Master Pieces

Cyril Connolly set out to write a masterpiece, but he'd been writing it all along.

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and his masterwork, The Unquiet Grave
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Between autumns of 1942 and 1943, the English critic Cyril Connolly took a break from writing articles and set out to write a masterpiece. This, he wrote on the first page of his book, is the true function of a writer. Nothing else is of consequence. “How few writers will admit it,” he wrote “or having drawn the conclusion, will be prepared to lay aside the piece of iridescent mediocrity on which they have embarked! …. Every excursion into journalism, broadcasting, propaganda and writing for the films, however grandiose, will be doomed to disappointment.”

“Writers always hope that their next book is going to be their best,” wrote Connolly, “and will not acknowledge that they are prevented by their present way of life from ever creating anything different.”

It was agreed that Connolly’s previous books — a satirical novel about the decadent life in the South of France, a collection of essays — had not been masterpieces. For his third attempt, Connolly had three little notebooks and a “private grief” to help him. What makes a masterpiece, wrote Connolly, are the following: A love of life and nature; an interest in, mingled with contempt for humanity; and a lack of belief in the idea of progress. The Odes and Epistles of Horace, the essays of Montaigne, the poems of Leopardi, the Pensées of Pascal. All of these masterpieces represented for Connolly “a self to which he is afraid of confessing.” He wanted to be able to write Les Fleurs du mal, without having to be Baudelaire. That is, Connolly wanted to write a masterpiece without having to be poor or diseased, or to undergo any suffering.

Between the autumns of 1941 and 1942 — as war drained the life and color from London — the critic Cyril Connolly wrote a cobbled-together patchwork of epigrams, quotes, aphorisms and memories. He wrote elegies for French beaches that were missing their swimmers, speculations about Taoism and immortality, and theses on the impossibility of living the country life. He wrote about the true nature of the self, the experience of eating quince, the prison and ecstasy of Pleasure. He wrote about the significance of, above all else, love and truth and beauty. Between the autumns of 1941 and 1942, Cyril Connolly was turning 40. His marriage had fallen apart. It was inevitable, Connolly wrote in his Introduction to The Unquiet Grave, that his masterpiece would be a war-book.

“Approaching forty, sense of total failure.”

If one can’t write a masterpiece, thought Connolly, why not write about failure? Success, anyway, was undesirable and “doing” overrated. “Ennui is the condition of not fulfilling our potentialities; remorse of not having fulfilled them; anxiety of not being able to fulfill them, — but what are they?” The grand ruse of civilization, wrote Connolly, is the idea of progress. Only human beings are obsessed with the desire to evolve. To the writer, the idea of the masterpiece is everything. But what does Nature care? Nature cares only that we live. “If there were no parents to make us try to be good, no schoolmasters to persuade us to learn, no one who wished to be proud of us, would not we be happier?”

“What monster,” asked Connolly, “first slipped in the idea of progress? Who destroyed our conception of happiness with these growing-pains?”

In the second half of The Unquiet Grave the ferrets and lemurs start to appear. It was in Paris, in the autumn of 1929, that Connolly and his wife began adopting the eccentric animals that became a hallmark of their love. The ferrets and lemurs followed Connolly and his wife to the south of France and the Mediterranean, where they had all lived gloriously, wrote Connolly, in the years before the war. Blue skies and detective stories and sausages and wine. The lemurs — lazy, indecent, crying in the moonlight and jumping around the mulberry trees until they were allowed into the bed. The ferrets, with their passionate bloodthirst and their delight for ping pong balls. Gentle and fearless Whoopee, who loved to chase large dogs and pull their tails. Polyp, the most gifted of lemurs, who played in the river and charmed old ladies, and who would have hated the war. English Rose, the fat Queen of the ferrets, who relieved herself on three continents. These animals, wrote Connolly — with their primitive howls and reverence for the sun — “held the secret of life for me.”

“To have set foot in Lemuria,” wrote Connolly, “is to have been close to the mysterious sources of existence,”

“to have known what it is to live wholly in the present, to soar through the green world four yards above the ground, to experience sun, warmth, love and pleasure as intolerably as we glimpse them in a waking dream, and to have heard that heart-rendering cry of the lonely or abandoned which goes back to our primaeval dawn. Wild ghost faces from a lost continent who soon will be extinct…

“The civilized,” wrote Connolly, “are those who get more out of life than the uncivilized, and for this we are not likely to be forgiven.”

But one by one, the lemurs died along with the ferrets, all victims of civilization. Polyp of pneumonia, Whoopee of a poisoned fig he refused to set back for the rats. English Rose was kicked to death by French peasants after she had wandered into their kitchen looking for a snack. The peasants didn’t understand that Cyril Connolly was depending on Lemuria to save him.

The Unquiet Grave was celebrated and debated by the important persons of the day when it was published in 1945. Then, it quietly went out of print. In 1982, an independent press on Broadway started printing modest paperback versions. On the cover is a quote from John Leonard of The New York Times. “That The Unquiet Grave has been published in paperback by Persea,” he wrote, “means that civilization has a chance.” • 5 January 2015

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.
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