When I was young, someone for whom I forgot about writing for a long time gave me, with irresistible irony, Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise. I loved it from the start, and go back to it regularly, both when I’m writing and when I’m not. It’s a glorious companion in both conditions.
The enemies of promise Connolly fixed in his brilliant, baleful glare in 1938 were the same then, several decades later, and are still the same today. They are: poverty, and all the things writers have to do to avoid it, instead of writing. Politics, which (he agrees) is vital, but which requires coarser thinking than literature, and which above all ‘is apt to become a whole time job’. Daydreams, drink and drugs – or anything that is easier than writing, including conversation, in which ‘a good talker can talk away the substance of twenty books in as many evenings’, like Desmond MacCarthy. And last but not least, sex and its common consequence – a family to take care of, and to be always with us, like the poor. From these pages on marriage glitters the most famous line of the book, and my own favourite: ‘there is no more sombre enemy of art than the pram in the hall’.
This is nothing more or less than the great battle between art and life, which artists have waged since the beginning of time. How do we balance the most serious claims of life with our art? Must we seal ourselves off from them entirely, like the aesthetes of the 1890s