Cyril Connolly's Wayward Guide

The subject for this month’s essay by the ATLANTIC’S critic Louis kronenberger is The Modern Movement as defined by the British critic Cyril Connolly in his choice of one hundred books written from 1880 to 1950 in England, France, and America.


IN The Modern Movement, Cyril Connolly has written the kind of book that arouses great interest in the people it is written for, only to leave them dissatisfied with the author. Since some of the dissatisfaction goes with defining the very nature of the book, it might well be touched on at the outset. Thus, The Modern Movement, although given to critical comment, was in a sense not so much “written” as compiled: Mr. Connolly’s subtitle, One Hundred Key Books from England, France and America, 1880—1950, is far more indicative. The hundred titles are the real point; for, besides providing a kind of highbrow parlor game, they make for serious documentation of a great creative era. Yet already here Mr. Connolly befogs matters by choosing books that are equally to diagram a movement and to possess, in themselves, “richness of texture” — books that, on such terms, must qualify as both experiment and art, signposts and destinations. Again, all of Mr. Connolly’s hundred choices, set within seventy years, derive from an arbitrary three countries.

Still, even with the Modern Movement so decidedly fenced in, we are familiar enough with its axis and its atmosphere, and would scarcely challenge Mr. Connolly’s saying that it “began as a revolt against the bourgeois in France, the Victorians in England, the puritanism and materialism of America.” As time passed, of course, it did far more than challenge repressive and unaesthetic points of view; it ushered in a whole new vision and sensibility. As for dating the revolt, 1880 is a good enough moment for regarding it as definitely launched and as creating a stir among the enlightened; but here once again there is confusion, for the revolt was spearheaded — by Ibsen, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and others — much more in countries that Mr. Connolly excludes than in either England or America.

This at once proclaims the great organic weakness in Mr. Connolly’s list; his restricting it to just three national literatures because he himself only feels at home in two languages and insists that translations disbar a final literary judgment. As an aesthetic compunction, this might apply to poetry; but with fiction and drama, not to mention criticism, the impact and influence, in translation, of Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello, Mann, Kafka, Svevo, and others have been so massive and central as to make leaving out such writers a crucially major loss. Without them, we, in the truest sense, have neither source nor mainstream.

Hence only within Mr. Connolly’s much reduced framework can evaluation take place. In terms of his hundred individual titles, there are, I would say, no altogether impossible choices, none that stick out like very sore thumbs; but some do stick out, others are the palest of ladyfingers, while others still — among them Faulkner’s Sanctuary, James’s The Awkward Age, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover — needlessly ill represent their authors. But the hundred titles do provide on the whole a visible movement, a discernible attitude, a consonant taste. The inclusions only begin to crumble when we start noting the omissions. Where, we wonder, having encountered Edith Sitwell, is Emily Dickinson? Where — having encountered Memoirs of My Dead Life — is Jude the Obscure? Why, we wonder of a movement that began as a “revolt against the Victorians,” is Shaw, far from being included, not once mentioned in the text? Does one put in William Plomer’s Turbott Wolfe and leave out Huckleberry Finn (“too involved and sentimental”)? Does one include Huysman’s Là-Bas, in addition to his À Rebours, and leave out The Education of Henry Adams (“Adams does not write well enough”)? Why does Marianne Moore, famous and influential so much earlier, enter well after Nathanael West? And — a further instance of how much America has been either shirked or snubbed — why nothing of its mad, Dadaist, Benchley-Lardner-Thurber-Perelman humor? Again, Strachey’s Eminent Victorians clearly qualifies as a great milestone in biographical method; but as regards substance, it is less an exposé of Victorianism than Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, which also is never mentioned, and as regards style, it is certainly, with its overworked tricks and mendacious rhetoric, worse written than The Education of Henry Adams.

The real point about all this is much less where we may differ with Mr. Connolly than where he differs or plays a double game with himself. In any case, as a printed guide The Modern Movement seems undependable, resembling a map of London that leaves out important landmarks and inserts lesser as against greater Wren churches, or historic clubs, or notable squares. The result is, in Mr. Connolly’s own words, “as personal as a cardiogram.” As that, it tends, often very enjoyably, to turn avant-gardism into a kind of period piece, or at any rate a retrospective show. Mr. Connolly came of age in one of the most memorable and authentic of literary epochs, that whole resonant world and sunlit atmosphere of England’s 1920s, perhaps the last distinctively literary atmosphere there was to be. Thereafter, politics, psychiatry, sociology, a jargon-ridden intellectualism pushed through too many untended literary doors, or an academic police force took to bolting too many windows. Sharing the taste of his world, Mr. Connolly thrived on its stylish extravagances and bold artistic sorties; and by way of it was to put us greatly in his debt as the editor of Horizon. Literature, for him, was never muscle-builder or medicine or religious libation, but meat and drink, preferably epicurean dishes and vintage wines.

Thus the impression we are left with here is of the sophisticated supper party as well as the symposium, of Balliol in Upper Bohemia, of elegant ennui preferred to hearty pleasures, and the mannerist to the moralist. What gives a personal stamp to Mr. Connolly’s book list — more indeed than it blueprints his Movement — is how much of the actual subject matter is a cultivated milieu and an aristocratic or artistic sensibility. It comes to seem inbred and, on the personal side, less a cardiogram than a visiting list. Quite rightly, Mr. Connolly’s prime concern is with language, but he perhaps sees it — despite his own long-ago strictures against “Mandarin” — as much more like a carpet than a floor. After all, what Mr. Connolly himself defines as a revolt against puritanism and gentility, against materialism and middle-classness, involved raised voices and turning a flank more than rapt countenances and showing one’s back. Its weapons, even some of its trophies, were a realistic satire and a heckling dissent, were Shaw’s smashed idols and Ibsen’s slammed doors. No highbred Establishment ever really kills off, by itself, a whole repressive tradition; its procedure is only to cut dead what displeases it. It was the Ibsens, Zolas, Hardys, Shaws, Butlers, Dreisers who did the Movement’s dirty work, as much at times for literature as for society — though perhaps in the end they were battered and bruised in their own crusade. Had Mr. Connolly specified a more purely aesthetic movement, his shakier inclusions would have been much more in order. Here his very sophistication can approximate a form of Upper Myopia, of cosmopolitan provinciality, recalling the man who, in Chesterton’s words, “knew everybody, so to speak, except everybody.” Here also Mr. Connolly’s weaker choices are further weakened by his way of accounting for them. His critical comment can be curiously lame, muddled, marginal, offering no more the airy wit of the salon than the reasoned analysis of the classroom, and tending from the very first page — where E. M. Forster’s birth is misdated — to misspelled names, misquoted lines, and such startling statements as that To Have and Have Not is top Hemingway.

YET, having raked over Mr. Connolly’s list and slated his shortcomings, in a certain sense one finds him an offset to matters no more satisfying. Were one to propose a classic habitat for the superior critic, it would perhaps be a comfortably shabby, mellow book-lined study. With Mr. Connolly — which means in terms of his whole career — one thinks instead of a divided stage, half booklined study, half elegant Mayfair-cum-Bloomsbury drawing room. What the two adjoining sets articulate, more even than a period in time, is a point of view; and they smile rather than glare at each other. And since the classic scene evoked of critics today is of innumerable pedagogues seated in crowded classrooms expounding texts, there emerges something compensatory about Mr. Connolly, period air and all. In The Modern Movement, with its sloppy thinking and factual misstatements, the professors unquestionably have Mr. Connolly on the hip. Yet Mr. Connolly’s divided set bespeaks a living culture, where the classrooms represent, more narrowly, a formalized education. No doubt the divided set also calls to mind a double life, evokes frivolities as well as verities. But there is about it a genuine way of life, a concern for style, wit, urbanity, sensibility — and unconventionality, too — in living as well as in literature; a spontaneous interchange of ideas free from the dogmas of the ideologue; and an awareness of literary capitals where movements take form and grow and flourish as against campuses where movements are seldom adopted till after they are grown up and then are determinedly ritualized. And there is Cyril Connolly himself, who loved literature in the old, greedy, impassioned, unsystematic way; a stately, plump enfant terrible no doubt, but never a pedagogue.

Just so, Mr. Connolly twits the pedagogues, doesn’t like the professors. And we may contrast him, as he appeared in his bright irreverent youth and his later Horizon days, with what the professors as a body look like now.1 We must often observe in them a classroom attitude — which is maintained in the living room as well — with its codified methods, its stone-tablet certainties, its edicts about how to criticize a book, its directives about how to find pleasure in one. We cannot but wonder how much this is blanketing a whole culture, is serving, however lofty its tone, an often depressingly utilitarian objective, with literature — and the Modern Movement not least — a great feedbag for dissertations. Despite all that may at times have been precious, snobbish, outrageous about the old Cyril Connolly scheme of things, it did provide the right living conditions for a largescale creative movement; did foster a spirited matching of minds and battle of wits, an individualistic, not to say eccentric, angle of vision, an unhindered flowering of temperament. And it is temperament that today is more and more going out of criticism, vanishing from talk, being banished from taste. To err no longer is human; it is plainly criminal. A passably witty waspishness, a gleeful pouncing on small blunders, a birch-rod enforcement of rules — all this may suggest liveliness, but, far from disproof, is added proof oi how rigid and authoritarian such criticism, even at its higher levels, can be. At its more commonplace ones, we are not just aware that the professors inform us about the books and the books alone can inform us about life. We are also aware that none of literature’s more lustrous qualities rub off on the professors: they convert the wine cup into a measuring cup, they seem drab in their very response to the dazzling. A small number of them do cultivate nowadays a natty style, an au courant manner. This sets them quite apart from their tribe in my and Mr. Connolly’s youth, when caution and gentility made for a decided cultural lag in Academe, and when very few of the writers who were part of the Modern Movement, however much acclaimed in the student cafeteria, gained admittance to the classroom. For certain professors today, however, no literary movement is too avant-garde, no literary work too ambivalent, unwholesome, obscure, no Theater too Absurd — theirs is today a cultural sprint. Still, how often do teachers (I’m not speaking of writers and critics who teach) really take the lead, which is to say, really go out on a limb?

With one other of Mr. Connolly’s rulings — which attests the old-style lover of literature in him, and evokes that dead word, the aesthete — one also feels sympathetic. This is Mr. Connolly’s rejecting from his Hundred Books writers who, however great their influence on modern literature, are themselves not primarily literary: Bergson, Bradley, Frazer, Freud, Spengler, Pareto, Wittgenstein, and so on. I bring in the word aesthete with its pastel period air just because things have swung so far the other way, to the enthronement of the intellectual and the ologist. Necessarily, with life becoming more complex and the complexities — thanks to men of thought — more penetrable, the creative process must draw on their divinations and insights. We can’t divorce creative perception from cultural inquiry, or what analysis brings to light from what intuition dredges up, or the human predicament itself from all the social and psychological pressures on it. We are not to be anti-intellectual about literature. But neither, I would suppose, are we to be anti-literary about it. No matter how great the outside influences on art, they are not its integuments. The whole psycho-socio apparatus surrounding literature’s great current theme, alienation, tends at times to alienate us from literature. Much, in fact, that fathers our art is in its own form no friend to it, and may oftener entangle than enlarge. Here too the nub isn’t how experimental literature becomes but how literary it remains.

The basis of Mr. Connolly’s Movement, if not quite of the Movement itself, was a private inner vision, a more acute and particularized sensibility, an unfingermarked imaginative language. We are beset today — this is a factual, not a critical, statement — with a literature of insensibility, born often of the times and its tensions, but itself all too often either grossly documentary or unintelligibly hallucinatory. Time may prove such work valid, but it seems now that as “literature’s” boundaries grow wider, the thing itself grows more mongrel. And countermoves in the form, say, of the New Criticism shut out in the end more air than they do soot. Mr. Connolly, on the other hand, by excluding the Great Non-Literary Influences makes more than a distinction between art and thought, he makes one between creative solitude and laboratories working in teams.

It may well be that Mr. Connolly’s worst blunder in putting together The Modern Movement was the very idea of it: those Hundred Key Books. For what could be more pedagogical, more suited to a system of weights and measures and of “authorities” working in teams? Of course a Hundred of anything is a potential trap and an ultimate noose: even the most correct list must call loudly, after twenty years, for correction. So, very possibly Mr. Connolly has his punishment coming to him, in fact did all too much to bring it about, playing the pedagogue’s game while snooting his methods, compiling a very wayward Guide while featuring a detailed fifty-page bibliography, and smudging his pronouncements and caveats with a fistful of small errors. Mr. Connolly must know bynow that poetic justice is what mercy seasons least.

  1. We must distinguish among professors, of course. At their highest levels they are invaluable — large-minded as well as acute, wide-perspectived as well as scholarly. And there are the critics and creative writers who teach — invaluable too, but professors only secondarily, or belatedly, or intermittently. The two groups combined, though by no means small in number, are yet a decidedly small part of the professorial whole.