Early laurels weigh like lead
Writing in the May edition of The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens delivers a knowing synopsis of Cyril Connolly’s classic memoir Enemies of Promise, the new release of which is scheduled to hit bookstores later this month:
Like a centaur, or perhaps a bit more like a pantomime horse, Enemies of Promise divides into two halves: the critical and the autobiographical. In the first half, Connolly surveys the literary scenery of his day and employs as his scaffolding and Waste Land surrogate George Crabbe’s bleak and sarcastic poem The Village. This, with its vividly negative bucolic imagery of “the blighted rye,” “the blue Bugloss,” “the slimy Mallow,” and “the Charlock’s shade,” allows him a special taxonomy of weeds and thistles as well as of growth without roots.
In the second half, titled “A Georgian Boyhood,” he gives a lavishly detailed account of his education between the ages of 8 and 18, and shows an extraordinary confidence in the likelihood that this narrative will not prove ephemeral. The best-known phrase from this section is his “theory of permanent adolescence” as a description of the marination process of the English upper class.…
“It is the theory that the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools, their glories and disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development. From these it results that the greater part of the ruling class remains adolescent, school-minded, self-conscious, cowardly, sentimental and in the last analysis homosexual. Early laurels weigh like lead and of many of the boys whom I knew at Eton, I can say that their lives are over.”
In the blistering prose that became Connolly’s trademark, Enemies of Promise is a fascinating examination of high literature and high society from one the twentieth century’s most influential and insightful critics.
Read the rest of the article on The Atlantic website.