Saturday, November 24, 2007

Cyril Connolly on E. M. Forster and Style

In 1938, Cyril Connolly performed a rather bleak assessment of the state of English literature. He singled out E. M. Forster as a novelist whose work seemed to be surviving the passing years. Here's part of what he had to say:
Much of his art consists in the plainness of his writing for he is certain of the truth of his convictions and the force of his emotions. 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.
Lest you think Connolly is an enemy of style, rest assured that he is not. But he does like precision, as he states with admirable beauty here:
The vocabulary of a writer is his currency but it is a paper currency and its value depends on the reserves of the mind and heart which back it.
In drawing this analogy, Connolly goes against the now long-established rule of literary criticism that one should not confuse an author with his or her work -- a good rule in general, though I can say from bitter personal experience that Connolly is absolutely correct, if I understand him aright, to draw a connection between a writer's prose and his or her personal qualities. Some of us are not made to write massive 19th-century Russian novels (never mind our inability to speak the language): some of us were made for (very) light verse.

--from p. 6 and 10 of Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise.

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J. C. F. said...

Some of us were also made for four-page single-space letters to family, friends and amours and shrink from the new USA Today world of microcosmic, i.e. email, correspondence. As with our creative sorties, we aren't even sure of the direction we're moving in until we're at least, blissfully, into page three, glum literary reactionaries King's English welcomely, if temporarily, palliates. -- J. C.

Anonymous said...

Comment to JCF. I'm always amused, and perplexed, by people who criticise the Internet for being so destructive to the soul, to culture, and to life on earth in general, and yet use the Internet to do so.

To the writer of the blog, I'm not sure if Cyril Connolly was meaning to consider the personal life of the author with his work, but rather that the author should be writing with feeling and meaning, ie, have something to say, rather than dress up empty thoughts with fancy prose. What the author was like as a person I'm not so sure is necessarily relevant.

Benjamin Chambers said...

Thanks for stopping by, eirenehogan. Since I haven't posted to this blog in 4 years, I had to root around a bit to figure out how to log back on and approve your comment.

In re: Connolly's meaning, I hear you, and your reading is likely correct. But having something to say -- being able to "write with feeling and meaning" -- is not within everyone's reach (and when it is, not consistently). To that extent, who you are as a person matters: you can't do character well because, perhaps, you're not all that good at understanding people in real life. Or you have to overwrite to "come upon an answer" because you're a circular communicator (vs. a linear one), and that's simply how you find answers. Wherever you go, there you damn well are.