Thursday, October 9, 2008

Style! Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise

A couple of weeks back I posted a quotation from Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise. This is an interesting book, originally published in 1938, that's recently been reissued by the University of Chicago Press. Chip Delany urged me to read it, and so I did. The book addresses the situation of "writers of promise"-- that is to say, it's a book about writing for writers who are neither beginners nor satisfied merely to make a living from their work (even when it's a very good living). What does it take, Connolly wonders in the first chapter, to write a book "that will hold good for ten years afterwards"?

Part 1, "Predicament," discusses the hazards that entangle every aspect of writing, placing a special emphasis on style and the continual shifts in literary fashion that sweep respected and even popular works into the dustbin of obscurity. His elucidation of style is fascinating and makes great sense to me (perhaps at least partly because it resonates powerfully with my recent reading in ms of the revised edition of Delany's Jewel-Hinged Jaw, which Wesleyan will be publishing next spring.) Some of it is a bit dated, and obviously its scope is restricted to early twentieth-century English literature, but there's much here to interest writers and critics today.

Part 2, "The Charlock's Shade," analyzes "the conditions which govern the high rate of mortality among contemporary writers"-- specifically politics, daydreams, conversation, drink and other narcotics, the "clarion call of journalism" (which includes writing reviews), worldly success, sex with its obsessions, and the ties of duty and domesticity. And he begins by citing Samuel Butler: "What ruins young writers is over-production. The need for money is what causes overproduction." His analysis, of course, is (unconsciously) gendered. Though women writers face the same obstacles men writers face, their resources and internal obstacles tend to be different from those of men writers, and these create differences it doesn't occur to Connolly to attend to.

Part 3, which is fully half of the book, "A Georgian Boyhood," is autobiography that culminates with an intense, almost novelistic description and analysis of his years at Eton. (His schoolmate George Orwell appears as a figure that haunts its margins.) It is only after finishing Part 3 and returning to the first two parts of the book that one realizes that an unstated reason for Connolly's writing the book must have been his need to explain to himself the dissipation of his own "promise" as a writer (ironically, of course, since the book was reprinted in 1948 and then again another 60 years later).

Of course Delany forcefully demonstrated in the Jewel-Hinged Jaw that "Style," as Connolly says, "is manifest in language." Connolly continues:

The vocabulary of a writer is his currency but it is a paper currency and its value depends on the reserves of mind and heart which back it. The perfect use of language is that in which every word carries the meaning that it is intended to, no less and no more." (10-11)

And so,

One might say that the style of a writer is conditioned by his conception of the reader, and that it varies according to whether he is writing for himself, or for his friends, his teachers or his God, for an educated upper class, a waiting-to-be-educated lower class or a hostile jury. This trait is less noticeable in writers who live in a settled age as they soon establish a relationship with a reader whom they can depend on and he, usually a man of the same age, tastes, education, and income, remains beside them all their life. Style then is the relation between what a writer wants to say; his subject--and himself-- or the powers which he has: between the form of his subject and the content of his parts. (10)

My oh my. So many he's and his'es, typing them out wearies my spirit. And yet, I do appreciate its clarity.

Connolly classifies all styles as being either "Mandarin" or "Vernacular," and then makes subdivisions within these two classifications as he examines the advantages, limitations, and pitfalls of various styles. I particularly liked this passage:

The quality of mind of a writer may be improved the more he feels or thinks or, without effort, the more he reads; and as he grows surer of this quality, so he is the better able to make experiments in technique or towards a simplification of it even to its apparent abandonment and the expression of strong emotion or deep thought in ordinary language. The great speeches in Lear and Samson Agonistes do not seem revolutionary to us because we do not recognize them as superb and daring manipulations of the obvious. Any poet of talent could write: "The multitudinous seas incarnadine" or "Bid Amaranthus all his beauty shed," but only a master could get away with "I pray you undo this button," or "Lear's quintuple "Never."

Style is a relation between form and content. Where the content is less than the form, where the author pretends to emotion which he does not feel, the language will seem flamboyant. The more ignorant a writer feels, the more artificial becomes his style. A writer who thinks himself cleverer than his readers writes simply (often too simply), while one who fears they may be cleverer than he will make use of mystification: an author arrives at a good style when his language performs what is required of it without shyness.

I recommend this book to writers with ambition, and anyone interested in the writing life.

1 comment:

Josh said...

No, he really does not confine himself to early twentieth century English literature: he has things to say, for example, about Barnes, Faulkner, and Hemingway. Chip was especially impressed with the fact that almost all of the writers he celebrates, some of them having become prominent a year or two before he wrote the book, are still known: he had an amazing feel for "promise."

And notwithstanding his use of the generic "he" and all that implies, it's pretty refreshing to read celebrations of Woolf, Barnes, et al given that the next generation of critics was so dismissive of women (vide Hugh Kenner, who would have liked to have Connolly's feel for style, on To the Lighthouse).