Notebooks Elevated: On The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle by Palinurus (Cyril Connolly)

July 18, 2007 | 8 books mentioned 5 min read

coverHow to describe Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave: It is one of those books – like The Anatomy of Melancholy, The Compleat Angler, Minima Moralia, A Tale of a Tub, Urne Buriall – that defies all conventions of genre and, thereby, easy description. Though I have concerned myself much with the academic question of what it means to defy genre classification, I have no easy or convincing answer. By my reckoning, genreless literary works take into themselves aspects of various different disciplines (aesthetic criticism, philosophy, memoir and recollection, in the case of The Unquiet Grave) or genres (Moby-Dick is part “straight” narrative, part allegory, part encyclopedia (the Cetology chapter), part common-place book (the extended collection of quotations concerning whales at the beginning), part drama (the chapters that are laid out like acts in a play, complete with stage directions), part impressionistic quasi-philosophic meditation (“The Masthead” and “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapters)).

The difference between a book like Moby-Dick and a book like The Unquiet Grave, is that Melville’s book has a master genre (it is still, at the end of the day, in spite of all of its formal experimentation, unquestionably a novel), whereas Connolly’s book, along the lines of Burton’s Anatomy, Adorno’s Minima Moralia, Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value, Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall – is, as a reading experience, something more akin to being submerged in the psyche and/or intellect of its author. These books are odd mixes of opinion, quotation, recollection, personal philosophy, and meditation, and all have – some more than others – a fragmentary or aphoristic style of composition that can at times verge on the hallucinatory. And perhaps ‘hallucinatory’ is the wrong word – the sensation that the reading of Connolly’s book induces is (and here I speculate) something more like being possessed for a while by the thoughts, the thought-patterns, rhythms, and favorite authors of someone else. The closest approximation of this sensation that I have found elsewhere is in the reading of private notebooks and unbound papers: Here, a fragmentary transcription of a conversation at a party; there, a formal letter to a parent; there, again, a diaristic meditation on the fear of marriage. All is produced of the same brain, in the same hand, and this common origin is the sole tie that binds the disparate sheaf.

And yet, however similar the sensation of rifling through an author’s private papers may at times be to the reading of a book like The Unquiet Grave, a crucial difference remains: A book like Connolly’s performs what manuscript papers actually do. Connolly and his ilk turn the casual essay-istic style of the notebook into art. They refine, polish, and uplift the fragmentary, meandering private style: They make it palatable, even beautiful. Private writing, when it is really and truly private, is not necessarily charmingly haphazard: Almost inevitably, it slips into the unendurably dull, the defeatingly self-obsessed, the clumsy, sloppy, and rough. It is hard going. There are occasional pleasures to be had, gems of wit and observation here and there, to be sure, but these are the exception and not the rule.

The beauty, the strange beauty, of The Unquiet Grave and its cousins lies in its elevation of notebook style – that quirky yet potentially enchanting melange of squib, meditation, quotation, anecdote, and philosophical monologue – to high art. The casual, associative meandering that stands in place of traditional chronology- and logic-driven narrative techniques creates the illusion that what we read was actually just dashed off casually in snatches of free time, while the quality of the thought, and the quality of the prose belies this informal, nonchalance of organization.

Below are a few choice excerpts from The Unquiet Grave, by Palinurus (Connolly’s authorial pseudonym for this “experiment in self-dismantling”; the pilot of Aeneas’ boat who fell asleep at the rudder, fell into the sea, and was drowned; Palinurus was a sacrifice taken by Neptune; he died – though he didn’t know it – so the rest could arrive safely at Avernus).

In their variety and strangeness, these passages (I hope) will give something of an introduction to the book:

“Cowardice in living: without health and courage we cannot face the present or the germ of the future in the present, and we take refuge in evasion. Evasion through comfort, through society, through acquisitiveness, through the book-bed-bath defense system, above all through the past, the flight to the romantic womb of history, into primitive myth-making. The refusal to include the great mass-movements of the twentieth century in our art or our myth will drive us to take refuge in the past; in surrealism, magic, primitive religions, or eighteenth-century wonderlands. We fly to Mediterranean womb-pockets and dream-islands, into dead controversies and ancient hermetic bric-a-brac, like a child who sits hugging his toys and who screams with rage when told to put on his boots.”

“The Vegetable Conspiracy: Man is now on his guard against insect parasites; against liver-flukes, termites, Colorado beetles, but has he given thought to the possibility that he has been selected as the target of vegetable attack, marked down by the vine, hop, juniper, and tobacco plant, tea-leaf and coffee-berry for destruction? What converts these Jesuits of the gastric juices make, – and how cleverly they retain them. Which smoker considers the menace of the weed spreading in his garden, which drunkard reads the warning of the ivy round the oak?”

From a brief set of descriptions of pets entitled “Graves of the Lemurs”:

“Polyp. Most gifted of lemurs, who hated aeroplanes in the sky, on the screen, and even on the wireless. How he would have hated this war! He could play in the snow or swim in a river or conduct himself in a night-club; he judged human beings by their voices; biting some, purring over others, while for one or two well-seasoned old ladies he would brandish a black prickle-studded penis, shaped like a eucalyptus seed. Using his tail as an aerial, he would lollop through long grass to welcome his owners, embracing them with little cries and offering them a lustration from his purple tongue and currycomb teeth. His manners were of some spoiled young Maharajah, his intelligence not inferior, his heart all delicacy, – women, gin and muscats were his only weaknesses. Alas, he died of pneumonia while we scolded him for coughing, and with him vanished the sea-purple cicada kingdom of calanque and stone-pine and the concept of life as an arrogant private dream shared by two.”

“When once we have discovered how pain and suffering diminish the personality, and how joy alone increases it, then the morbid attraction which is felt for evil, pain, and abnormality will have lost its power. Why do we reward our men of genius, our suicides, our madmen, and the generally maladjusted with the melancholy honours of a posthumous curiosity? Because we know that it is our society which has condemned these men to death, and which is guilty because out of its own ignorance and malformation it has persecuted those who were potential saviours; smiters of the rock who might have touched the spring of healing and brought us back into harmony with ourselves.

Somehow, then, and without going mad, we must learn from these madmen to reconcile fanaticism with serenity. Each one, taken alone, is disastrous, yet except through the integration of these two opposites there is no great art and no profound happiness – and what else is worth having? For nothing can be accomplished without fanaticism, and without serenity nothing can be enjoyed. Perfection of form or increase of knowledge, pursuit of fame or service to the community, love of God or god of Love, – we must select the Illusion which appeals to our temperament, and embrace it with passion, if we want to be happy. This is the farewell autumn precept with which Palinurus takes leave of his fast-fading nightmare.”

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *