Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly

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“There is but one crime, to escape from our talent.”

Cyril Connolly (1903 – 1974) was a British reviewer, critic and writer of distinction. Connolly’s Unquiet Grave — a despondent meditation on creativity, and existence, in a world challenged by the destruction of World War II — is one of my favorite books. I finally got around to ordering Enemies of Promise, first published in 1938 and designed to solve the problem of how to write an enduring book — by his count, one that stands for at least a decade.

The book is split into three major parts. The first is an audit of British writing, tracing the rise and fall of some of the well-known authors and poets (many of whom were not familiar to me) as well as their main styles of writing. This section really brought to life Connolly’s breadth of knowledge related to the landscape of English letters. The second part is focused on advice for how writers can live up to their own promise and produce a lasting work — this includes some of the pitfalls they must avoid. As an author and a reader, I found this section enlightening and at time maddening, given the similar challenges facing writers then and now. The third section is a personal history of his time at Eton, a boy’s school, and the tremendous psychological torture he endured that shaped his later career.

As this book makes clear, Connolly had an admirable grasp on the history of creative writing, especially in England, and offered some keen insights for writers that still ring true today. And, best of all, he has a unique, lyrical but imminently approachable style that makes his writing sing and spotlights the agile workings of an impossibly sharp mind.

“Writing is a more impure art than music or painting. It is an art, but it is also the medium in which millions of inartistic people express themselves, describe their work, sell their goods, justify their conduct, propagate their ideas. It is the vehicle of all business and propaganda.”

“At the present time for a book to be produced with any hope of lasting half a generation, of outliving a dog or a car, of surviving the lease of a house or the life of a bottle of champagne, 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.”

“Our language is a sulky and inconstant beauty and at any given moment it is important to know what liberties she will permit.”

“To-day, the forces of life and progress are ranging on one side, those of reaction and death on the other. We are having to choose between democracy and fascism, and fascism is the enemy of art.”

“…drunkenness is a substitute for art; it is in itself a low form of creation.”

I love his suggestion that readers who enjoy a book get in the habit of sending a small tip or other token of appreciation to the author. That is a trend I certainly wish had caught on (though I’d settle for honest reviews)!

The third section about life at boy’s school, though it gave me my favorite line in the book — “I have always disliked myself at any given moment; the total of such moments is my life.” — was an odd addition. It certainly presented tragic insights into the cruelty of those days, but did little to get to the core question of how to write a book that endures.

Setting aside the curious — but moving — excursion into Pink Floyd-level schoolboy terrors, did Connolly’s book meet the very challenge he set out to resolve? Probably. Though his name and reputation aren’t exactly well-known almost 80 years later, there’s much of value to be found in his writing (once you get past the, what seems now, stilted and mostly masculine language) for writers, and artists of all stripes.

Not only did Connolly make a life and a career out of thinking seriously and deeply about literature and creativity, he also seemed — scarred by the loss of life accompanying WWII — almost prescient in his defense of art and his despair at a world willing to risk everything for, ultimately, nothing:

“At present the realities are life and death, peace and war, fascism and democracy; we are in a world which may soon become unfit for humans to live in.”

Artistic work may not last longer than the life of a bottle of champagne, but it seems despair about the short-sightedness of global politics — if we can’t learn the lessons Connolly laid out 80 years ago — will always endure.