In a Guardian interview to mark his seventieth birthday on 10 September 1973 – scarcely more than a year before he died – Cyril Connolly revealed that he would have been happiest as a poet: ‘I lack some quality whereby long books get written,’ he explained, before adding the defiant statement, a contradiction of everything he had claimed throughout his life: ‘My journalism is literature.’
If he died believing that, he may have died a happier man, but such a conclusion would largely destroy his life’s achievement, which was the creation of himself in the model of a potentially great writer who somehow missed the boat. As Jeremy Lewis points out in an attractive preface to this definitive biography: ‘Whatever his ostensible subject matter, [Connolly’s] abiding topic was himself – and no one has written more vividly, more sympathetically or more honestly.’
The dangers of journalism are memorably set out in Enemies of Promise (1938). As Lewis notes, ‘Connolly’s insistence on the great gulf that was set between literature and journalism, and his dependence on literary journalism as a means of making ends meet, were to haunt and obsess him for the rest of his life.’ Take away the rage and the self-pity which accompanied this obsession and you threaten the whole structure of the tragicomic masterpiece which is his life’s achievement, leaving only a figure of unkind comedy – or, worst of all, the implausibly sentimental portrait of a literary hero battling through against all the odds.
Still, we must not complain. In one of the funniest literary biographies I have ever read, Lewis assembles all the excellently entertaining anecdotes about this deeply loved, much mocked, sometimes reviled figure whose departure has robbed the literary world of most of its social smartness and any worthwhile eccentricity. In every incident the biographer leaves the reader to decide whether his subject, who was a brilliant parodist, was turning the apparently unwholesome urgings of self-pity, petulance, lust, snobbery, self-righteousness and greed into a form of self-parody, thereby consciously adding to the work of art I have described, or whether the dreadful behaviour was spontaneous, the work of art, in a sense, self-generating.
It is not always easy to decide because Connolly was not only self-obsessed, he was also self-analytical, highly intelligent and, at heart, a kind man. When his second wife, Barbara Skelton, complains that he would lie in bed for days on end, sucking a sheet and repeating over and over again, ‘Poor Cyril, poor Cyril ,’ we must decide there was an element of deliberate self-parody in this behaviour, however inconvenient it may have been for everyone else.
Similarly, when he persuaded this same second wife, being short of money, to spend periods of time with King Farouk of Egypt as his concubine, there must have been an element of humorous mischief in this. At other times, he was almost insanely jealous of his wife’s infidelities, while reserving the right to have a string of mistresses himself. The Farouk episode ends with the panache of a true work of art, as Connolly nearly dies of greed eating some particularly delicious mangoes which King Farouk has sent him as a further consolation.
With his first wife, Jean Bakewell, variously described as ‘stumpy’, ‘hirsute’ and ‘a revelation of female ugliness’, there is more room for doubt. When contemplating matrimony, he wrote to his old friend Patrick Kinross (who told James Lee-Milne that Connolly was the first person he had slept with at Oxford): ‘ I can’t be sure how much the thought that she will one day have £15,000 may influence me’; and to his older friend and first serious love, Noel Blakiston: ‘Of course the trouble is that I’m emotionally homosexual still … Every Englishman, don’t you think, is really contemptuous of women – the sanctity of the smoking-room is always at the back of his mind .’ He added that he wouldn’t think of marrying Jean unless she had an allowance of £2,000 a year.
He later explained: ‘I was virtually a virgin when I married Jeannie.’ This would tie in with his claim in Enemies of Promise that, at the age of eighteen, he had never masturbated. I remember writing to Norris McWhirter, when he was editing the Guinness Book of Records, to suggest that this might make an entry. He replied that figures on this subject were likely to be unreliable, and I am not sure that Connolly was always a reliable witness, even in his own diaries. I doubt, for instance, that he and Jeannie made love five times in an afternoon in Valencia when Jeannie was developing appendicitis. It seems unlikely. Connolly almost invariably suffered from diarrhoea when he was abroad. Skelton, his second wife, complained loudly of Connolly’s laziness and ineptitude in bed, which explains her six-month fling (including marriage) with the noble, much maligned swordsman George Weidenfeld. This ended, with all the inevitability of a comic opera, when Weidenfeld cited Connolly, her ex-husband, as co-respondent.
Lewis spots a curious disparity between two editions of Enemies of Promise. In the first, Connolly claims he derives his name from a cousin, Cyril Cattley, ‘who discovered the Cattleya orchid, immortalised by Proust’. Lewis, who was able to establish only that the Cattleys made their money from soap, comments: ‘Surprisingly, given Connolly’s adoration of Proust … this was dropped in the revised version.’
And so the joke continues, the monument grows. The story of Connolly’s life is really the story of his women. Once he had shed his homosexual yearnings (which take up too much of the book) his interest in women increased by the day. There a pattern emerges: he falls in love with a woman, after a time he falls in love with another, broadcasts his intention of getting rid of the first and, when she eventually leaves, sinks into self-pity and remorse, pursuing her with bitter remonstrances. His third and last wife, Deirdre Craven, a ‘tall, fresh-faced, whippet-thin girl in her late twenties’ whom he married in 1959, was an exception. After he, inevitably, had fallen in love with another woman, she, with some unwitting encouragement from him, fell in love with the Jesuit priest at her mother’s funeral. She presented Connolly with the ‘clasping tares’ of two delightful young children, now grown up, to provide him with a happy old age and to relieve him once again, through ‘the pram in the hall’, of any obligation to produce a serious or sustained work of literature. Her eventual marriage, after Connolly’s death, to Peter Levi, the scholar and poet, provides the sort of happy ending for which so many readers yearn, often in vain.
Apart from the women, his life is soon told. At Eton, where he was called ‘Spud’, he fell in love with Noel Blakiston, who rejected his advances while remaining a friend for life. Then, after much wheedling and sucking up to all the lords at Eton, he was elected to Pop, a society of the top boys. After Eton, everything was an anticlimax. At Oxford, Connolly was a social and academic failure, although he befriended Maurice Bowra, the Dean of Wadham, now chiefly remembered, if he is remembered at all outside Oxford, as the model for Samgrass in Brideshead. Thereafter he was employed as assistant to Logan Pearsall Smith, the wealthy memoirist and bachelor, and spent the rest of his life collecting advances for books never written and bumming around as a freelance journalist, meeting people and having a good time, until he settled on the Sunday Times, explaining his angst to anyone who would listen. Throughout the war he helped to edit Horizon, describing it as an epitome of the civilisation everyone else was fighting to defend.
‘It is closing time in the gardens of the West, and from now on the artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair,’ he joked, in the last issue of Horizon. There is a small masterpiece to be written about Connolly, describing the character he invented for himself – more a comic work of art than a tragic one, perhaps, but deeply poignant throughout. All the material for it is contained in this excellent, wildly funny and informative biography. If its information is inaccurate in many minor points, that is only as it should be, given its subject.