Wednesday, April 19, 2017

`Mudpies Which Endure'

Besides the overrated “pram in the hall,” the remark by Cyril Connolly I best remember is “the slow permeation of the personality by great literature.” The context -- his introduction to The Condemned Playground: Essays 1927-1944 (1946) – is worth quoting more fully. He begins by explaining the title. It refers to the English “literary scene” in the nineteen-thirties. But it also describes, Connolly tells us, Art (which he invariably capitalizes):    

“ . . . for Art is man’s noblest attempt to preserve Imagination from Time, to make unbreakable toys of the mind, mudpies which endure; and yet even the masterpieces whose permanence grants them a mystical authority over us are doomed to decay: a word slithers into oblivion, then a phrase, then an idea.”

Connolly admits that an exaggerated sense of evanescence has always plagued him. It’s a theme he would scratch at throughout his career, most famously in Enemies of Promise (1938). In the subsequent paragraph, we suspect, Connolly is writing not just generally but very personally:   

“I feel I am fighting a rearguard action, for although each generation discovers anew the value of masterpieces, generations are never quite the same and ours are in fact coming to prefer the response induced by violent stimuli -- film, radio, press -- to the slow permeation of the personality by great literature.”

The sentiment is not original, but seldom has it been expressed so winningly. Imagine Connolly on the evanescence of social media or Netflix. For him and his generation (Auden, Waugh, Anthony Powell, Orwell, Henry Green), literature was central. Connolly says the writers he most enjoys writing about are the “great, lonely, formal artists who spit in the eye of their century.” I thought about him again after learning of Jeremy Lewis’ recent death.  He was the author of Cyril Connolly: A Life (Jonathan Cape, 1997), a digressive and gossipy biography that filled in many holes for an American reader. When I was young, Connolly was more of a rumor than a writer. Lewis’ Connolly is a corpulent sponger, neurotic and very funny, gifted and self-lacerating, a writer of lapidary prose and enduring charm.

In one of his footnotes, Lewis describes a fated meeting at the memorial service for Auden. Peter Levi introduces Connolly to Philip Larkin, who says, “It’s like being asked if you’d like to meet Matthew Arnold.” Elsewhere, Larkin referred to The Condemned Playground as “my sacred book.” It’s easy to see why. Connolly can be aphoristic and tartly satirical. In “The Novel-Addict’s Cupboard” he writes: “I still do not collect books unless I think I shall enjoy reading them, but I do not expect that phase to last.” In “Distress of Plenty,” he says of Laurence Sterne’s prose style: “his beauties are lost on those who contract intellectual hay-fever from fine writing.” And he’s wise on Swift (in “New Swift Letters”):

“The misanthropy of Swift is, in fact, one side of the romantic dichotomy. No one is born a Diogenes, or enters the world complaining of a raw deal. One cannot hate humanity to that extent unless one has believed in it; one must have thought man a little lower than the angels before one can concentrate on the organs of elimination.”

No comments: