Cyril Connolly (1903-1974), critic, editor, essayist, and author, is required reading for anyone who wonders what happened to English Literature after World War II.

His life can best be succinctly described as that particular sort of British tragedy--the Etonian schoolboy bred for intellectual pursuit who grew up expecting more of the world, and himself, than could ever possibly be delivered.

Connolly described the unrelenting hazing, class-fear, and dogged intellectualism of his school days in his autobiographical Enemies of Promise, 1938. His ability to transcend his difficult childhood and his years at Oxford and move smoothly into London literary life marked him as a young man to be reckoned with, a writer of considerable talent, but Connolly failed to live up to his early promise.

"Whom the Gods wish to destroy they first call promising," he famously wrote, and it is difficult not to think that The Rock Pool (1936), his only novel--a story of a young writer who goes to the south of France on holiday and destroys himself--is not also semi-autobiographical. Upon its completion and lukewarm reception, Connolly drifted disappointedly into criticism and journalism, the very occupations he warned other writers to avoid.

"The reward of art is not fame or success but intoxication: that is why so many bad artists are unable to give it up," he wrote. It seems that intoxication in its innumerable forms became Connolly's profession. He had the face of a bulldog and the girth of a good-sized desk. He was messy and self-loathing and a masterful freeloader. He lived high and hard, was married three times, and he came home each night, he said, with "the feeling of obscure guilt that comes after a day spent in this thankless task of drowning other people's kittens."

Nonetheless, he managed to found Horizon with his wealthy friend Peter Watson in 1939. Connolly presided imperiously over this pinnacle of literary journalism for ten years, and it would prove to be nearly the apex of his career.

Except for that book. The one for which he ought to be really famous. The amazing, insightful, for-the-ages book--The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle by Palinurus.

Using the name of Aeneas's pilot as his pseudonym, Connolly, in a collection of epigrams, reflections and quotations from such masters of the written word as Goethe, Voltaire and Baudelaire, freezes the literary ebb and flow of his age before us for all time. About it no less an author than Ernest Hemingway wrote:

"It is a book which, no matter how many readers it will ever have, will never have enough."
The Unquiet Grave is the sort of jeans pocket/backpack/glove compartment talisman that any writer should consider himself lucky to own. It is indispensible.

If "Node for the Ages" and "Earn Your Bullshit" are words that you live by, pick up The Unquiet Grave and let Uncle Cyril show you where your stuff is at.


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