Sunday, January 7, 2007

4 8 15 16 23 42 Execute

  • Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise

You ever get a set of numbers stuck in your head?

Several factors have contributed to the hiatus here at weblog, including Xmas, sickness, and a slowdown in the reading rate caused, in part, by a stretch of reading short stories, which, for me, means rarely finishing an entire book. The biggest contributor to the slowdown, though, is probably the first two seasons of the television program Lost. It's cheesy, sometimes very cheesy, but it's the best shaggy dog story since Twin Peaks. Definitely not as arty as TP, but enjoyable. Old fashioned adventure, creepiness, dread, probably-empty sensawunda, some intriguing characters balancing out the stereotypes and cliches. If that sounds good to you, you should check out the first disk of the first season. Be warned, however, it's addictive. The owls are not what they seem.

(Also, no "Rosebud is a sled" type comments, please. We're not quite done with the second season.)

I did recently finish reading Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise. The first half or so of this book is literary criticism, an attempt (circa 1938) to determine what is required to produce a literary work that lasts ten years. The second half of the book is a memoir of the author's time at Eton meant to provide perspective on his literary judgments. In the second part, I found the Eton-slang impenetrable and couldn't tell the writer's classmates apart.

But the criticism was really interesting. I'd probably get more out of it if I'd read more early 20th C. British novels, but the discussion of mandarin versus vernacular writing styles was interesting given the state of English-language fiction these days. It's a little hard to map his ideas of mandarin to the present scene. I think the vernacular has basically completely won the field. For Connolly, mandarin is associated with the British upper class, complexity and complication of sentence construction. It is meant to be written, not spoken. But how do you classify somebody like David Foster Wallace? Or Cormac McCarthy? Barry Hannah? These are difficult writers of vernacular. I guess being difficult is enough to constitute mandarin these days? Not sure. Interesting to ponder, though.

Other aspects of Connolly's analysis seem hardly to have changed at all. Among the "enemies of promise," factors that may knock writers off course, is journalism, which is said to be too easy, making the literary writer's prose too slack and in some cases stopping literary production altogether since the rewards are more immediate, not to mention remunerative.

As Thing 1 runs around the house behind me, shaking his little brother's rattle, terrorizing the cat, Connolly's famous warning about domesticity also comes to mind: "There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall." Worth pointing out, though, that this quote is pretty much always taken out of context. He's not really against domesticity, just sees it as a problem to be solved. The larger point from the section where that quote appears is that the writer's partner (okay, he says "wife"--it was 1938) has to be on board if the writer's literary project is to succeed. No surprise there.

Anyway, I'm just skimming along the surface here. This is a really cool book, if you're interested in writing. I'd say more, but I have to go find out what "Daddy, may I please take an eeewww into the cat room" means.

No comments:

Post a Comment