Monday 22 March 2010

Enemies Of Promise: Cyril Connolly

In the first part of this book, Connolly examines the dual trends of stripped-down, vernacular storytelling and elevated, stylistically ambitious prose in early 20th-century novels. He looks at the strengths and weaknesses of both styles and proposes a synthesis. It's interesting stuff, rendered dated in its prescriptions by the fact that the dam was about burst - a vast array of styles far beyond the elitist 'mandarin' or demotic 'vernacular' of his analysis were to explode on the literary scene. And yet, the essential ebb and flow of forces of stylistic complication and simplification are still a valid way to view literary history.

In the second part, he lists the factors that can prevent a writer from realising his promise. Some of these are largely valid and others seem a bit ridiculous - try telling Shirley Jackson that a pram in the hallway is the writer's worst enemy! His analysis of the alleged limitations of a homosexual writer are ludicrous and there is a tacit assumption that the promising writer is male, despite his acknowledgment of the existence of Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes. The thing with all his enemies of promise, is that I can list writers who have realised their promise despite them, but still Connolly does provide a useful list of things that the indisciplined or simply insufficiently driven or inspired writer can use as ways to drift away from writing.

The third section is a memoir of his youth which serves as a fascinating study of the mores of a world that vanished with the world wars, an interesting study in self-analysis and a useful complement to his classmate George Orwell's memories of some of the same aspects.

A very mixed book with some streaks of totally brilliant analysis and much that is contentious at best. Definitely a mandarin book, style-wise!

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