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence."

A lazy person, whatever the talents with which he set out, will have condemned himself to second-hand thoughts and to second-rate friends.

All charming people have something to conceal, usually their total dependence on the appreciation of others.

Imprisoned in every fat man a thin one is wildly signalling to be let out.

Like water, we are truest to our nature in repose.

We are all serving a life-sentence in the dungeon of self.


There are more here. I was drawn to Connolly from his quotes in The Oxford Book of Aphorisms. From ths, I was lead to the Unquiet Grave, which is a sad, wise, witty book written half in epicrams, qhich quotes all too liberally from the French (grrr..) and which has stayed with me ever since. It’s hard to find much directly about him on the Web. I know he kept lemurs for pets and that the University of Tulsa (!) has his papers.

Again, what sort of book like this—Yoshida Kenko’s Essays In Idleness is a favorite of mine—would you recommend?
posted by y2karl at 4:57 AM on May 10, 2002 [1 favorite]


pardon the typos--epigrams, which and so forth, d'oh! I was having trouble with the links, got in a hurry and neglected to proofread the comment previous before posting.
posted by y2karl at 4:59 AM on May 10, 2002


My favorite quote of Connolly's, which can be applied to many web endeavors as well:

"Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self".

And of course he was immortalized in Monty Python's lovely ditty, Eric the Half-a-Bee. I'll think about the book question a bit. Good post. Very un-Friday-ish.
posted by iconomy at 5:41 AM on May 10, 2002


I have an anthology, The Evening Colonnade, that offers a good taste of Connolly's reviews and essays.

> And of course he was immortalized in Monty Python's
> lovely ditty, Eric the Half-a-Bee...

Semi-carnally...
posted by pracowity at 5:47 AM on May 10, 2002


He also makes a cameo appearance in Atonement.
posted by ed at 5:52 AM on May 10, 2002


Connoly's "Enemies of Promise" is generally considered his masterpiece. If I recall correctly, he declares that the greatest enemy of art is "the pram in the hall." In other words, kids. Family life. (I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that more men were destroyed by endeavoring to have a decent home and support a wife and family than were ever destroyed by vice.) 'Nother nice one, Y2Karl.
posted by Faze at 6:15 AM on May 10, 2002


::: adds to his Amazon.com wishlist :::
posted by rushmc at 7:01 AM on May 10, 2002


Makes perfect sense to me, Faze....
posted by rushmc at 7:01 AM on May 10, 2002


A book which, no matter how many readers it will ever have, will never have enough.

Since no one has addressed this point yet, I'll mention my recommendations: 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World. These should be near-required reading for anyone living in a free society. ("Near-required," because if they're required, then the society is no longer free.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:25 AM on May 10, 2002


If I recall correctly, he declares that the greatest enemy of art is "the pram in the hall." In other words, kids. Family life. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that more men were destroyed by endeavoring to have a decent home and support a wife and family than were ever destroyed by vice.
Can we have at least a small shout out here to all the thousands--hundreds of thousands, even (no, I am not being hyperbolic, read history)--of women who never even had the slightest hope of devoting their lives to the creation of art or literature because they were barred from education, kept illiterate, or were customarily married off right at puberty, a state of affair still common in much of the world?
posted by jokeefe at 9:10 AM on May 10, 2002


If I recall correctly, he declares that the greatest enemy of art is "the pram in the hall." In other words, kids. Family life. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that more men were destroyed by endeavoring to have a decent home and support a wife and family than were ever destroyed by vice.
Whoops, sorry, I mean to italicize the above, seeing as it's a quote from an earlier message...
posted by jokeefe at 9:12 AM on May 10, 2002


Cyril Connolly was a good editor and a good critic, a civilized man, but he wasn't a great writer because:

1)He loved great writers too much;
2)He was far too lazy to make things up(i.e. no talent for fiction; only for autobiography);
3)He loved sentences above anything else.
4)He loved bourgeois life in a much too middle class way(antiques, upper class habits,

Evelyn Waugh was as much of a snob and a social climber but he was a great writer because he strove for truth and had a bullshit-detector that was almost the equal of Johnson's and better than Hemingway's. (Except in his food-, class- and Catholicism-obsessed "Brideshead Revisited"). In his letters(specially to Nancy Mitford)he was right about CC, calling him "Smarty Boots".

That's what he was. I fear I may be a bit influenced by Jeremy Treglown's biography of him - and his ex-wife Barbara Skelton's unsparing memoirs - but I don't think so. I read "Enemies of Promise" and "The Unquiet Grave" when I was a teenager and remember being put off by his superficiality and desire to impress.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:47 AM on May 10, 2002


MiguelCardoso: Is Waugh the best comparison? I'm trying to think who else... Pritchett? Huxley? Orwell? Yet they were all good fictionalists. Connoly is pretty singular. He may not be a "great writer" (and returns are still not in on Waugh), but owns his little niche.
posted by Faze at 10:00 AM on May 10, 2002


Can we have at least a small shout out here to all the thousands--hundreds of thousands, even (no, I am not being hyperbolic, read history)--of women who never even had the slightest hope of devoting their lives to the creation of art or literature...
These women who supposedly did not have careers in art or literature are a feminist myth. Since the late 1960s, scholars have been scouring the most obscure corners of the universe of letters searching for the great lost female genius who didn't get her propers because of the patriarchy, but the best anyone's come up with has been, maybe, Dawn Powell (although I think posterity was already valuing her at her true worth -- that is to say, at the second rank). The truth is, that when female genius has appeared, it has immediately been acknowledged (the Brontes, Austen, George Eliot). The notion that gender expectations should be so much more crushing for than men doesn't make sense. All artists have to struggle against "the enemies of promise." Struggling against gender expectations should be no more difficult than struggling against other infirmities, such as inveterate laziness (Johnson), physical disability (Pope, Maughm), financial catastrophe (Twain, Scott), or incredible obscurity (the Brontes).
posted by Faze at 10:15 AM on May 10, 2002


Faze: Orwell is undoubedtly a great writer; a great prose writer, but his fiction is a bit heartless. Huxley's fiction is, like Connolly's The Rock Pool, too gushing, preachy and enthusiastic. Pritchett's short stories, I think, can only be appreciated by those familiar with British provincial life. Anthony Powell is too mechanical and class-obsessed, though he's wide-ranging and an astute observer.

I chose Evelyn Waugh because his background is similar to Connolly's and yet he was a master of every prose form. Travel writing, polemics, biography, short stories, novels, letters - everything except plays. "The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold" is a masterpiece; an English counterpart to Scott Fitzgerald's short and devastating "The Crack-Up".

A case could easily be made for Somerset Maugham. He was a master and dominated every single genre. I think he was great but there's a snobbish anti-popular thing against him. Henry Green is in fashion but has only three truly great novels and they owe almost everything to his ability to reproduce dialogue and his lean, intelligent style.

I think Noel Coward is great too but fail to find anything amusing about P.G.Wodehouse - so what do I know?
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:42 AM on May 10, 2002


Apparently, you know a lot, MiguelCardoso. I think you're sound on Maughm and Coward. But even Waugh loved Wodehouse.
posted by Faze at 11:03 AM on May 10, 2002


Again, what sort of book like this—Yoshida Kenko’s Essays In Idleness is a favorite of mine—would you recommend?

Aurelius' meditations and Pascal's Pensees come to mind. I've always found Durrell's writings on love to be highly aphoristic:

Perhaps our only sickness is to desire a truth which we cannot bear rather than to rest content with the fictions we manufacture out of each other.

Funny, Kenko reads like an early blogger.
posted by vacapinta at 11:27 AM on May 10, 2002


I believe the "myth" (I can't speak for its veracity or lack thereof) isn't so much that what women did produce was underappreciated, but that they didn't have much opportunity to create in the first place. As an obvious case, if you never learn how to read or write you don't have much chance of becoming a great author, no matter what genius lies within you... And so on. So I don't think you can deny it on that basis. Sorry to get off topic.
posted by e^2 at 11:32 AM on May 10, 2002


feminist myth my eye. women weren't even educated. how could they leave behind great writing. of course brilliant women never had the chance to be great authors. it makes me think of Woodsworths 'mute and glorious Miltons'.
posted by Sean Meade at 11:33 AM on May 10, 2002


Indeed. My mother had her IQ measured at 150+, but even in the late 1950s and early 1960s, women (especially women from poor families in Ohio industrial towns) were assumed to be destined for a life of homemaking and child-rearing, and she was explicitly guided away from furthering her education.

My mother did an excellent job of running a family, naturally, and I surely would not want to not exist, but I have to wonder what she might have accomplished had she been properly educated and allowed to blossom. She's done some painting and writing, and could probably have been very good at either with more training and more exposure to the arts.
posted by kindall at 12:02 PM on May 10, 2002


And what about poor men in Ohio industrial towns? Were they expected to become novelists? No. They were expected to drag their luchpails to work and support their families. Same thing. These are the breaks.
posted by Faze at 12:16 PM on May 10, 2002


Funny, Kenko reads like an early blogger.
# 79
A man should avoid displaying deep familiarity with any subject. Can one imagine a well-bred man talking with the air of a know-it-all, even about a matter with which he is in fact familiar? The boor who pops up on the scene from somewhere in the hinterland answers questions with an air of utter authority in every field. As a result, though the man may also possess qualities that compel our admiration, the manner in which he displays his high opinion of himself is contemptible. It is impressive when a man is always slow to speak, even on subjects he knows thoroughly, and does not speak at all unless questioned.
sounds like how people thought a lady should behave :) the objects of our desire!
posted by kliuless at 12:27 PM on May 10, 2002


And what about poor men in Ohio industrial towns? Were they expected to become novelists? No. They were expected to drag their luchpails to work and support their families. Same thing. These are the breaks.
That sounds like a remarkable sanguine view of things, especially for an American (I'm assuming that you are American because of your reference to Ohio). Surely part of your country's founding ideals involved the possibility of everyone having equal opportunity, regardless of class status?
During the 50s, many of the sons of those industrial workers went to college on the GI Bill. The beat writers, many of them, were working class but they got out in that way--something much harder for women to do at that time. Yeah, those may be the breaks, but even lower class men generally had a better chance at education than women; and it's very, very difficult to conjure up great works of genius if you are both uneducated and using up every bit of energy you have taking care of children and other family members. Woolf wrote a very good essay on all this entitled "A Room of One's Own", which you might want to take a look at--it's an exploration of the question "Why has there never been a female Shakespeare?" It's good reading, and it might change your mind.
posted by jokeefe at 5:26 PM on May 10, 2002


And what about poor men in Ohio industrial towns? Were they expected to become novelists? No. They were expected to drag their luchpails to work and support their families. Same thing. These are the breaks.

Well, actually, education beyond high school was not out of the question for my father. He was never actively discouraged from attending a vocational school and learning a trade. He was given a lot more support to live up to his potential than, say, my mother was. He was never going to write a novel anyway, of course, but the point is, he wasn't essentially told by society to get back in the kitchen and forget about using his mind, as my mother was.

This was pretty typical at all class levels until the last twenty or thirty years. Really, I'm not making that up. Men were given far more opportunities to exercise their minds and realize their potential than women. Even women who did receive an education found their roles severely limited by the society they lived in: they were expected to be homemakers, which didn't leave time for much else.
posted by kindall at 7:03 PM on May 10, 2002


Vacapinta, that doctor's transcription of Yoshida Kenko, from the Donald Keene translation, is, unfortunately, the only text in English on the net I have found.

I would have linked it but it's riddled, by my terms, with typos and is textually corrupt in places. Still, it's all there is so far. Nice to note that there is a blog inspired by it. And one by The Unquiet Grave, too, which I'd link, but I have to get off line so my girlfriend can call me. Somebody else, some other monstrous worker must find it for you...

I have the same problem with Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book--bits and pieces here and there, largely taken from Ivan Morris's Penguin translation but who knows?

I backtracked on the Auberon Waugh (obviously none of the Waugh kids had to go to American high schools...) review from The Literary Review linked up in my post--I assume this is a caricature of Connolly?

I was just thinking--I'm attracted to writers like Connolly, Avram Davidson, Seymour Krim... I guess I don't have to draw you a picture on that one.
posted by y2karl at 8:04 PM on May 10, 2002


A book which, no matter how many readers it will ever have, will never have enough.

Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America.
posted by bragadocchio at 9:13 PM on May 10, 2002


DevilsAdvocate, I wasn't looking for hamhanded, nay, hamfisted political polemics when I referenced Hemingway, but things along the line of the Unquiet Grave, Essays In Idleness, The Pillow Book Of Sei Shonagon, Pascal's Pensees and so forth. This isn't merely an apples and oranges situation, it's more a turnip and nectarines one. No offense, but this sin't the Harrison Bergeron thread here.

Hmm, or maybe it is...

Miguel, I read Connolly when I was far from a teenager and was oblivious to the qualities you mention--I was moved more by ruthless self honesty, his sense of his won failure, regrets over lost loves, the things like the lemur eulogies linked up there. And his ability to say things llike

Truth is a river that is always splitting up into arms that reunite. Islanded between the arms the inhabitants argue for a lifetime as to which is the main river.


The mystery of drugs: how did savages all over the world, in every climate, discover in frozen tundras or remote jungles the one plant, indistinguishable from so many others of the same species, which could, by a most elaborate process, bring them fantasies, intoxication, and freedom from care? How unless by help from the plants themselves?


< otto>Wow, man, dude musta been high when he wrote that< /otto>

or

Youth is a period of missed opportunities.

Interesting that Christopher Isherwood half echoed your thoughts when he wrote of the Unquet Grave, that it is Connolly's most maddening and snobbish book, and for that very reason his most fascinating and self-revealing.

Here is some reference to Connolly buried in The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh.

I'm a sucker for aphorists--it's the short term whatchamacallit loss, no doubt. Still, you'd think the Net, by its nature, would be a treasure trove for aphorisms but I have found the reverse is true. I wonder why that is...
posted by y2karl at 9:47 PM on May 10, 2002


4)He loved bourgeois life in a much too middle class way(antiques, upper class habits,

I hope that what you mean here is that these interests produced blatant affectations in his work? Surely the preferences and pleasures of a man should not be a factor in judging his written work...that notion reeks of a snobbery all its own!
posted by rushmc at 8:41 AM on May 11, 2002


This C-SPAN talk by an Ohio University professor has quite a bit to say about the prospects for societal participation for working class midwesterners in the 1960s.
posted by sheauga at 9:51 AM on May 11, 2002


It is impressive when a man is always slow to speak, even on subjects he knows thoroughly, and does not speak at all unless questioned.

A credo for lurkers everywhere.

(See how long it took me to post this comment...)

(Right, I'm shutting up now.)

(Any questions?)

posted by rory at 5:24 AM on May 13, 2002


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