The Rock Pool (1934) by Cyril Connolly

Cover of the Obelisk Press edition.

Book review by George S: It’s LGBT month at the popular fiction project, which I’ve taken as an excuse to open a book that has been on my shelves for a long time, but which I’ve never got round to reading. Not that Cyril Connolly’s The Rock Pool is popular reading. It never had a chance to be. He sent the manuscript to Faber, who at first accepted it, but then decided that its sexual references might land them in the police court. There had recently been prosecutions of Boy by James Hanley, which tells of homosexual activities among the sailors on board a merchant ship, and Bessie Cotter, the fictional life-story of a prostitute. Connolly then sent the book to another publisher, who returned it, having circled in pencil all the passages that they considered it would be impossible to publish in England. There were a lot of them.

Connolly offered the book to the piratical Jack Kahane, of the Obelisk Press in Paris, which specialised in books banned in England and America. (The first book on Kahane’s list was Sleeveless Errand, which Sylvia reviewed here a while back). Kahane accepted it, despite the fact that The Rock Pool was by his standards, disappointingly un-pornographic; he told Connolly that its Anglo-Saxon reticence was a disgrace to his list.

The book is the story of Edgar Naylor a young Englishman with an unsatisfying job in a City firm. He goes to the South of France to taste freedom, and to work on his project of a biography of Samuel Rogers, a minor Regency poet. He finds the small town of Trou, which he discovers is full of characters who seem to be leftovers from the 1920s, when the South of France attracted many English writers. As Connolly puts it:

All along the coast from Huxley Point and Castle Wharton to Cape Maugham, little colonies or angry giants had settled themselves; there were Campbell in Martigues, Aldington at Le Lavandou, anyone who could hold a pen in Saint Tropez, Arlen in Cannes, and beyond, Monte Carlo and the Oppenheim country.

One of the reasons Naylor chooses Trou is that there are no writers. This means no rivals to his own rather shaky claim to be literary. Naylor likes to be superior. At first he comfortably despises the local community. They seem to be loafers and spongers living aimless lives, whose main interest is bed-hopping. As a writer, he chooses to see them as specimens worthy of study, and imagines himself as a naturalist dispassionately observing the creatures in a rock pool.

This assumption of scientific superiority boosts his self-image, but it becomes increasingly hard to maintain. He becomes increasingly involved with the affairs of the community; he is competitive – and there are some very enjoyable little fencing-matches of snobbery as he and other characters try to prove their superior social standing. He falls for a young Hungarian girl called Toni, only to discover that her sexual leanings are Lesbian. He has unsatisfactory affairs with other women. He soon realises that his popularity with the residents of the rock pool comes only from the fact that he has some money. Every meal ends with him being left to pick up the bill. As he extends his stay, the cash runs out, and eventually he is indulging in the behaviour that he had scorned when he arrived – living off a woman and cadging from tourists. He has become what he despised.

The book’s attitude towards transgressive sexuality is straightforward. Connolly takes for granted its existence and takes no moral position on the matter. He does not write about it alluingly; the one description of sex (heterosexual) is anything but enticing. Among the bohemians of Trou there are a number of homosexual men and women who have come to find a community more understanding than England. Connolly was bisexual, and had enjoyed passionate homosexual relationships in his youth, at Eton and elsewhere. Yet this novel mostly uses Naylor’s contemptuous term for the men – ‘fairies’; only one male homosexual, Jimmy, plays any significant part in the novel, and that is a small one. The Lesbians are more in evidence, and one pair, Duff and V are the most sympathetic characters in the novel. They run a cafe together, and have more common-sense than any of the others, though their lives too are disrupted by Toni.

The expatriate community may accept homosexuality as a fact of life, but the locals are less broad-minded. At a cabaret, when the women at their table annoy them by dancing together, Rascasse the artist suggests that he and Naylor should get their revenge in the annoyance stakes by dancing together, which they do, Naylor ‘fox-trotting with gloomy seriousness’. Quickly the band stops playing, and the first saxophone stands up and insists that they sit down. The (mostly French) crowd jeer at the two men. It is just one of Naylor’s humiliations.

In a preface Connolly wrote in 1947, when the novel finally appeared in Britain, he links his frankness about sexuality to his education at Eton. On Sundays, he explains, schoolboys were required to go to chapel and expected to accept Christian morality. For the other six days of the week sixth-formers were reading Latin writers like Martial, Catullus, Horace, Propertius and Juvenal, who described a world where various kinds of lechery found free expression. These texts formed Connolly’s taste, and his favourite English writers (Rochester, Congreve) took a similarly realistic view of human sexuality. The bulk of middlebrow writing is firmly in the conventional Christian tradition, preferring to deal with sexual deviation by either ignoring it or at most making disapproving hints. The great middlebrow audience had not had the kind of classical education that would have introduced them to such broad-minded authors. Connolly strongly identified with the Modern movement, and in later years produced a handy guide to the Modern Movement, which I remember enjoying. His comments are a reminder that many of the modernists used Latin and Greek literature as a way of gaining for themselves a wider perspective, and of distancing themselves from the essentially Christian narrow morality of the middlebrow.

This is Connolly’s only novel, and though he accepted and spent several advances from publishers demanding more, he rather famously spent the rest of his life not writing another. The Rock Pool is not a bad novel, but its story and its uninspiring anti-hero are less exciting than the quality of the writing. His descriptions of the South of France, are lush and spectacular, and even better are the book’s flashes of epigrammatic writing. These sometimes hint at the direction in which Connolly’s work would go. ‘[W]hom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.’ contains the idea that would blossom into his next book, Enemies of Promise, a brilliant dissection of the literary life and literary failure, published in 1938.

Many of the book’s aphorisms are pessimistic and melancholy, like those collected in what I think is Connolly’s best book: The Unquiet Grave (1944):

There are times when the fear of life is greater than the fear of death, when the remaining years, forty or fifty of them, stretch out ahead like the steps of an infinitely tiring staircase.

If you like this sort of thing (and I do, in smallish doses) then you’ll like Cyril Connolly, but The Rock Pool is maybe not the best place to start.

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