Cyril Connolly, The Rock Pool. Penguin Modern Classics, 1963; first published 1936
This early PMC edition has one of those lovely two-tone covers (this one drawn by R.A. Glendening) and the number on the spine (1891), with the distinctive grey bands of the early Modern Classics series.
Unfortunately the novel (the only one Connolly wrote; he produced a large body of journalism, literary reviews, memoirs, etc.) doesn’t live up to the design. It has some pleasing linguistic flourishes, but ultimately it disappoints.
As Connolly says in a letter/foreword addressed to Peter Quennell (a contemporary at Balliol),
I have been asked why I chose such unpleasant, unimportant and hopeless people to write about…I don’t know.
He thinks he has created ‘a young man as futile as any’ (this is true – but it isn’t as interesting as that sounds), who represents ‘a certain set of English qualities, the last gasp, perhaps, of rentier exhaustion.’
Edgar Naylor is spending the summer on the south coast of France, taking a sabbatical from his jobs – one as ‘a kind of apprentice-partner in a firm of stockbrokers’, the other ‘as self-appointed biographer of Samuel Rogers, the banker-bard of St James’s Place.’
He doesn’t have a great deal of money, the narrator blandly insists, ‘just under a thousand pounds a year over which a trustee mounted guard like a dragon’. Poor chap – almost destitute. Later he’s said to have ‘enough money to avoid the general discipline of the professions, and not enough to buy more than indifferent consideration.’ How vulgar, to work for a living.
He decides to become ‘an observer, a naturalist’, an ‘entomologist’, his subject the teeming rock-pool life of the bohemian expats who haunted ‘Trou-sur-Mer’ – Hole on the Sea. Not patronising, then. The first pen portrait of him doesn’t enhance this unbecoming impression:
Naylor was neither very intelligent nor especially likeable, and certainly not very successful, and from the image of looking down knowingly into his Rock Pool, poking it and observing the curious creatures he might stir up, he would derive a pleasant sense of power.
It comes as no surprise that every soi-disant ‘artist’ or eccentric he meets fleeces him or cheats him barefacedly, cutting him dead as soon as they lose interest in him or his money runs out. He finds his money can’t even buy him love or friends.
The outcome is inevitable: from this starting point as ‘specimen’ collector and observer, he falls into the pool he intended anatomising, like Hylas with the Hamadryads (mentioned in the epigraph and foreword) and is doomed.
Unfortunately I didn’t care what happened to him, and cared even less about the cast of scoundrels and drifters he felt he could lord it over. He’s naive enough to find them initially exciting and attractive, then as they reveal themselves to be even more shallow and morally deficient than he is, his disillusionment intensifies his predilection for self-pity.
As I said there are touches of fine, often amusing prose. Here’s the description early on of his first encounter with Varna, the English co-owner of the Bastion bar, which becomes his drinking den:
She had something expectant and glistening about her, like a penguin waiting for a fish.
Initially finding her stimulating, Naylor came to realise ‘she was middle-class and, worse, was assuming that he was.’
He decided that she was profoundly antipathetic – that voice like a medium’s, those clairvoyant eyes, and that sturdy little body in inappropriate sailor trousers!
His inability to read people’s true characters is meant, perhaps, to be endearing; instead it’s simply another aspect of his irritating self-absorption and emotional sterility. And he’s a terrible snob, as that last extract indicates.
I raced through the final third of this mercifully short novel for all the wrong reasons: I couldn’t wait for it to end.
There’s some interest in the decadence of this seedy set Naylor falsely believes he’s accepted into: the bacchanalian evenings he participates in are attended by a range of sexually ambivalent types. These scenes caused Connolly to find it difficult to find a publisher initially on the grounds that the book was indecent. One of the first such gatherings led Naylor to conclude it ‘didn’t provide much evidence of human progress’, and reminded him he ‘was on the wrong side of Eden.’ It isn’t indecent. It’s just rather flashily tedious.
Blaise Cendrars does this kind of thing with much more panache, wit and weird charm.