A portrait of author Evelyn Waugh and magazine editor Cyril Connolly
Paris, leaving again. And again, that means re-shelving dozens of books in the walls and walls of volumes in the flat, in the ninth, just up from the Opera, rented mainly for those books. Doing so, I realise that I have spent weeks reading, again, about Cyril Connolly and the London smart set of the 1940s. How many biographies of Cyril Connolly can there be? They appear to be writing themselves anew, just as I finish the last. Connolly was a fat, lecherous magazine editor — Horizon, founded in 1939, three months after the war began — who resorted to hackwork after he could no longer face the drudgery of magazine running. There is a famous photo of him, standing, looking, despairing, out French windows. I am holding a book with that photo on its back cover, as I try and find the place for the book, in shelves running perpendicular to French windows. Music from far off, coming through the window, direction of the Louvre.
Connolly’s circle were the Brideshead generation and beyond — Waugh, Acton, Brian Howard, Anthony Powell, Orwell, many of them Eton and then Oxford, the sixth form of one powerful school setting the British literary agenda and, to a degree, ours too, for decades. And the outsiders, Julian Maclaren-Ross, the king of the bohemians, Barbara Skelton, the most appalling man or woman in London, Paul Potts, the obsessive broadsider, a bad poet, and aphorist of brilliance,* and Sonia Brownell, the “Venus of Euston Road”, a woman of striking beauty, an artist’s model, and lover, for the painters of the Fitzrovia school, who put herself forward to edit a painters’ number of Horizon, and became, at age 21, its secretary, and by 26, its de facto co-editor, as Connolly slid into the warm bath of sloth and failure he had sought for decades, attended by a carousel of exasperated lovers.** Never Sonia, though, her brown hair shining, her eyes doll-wide.***
Thwarted by nerves and self-criticism from writing fiction herself, she explodes through the fiction of the era and beyond. Has anyone ever been more memorialised? Sonia Brownell is Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Mona Templar and Ada Leintwardine in A Dance To the Music of Time, part of Paula Maureil in De Beauvoir’s The Mandarins (courtesy of an affair with Merlau-Ponty, the philosopher), she is in The Sword of Honour trilogy, Connolly’s unfinished novel Deathbed Visits, in Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, minor Koestler (they were lovers), and all through Maclaren-Ross, who was obsessed with her to the point where he was banned from the Horizon office. He wrote her into a pulp novel which, Julia aside, may be her most enduring presence, for it became a model for a certain type of unattainable, intellectual, rose, thorns close to the bloom, at the centre of half-a-hundred gangster flicks.
Cyril never got Sonia; George did, his worship of her, it seems, arising from a one-week affair. She became Sonia Orwell, 14 weeks before his death. Her many enemies slated her as a gold-digger. Powell and Lucien Freud (another … OK, it was a bohemian set) set the record straight: Orwell had said he would probably live if she married him, “and what could I do?”. She was swindled of his royalties; she co-edited the four-volume collection of his key journalism, letters and diary entries, insisting on its mash-up of all three forms together, rolling through the years, making the book a landmark, an epoch-memory, an inexhaustible pleasure. Released in 1968, it gave us the modern Orwell, made him in retrospect. She died alcoholic and penniless. Julia would appear to be the best portrait of her, capturing her two sides, fierce commitment to things mattering, life-giving contempt for rules, a cleaving to the sensuous, a recoil from it into the mind. Everyone fell in love with her. You fall in love with her just reading about her. Living women are jealous of this dead one. Make of that life what you will.
How the hell-? Ah yes, Francophilia. The whole Connolly set were mad Francophiles, seeing England as a drab, smug, philistine, distant outer-suburb of France, and they were forever dashing for the boat train for a few restorative weeks. For the Connolly set, the worst aspect of the war was being cut off from France, and the misery of that, and the end of his marriage to Jean, a “tomboy” dead of the drink at 40, stung him to write The Unquiet Grave, a linked series of aphorisms mourning the death of culture in the depths of a world war — which looked on the way to becoming unending war. Sly, feline, self-pitying, hysterical: “The id murmurs: if you collected women rather than books, I could be of some help”; “Hell is a nubile mother”;**** “The artist secretes nostalgia around life”; “The duty of every modern writer is to create a masterpiece. What writer, knowing that to be true, would not put away the half-finished piece of trash they are working on now?”; “Why do ants alone have parasites whose intoxicating moistures they drink and for whom they will sacrifice even their young? Because as they are the most highly socialized of insects, so their lives are the most intolerable”; “Inside every fat man is a thin one wildly signalling to be let out.” (Yes, that was his).
The Unquiet Grave, a bit of a sensation in 1944, was a plea for the virtues of self, for the limits of sacrifice. Horizon was intended as a commitment to that culture, of the unbounded cultivated self at a certain height. Ironically, it became the harbinger of something else entirely: its patron and art editor Peter Watson would go on to found the Institute of Contemporary Arts, from whence Richard Hamilton would invent Pop Art. In the first issue, Connolly had published Orwell’s essay “Boys Weeklies”, the first work of modern cultural studies. The Horizon crowd got government arts funding into Labour’s 1945 manifesto, and scholarships to art schools, that kids like John Lennon, Mary Quant and Pete Townshend would later take up, and put to their own purpose.******
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Horizon ushered in the fusion of high and mass culture that would differentiate Britain from France finally and utterly. The Horizon crowd’s Paris was impossibly imaginary, a locus not for what Britain was not, but for what life was not. The real place had been crawling with betrayal and sycophancy all through the war; those executed for treason after VE day included a number of journalists and writers who had enthusiastically adopted Nazi values, not under duress or for survival, but for something to do, something to be. The Nazis had barely gone, when the rough justice and score-settling under cover of such began.
But knowing that that is all a parallax error, a trick of the light, does not make it any less persuasive. *****
France remains the fantasy, politically, for — and yes, I didn’t think we’d pull that Spitfire out of the long dive either — its aura of possibility in the new era. The British “solved” their post-war structural problems with the clean slate, Thatcherism. The French didn’t, and now they have to do something. But they have waited so long, that the moment of Thatcherite solutions has passed. Their reliance on borrowing from the future — virtuous private debt — is now exhausted, just as the accumulative powers of Western capitalism lurch into crisis.
Sections of the British working class were persuaded of the Thatcherite vision. Now, to keep them, the Conservative and Unionist Party of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is lurching into Chavez territory, or the image of such, with promises of energy price caps and worker representatives on company boards. That may work there. It won’t work in France, where Emmanuel Macron’s choice of prime minister — Edouard Philippe, from the centre-right Republican party — has sent things into uproar on the left.
The “abstentionistes” in the second round are looking a little smug, some on the pro-Macron left a little sheepish, and angry at being humiliated by the choice of a right-winger to lead his government. Since Macron was of the left, he can claim it is the spirit of unity. The suspicion is that he would prefer a republican centre-right majority in the assembly, and this is his way of signaling that, in places where the En Marche movement — which seems to be called Modem now, I think a sort of pun on the “EM” way (Mode-EM), “En Marche is in fashion”, and of course the technocratic thang. It’s like they’re using Finnegans Wake as a playbook. Imagine Billy Bob Shorten making his way round that. His mouth would eat his stupid face. Macron might also want to encourage the Melenchonistes, which the move is certainly doing; he may prefer a hard-left opposition, to a centre-left one. What he won’t get is an easy ride …