M Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction are some of my Literary Interests

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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly

The Unquiet Grave:  A Word Cycle by Palinurus by Cyril Connolly (1944, 160 pages)

"Perfect taste always implies an insolent dismissal of other people's."

I first read The Unquiet Grave:  A Word Cycle by Palinurus by Cyril Connolly (1903 to 1974-UK) when I was around 15, numerous decades ago.   I somehow stumbled upon it in the library in a time long before the internet or Amazon so I had no idea what it was about.  No one suggested I read it I just did.   I remember being amazed.  I was a very bookish  young man who sought escape from a world I did not much fit in or like, in reading.  (My guess, accept for the word "young" is this is how my wife sometimes describes me to her friends.)  Nobody I knew, not teachers, family or classmates, loved reading as much as I did.  My parents were very smart but they saw my reading so much as almost a problem of some sort, one they did not understand.    I knew there had to be others out there in the great world who felt as I did and that is why, I think, I was so crazy for The Unquiet Grave:  A Word Cycle by Palinurus.  Connolly, obviously brilliant, incredibly cultured and very much a man of the world, loved literature and put it above all else.   He talked of numerous books I had never heard about, he said there was nothing in the world above great literature.  I was amazed by how much he knew, and not just about books.  I knew I was not alone.  

I recently read Book by Book:  Notes on Reading and Life by Michael Dirda (post coming soon).  He is one of the most popular and highest thought of American literary critics.   He referenced The Unquiet Grave:  A Word Cycle by Palinurus  as one of the books that inspired his life time of reading.   This was my trigger to read once again  The Unquiet Grave:  A Word Cycle by Palinurus.  I am very glad I did.  Now it does seem  a very self indulgent (it was written during a terrible war) book with as much twaddle in it as genius but the genius is still there and enough to make the book must reading for anyone into the reading life. There are several pages of quotes in French (can be annoying to those who don't read it), Connolly very into Flaubert, Proust and other French masters, there is some flat out nuts advise on marriage (three for Connolly), a love for drink and cigars (I am betting he did not have many fully sober days), a fondness for herbal narcotics, and some sophomoric comments on women but there are also some of the best things every said about why literature is so powerful, why it is necessary for civilization.  

Connolly was considered snobbish, elitist, sexist, and arrogant by those who knew him (Wikipedia has a good detailed article on his life and work-he knew much of the English literary elite of the period) and this comes across loud and clear in The Unquiet Grave:  A Word Cycle by Palinurus.  He, I think, loved to say things that would shock people and probably enjoyed showing off how smart and educated he was.  One of his most famous pronouncements  (there is a quality of Orphic obscurity in his work)  was

‎"The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of consequence." 

I don't agree with this and I think it was said for effect as Connolly admitted elsewhere he never lived up to his potential.  But it does make you think.  Here are a few other marvelous quotes from the book:

"There is no pain in life equal to that which two lovers can inflict on each other"

"When I contemplate the accumulation of guilt and remorse which, like a garbage-can, I carry through life, and which is fed not only by the lightest actions, but by the most harmless pleasure, I feel man to be of all living things the most biologically incompetent and ill-organized."

Beneath a mask of selfish tranquility nothing exists except bitterness and boredom. I am one of those whom suffering has made empty and frivolous: each night in my dreams I pull the scab off a wound; each day, vacuous and habit-ridden, I help it re-form."

"'Dry again?' said the Crab to the Rock-Pool. 'So would you be,' replied the Rock-Pool, 'if you had to satisfy, twice a day, the insatiable sea."

"Morning tears return; spirits at their lowest ebb. Approaching forty, sense of total failure; not a writer but a ham actor whose performance is clotted with egotism; dust and ashes; 'brilliant'. - that is not worth doing. Never will I make that extra effort to live according to reality which alone makes good writing possible: hence the manic-depressiveness of my style,—which is either bright, cruel and superficial; or pessimistic; moth-eaten with self-pity"

"Life is a maze in which we take the wrong turning before we have learnt to walk."


"Imprisoned in every fat man a thin one is wildly signalling to be let out."

Palinurus was the was the pilot on Aeneas's ship, he fell overboard in an act of atonement angry gods and wandered the underworld.  

He admires the work of Thomas de Qunincy, Blaise Bascal, Nicholas Comfort and Proust.  In a perhaps mark of the times he quotes Freud a good bit.  He also greatly admired the maxims of La Rochefoucauld and as a direct result of this Connolly is still directing my reading as I have started reading an edition of the maxims now.  I see also I need badly to reread Flaubert, this time in the Lydia Davis translation, and Proust.  

I think Connolly's ideal reader might be a very bookish, isolated impressionable adolescent.  If you are 13 and love reading and no one you know really does, read this book. Then read for at least two decades then read it again then maybe once more in five decades.   Or if that was you several decades ago, try it now.  Some readers will find it too elitist, be offended by the snobbery which is there, be bored by the long quotes in languages they cannot read, see his remarks on women as near silly,  see Connolly as showing off a bit (OK at times more than a bit) and will not agree that only the greatest of literature is worth reading.  If he lived today I could see him publishing a long article in the Manchester Guardian saying the Harry Potter books were totally trash and I really like them. 

I would suggest everyone very into the reading life try this book. See of you can get a library copy or download a sample from Amazon before you buy it.    You might be bored by it or find the genius to twaddle ratio (which I put at 50/50)  weighted more to twaddle and I would respect that judgement.  You might see his sage advise on women (there is no advise on men for women in it) pushing the stupid.  Some of the things he said will outrage you but they will make you think.  Some of the things are totally brilliant.  One line I recalled exactly from 50 years ago was about how a face  of a stranger seen in a subway train can disturb us for weeks.  I hope I will always remember this and have the power to be disturbed by the face of a stranger.  For sure you will add some great books to your to be read list. I still find his literary taste impeccable.   He loved Joyce and Swift so he gives proper respect to the Irish.  

Mel u



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