This review is part of the 1938 Club: add your reviews to the comments here.
My first review for the 1938 Club (thanks so much for the support so far, btw!) is a book I’ve had on my shelves for about 12 years. Worse than that, it’s not even my book – I borrowed it from my aunt and uncle back then, and haven’t managed to return it yet. Well, Jacq and Dan, you can have it back now, thanks v much!
Enemies of Promise is a useful starting point for the 1938 Club because it is Connolly’s overview of contemporary literature. This is not without its omissions and faults – indeed, at times it seems to be only omissions and faults – but it’s a useful and interesting look at how a critic in 1938 saw the period’s writing in broad brushstrokes. The first two-thirds are literary criticism. Rather surprisingly, and baffling, the final third is an autobiography of Connolly’s schooldays. It feels so tacked onto the end, and I confess to skimming it in the end – I didn’t care about the names of his Eton friends, or which schoolteachers he liked or disliked. Why was it included? This post will concentrate on the rest of Enemies of Promise.
What does the title refer to? Well, the enemies of promise are the many things which stand between a promising author and his/her (though in Connolly’s eyes it seems to be ‘his’ invariably) eventual success: ‘whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising’. He deals with these in turn – they range from success to failure, from singleness to marriage, from drink to sobriety. Indeed, there is scarcely a hope for anybody – and it is curious that Connolly doesn’t have the self-awareness to laugh at the many lines he has drawn all over the sand.
Still, these sections are certainly interesting, if not much more than the reflections of an individual. What Connolly pronounces about the dangers of anything in particular are only really backed up by anecdote and bias; it is enjoyable and engaging, but could hardly be called fact. It’s this section that contains probably the most remembered line from Enemies of Promise: ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. This sounds almost feminist until you realise that is the male author whose productivity is being ruined by the intrusive wife and her be-prammed offspring. It doesn’t seem to cross Connolly’s mind at all that women might write.
But the substance of Enemies of Promise comes before these sections, engaging as they are. If the pram line is the most remembered, then the most influential line of argument is where Connolly writes about style: specifically the ‘Mandarins’ vs the vernacular. The latter includes Hemingway, Orwell, and others who strive to write plainly and realistically. I’ll let Connolly define Mandarin himself:
[Mandarin describes the style] beloved by literary pundits, by those who would make the written word as unlike as possible to the spoken one. It is the style of all those writers whose tendency is to make their language convey more than they mean or more than they feel, it is the style of most artists and all humbugs and one which is always menaced by a puritan opposition. To know which faction we should belong to at any given moment is to know how to write with best effect and it is to assist those who are not committed by their temperament to one party alone, the grand or the bald, the decorative or the functional, the barqoue or the streamlined that the following chapters are written.
This quotation tells us two things about Connolly. The first is that apparently nobody ever introduced him to the semi-colon; the second is that he believes himself to consider the Mandarin and the vernacular equally good, if not misused. His examples, throughout the rest of this section, suggest that he is actually rather prejudiced against the Mandarin – in which class he puts Woolf and Stern (when it comes to specifics, he believes in women writers!), then traces back both styles right through the history of English literature, considering Lamb, Keats, Butler, Dryden, Forster more or less on a level playing field.
Connolly can be pithy about writers – I particularly enjoyed ‘one finds much dandyism in Wilde and some in Saki who, however, adulterated his Wilde to suit the Morning Post‘, Gertrude Stein as ‘rinsing the English vocabulary, by a process of constant repetition, of all accretions of meaning and association’, and his description of ‘Sylvia Beach’s little bookshop where Ulysses lay stacked like dynamite in a revolutionary cellar’ – but more often we see somewhat laboured and lengthy quotations from writers across the centuries, and somewhat hasty pronouncements after them.
His conclusions are – and I do recognise the irony here – the swift and absolute conclusions of the young man. He was only 35 years old when he wrote this; in five years’ time, I don’t think I’d feel qualified to divide up all of literature or make such bold and unequivocal declarations about it. He somewhat spoils his adeptness as a critic by the sweeping statements he makes; naturally, Enemies of Promise is remembered for these rather than its many nuances. (To be fair to Connolly, I daresay I also won’t be able to write with his fluid elegance.)
What is his solution? Well, as the reader could perhaps have predicted at the beginning – it is compromise:
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. From the Mandarins it must borrow art and patience, the striving for the perfection, the horror of cliches, the creative delight in the material, in the possibilities of the long sentence and the splendour and subtlety of the composed phrase.
From the realists, the puritans, the colloquial writers and talkie-novelists there is also much that he will take and much that he will leave. The cursive style, the agreeable manners, the precise and poetical impact of Forster’s diction, the lucidity of Maugham, last of the great professional writers, the timing of Hemingway, the smooth cutting edge of Isherwood, the indignation of Lawrence, the honesty of Orwell, these will be necessary and the touch of those few journalists who give to every word in their limited vocabulary its current topical value. But above all it is construction that can be learnt from the realists, that discipline in the conception and execution of a book, that planning which gives simply-written things the power to endure, the constant pruning without which the imagination like a tea-rose reverts to the wilderness.
He also writes about what shouldn’t be taken from each of them, but I am in danger of typing the whole book out. I do recommend this to anybody interested in the history of literary criticism, or anybody wondering how the 1930s were viewed by those in the midst of them – and it will also be interesting to see all the 1938 Club reviews coming in, and thinking about how they correspond to Connolly’s definitions of Mandarin and vernacular – and which of them have outlasted that bottle of champagne.