Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly.

In short

Enemies of Promise is divided into three different sections. First, Connolly looks at how to create a work that will stand the test of time (in this case, books), second he looks at what the “enemies or promise” are (examples include domesticity, drink, and politics, but also success), and the final section is an autobiography of the Connolly’s early life.

Book Summary & Notes

Part I: Predicament

“It is the writer who is not so sure what to say or how he feels who is apt to overwrite either to conceal his ignorance or to come unexpectedly on an answer. Similarly it is the novelist who finds it hard to create character who indulges in fine writing.”

“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.”

“For the idiom of our time is journalistic and the secret of journalism is to write the way people talk. The best journalism is the conversation of a great talker. It need not consist of what people say but it should include nothing which cannot be said.”

“At the present time for a book to be produced with any hope of lasting half a generation, of outliving a dog or a car, of surviving the lease of a house or the life of a bottle of champagne, it must be written against the current, in a prose that makes demands both on the resources of our language and the intelligence of the reader.”

Part II: The Charlock’s Shade

“We have suggested that journalism must obtain its full impact on the first reading while literature can achieve its effect on the second, being intended for an interested and not an indifferent public. Consequently the main difference between them is one of texture. Journalism is loose, intimate, simple and striking; literature formal and compact, not simple and not immediately striking in its effects. Carelessness is not fatal to journalism nor are clichés, for the eye rests lightly on them. But what is intended to be read once can seldom be read more than once; a journalist has to accept the fact that his work, by its very to-dayness, is excluded from any share in to-morrow. Nothing dates like a sense of actuality than which there is nothing in journalism more valuable. A writer who takes up journalism abandons the slow tempo of literature for a faster one and the change will do him harm. By degrees the flippancy of journalism will become a habit and the pleasure of being paid on the nail and more specially of being praised on the nail, grow indispensable.”

“Writers flourish in a state of political flux, on the eve of the crisis, rather than in the crisis itself; it is before a war or a revolution that they are listened to and come into their own and it was because they were disillusioned at their impotence during the war that so many became indifferent to political issues after the peace.”

“By ignoring the present he condones the future.”

“Promise! Fatal word, half-bribe and half-threat, round whose exact meaning centred many tearful childhood interviews. “But you promised you wouldn’t”, “but that wasn’t a promise”, “Yes it was – you haven’t kept your promise”, till the meaning expands and the burden of the oath under which we grew up becomes the burden of expectation which we can never fulfil. “Blossom and blossom and promise of blossom, but never a fruit” – the cry first heard in the nursery is taken up by the schoolmaster, the friendly aunt, the doting grandmother, the inverted bachelor uncle. Dons with long reproachful faces will utter it and the friends of dons; the shapes and simulacrums which our parents have taken, the father-substitutes and the mother-types which we have projected will accuse us and all await our ritual suicide. Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.”

“Some critics encourage a mystical belief in talent. They hold that in the nature of things it must come to fruition, that “if it is in you it’s bound to come out”, that true genius can neither be depressed by illness or poverty nor destroyed by success or failure. […] But talent is something which grows and which does not ripen except in the right kind of soil and climate. It can be neglected or cultivated and will flower or die down. To suppose that artists will muddle through without encouragement and without money because in the past there have been exceptions is to assume that salmon will find their way to the top of a river to spawn in spite of barrages and pollution. “If it’s in you it’s bound to come out” is a wish-fulfilment. More often it stays in and goes bad.”

“Of all of the enemies of literature, success is the most insidious. […] Pearsall-Smith quotes Trollope, “Success is a poison that should only be taken late in life and then only in small doses.” […]

Success for a writer is of three kinds, social, professional or popular. All three bring money but in none of them is money all important. Success is bad for a writer because it cuts him off from his roots, raises his standard of living and so leads to overproduction, lowers his standard of criticism and encourages the germ of its opposite, failure.”

“The long article has the future, especially in the form of the critical essay, the analysis of times and tendencies, and the skilled “reportage”. But articles which cannot be reprinted are not worth writing.”

Part III: A Georgian Boyhood

“I have always disliked myself at any given moment; the total of such moments is my life.”

“My lack of character was now a permanent feature. I was unreliable. For that reason I was head of the sixth but not captain of the school; I occupied the position I was so often to maintain in after life, that of the intellectual who is never given the job because he is “brilliant but unsound”. I was also a physical coward, though I learnt how to conceal it, a natural captain of second elevens, and a moral coward by compensation, since, in an English community, moral cowardice is an asset.”

“Adversity is like a purge, it is good for you at the time and you are the more able to enjoy life when you have done with it, and it gives me a chance to demonstrate my atheism. I think I must try and be a stoic in adversity, and Epicurean in prosperity.”

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