Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly #1938Club

This review is part of the 1938 Club: add your reviews to the comments here.

Enemies of PromiseMy 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.

12 thoughts on “Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly #1938Club

  • April 11, 2016 at 9:09 pm
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    I had considered this one Simon, but I’m glad you read it instead as I feel I might have got a bit bogged down. I tend towards compromise myself, depending on the mood – sometimes I love the Mandarin-like structure of Woolf to bits, and at other times adore the prose of Orwell (though I think he’s less plain and more clever than people make out!) I dare say I’ll read this eventually. Interestingly, the writers in the quote above all seem to have survived….

    • April 13, 2016 at 10:54 pm
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      It’s definitely not one to speed read – except the memoir section at the end, which one could scarcely do anything else with.

      Like you, I like a bit of both depending on mood – but I think I prefer authors who commit to one side or the other, rather than those who muddy it in the middle.

  • April 12, 2016 at 7:53 am
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    Sounds fascinating but I’m glad it was you that read it so I don’t have to. Also sounds like a pretty daring enterprise, especially for a 35 year old. Do people still write books like this today, I wonder?

    • April 13, 2016 at 10:55 pm
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      It’s a good question! People seem less judgemental in books of this variety now – either all structural and factual, or so personal that they aren’t making broader claims. To be honest, the personal approach is more my cup of tea, overall. Connolly put my back up a bit!

  • April 12, 2016 at 8:10 am
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    You’re going to love that D.J. Taylor book. Sorry I haven’t been able to take part in the 1938 Club – I only have ONE 1938 book in the whole house and it’s one I’ve read before and don’t want to whip through just for a reading challenge. Or do I …??

    • April 13, 2016 at 10:56 pm
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      Ooo I am getting so excited about the Taylor! It’ll be coming to Cornwall with me in a couple of weeks.

      I think you can do it, Liz! Or maybe track down a poem or something?

      • April 14, 2016 at 9:16 am
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        I have downloaded the Crompton! When does the Week end, though? Tomorrow or Sunday?

        • April 14, 2016 at 10:07 am
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          Sunday – you’ve got ages :)

    • April 13, 2016 at 10:56 pm
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      Not a household name, no :) But I think still mentioned occasionally in English literature lectures? The pram quotation has a bit of a life away from the book, but generally out of context.

  • April 15, 2016 at 5:39 pm
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    This is a super review, Simon – much more even-handed and much closer to the heart of the matter than mine. It was exceedingly good of you, by the way, not to forbid the banns over in Vulpes on the perfectly reasonable grounds that you saw it first! I am a total sucker for any book that grabs me by the lapels by being vigourotskt different, and that is certainly what happened with me and Enemies of Promise. Fascinating that we both reacted so differently to his memoir – I was wild with curiosity, you were wondering ‘why is he doing this?’

    By the way, just to show how zeitgeisty we both are, I was very amused that someone shared with me this piece:
    http://thewalrus.ca/i-dont-care-about-your-life/
    Looks like Connolly is giving critics permission to drag their autobiography into everything, even today.

    • April 16, 2016 at 8:37 pm
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      That is a very generous, and quite untrue, comment Hilary! I think your review was much better. And the more reviews of the same books the better, to my mind – always good to compare notes.

      I was quite surprised that I didn’t like the memoir section, as usually I run to those sorts of things – something about this one just irked me.

      Thanks for the Walrus link – it is a hotbed issue!

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