The term ‘masterpiece’ is often used lazily as a bit of instant praise, but the dictionary definition is actually ‘a production surpassing in excellence all others by the same hand’. So, strictly, you can only produce one masterpiece.
Cyril Connolly (1903-1974) may have had this on his mind when he began his book The Unquiet Grave: ‘The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence.’ He, alas, never produced a major work to earn the distinction himself, and he will mainly be remembered as the founder (with Stephen Spender) of the literary magazine Horizon and as the principal book reviewer of the Sunday Times in the period after the Second World War.
But he did write, in The Unquiet Grave, a book in which I have found real personal illumination and for which a few people still warmly remember him. I love it. For me it is a masterpiece, if an untidy one. It is packed with ideas and wisdom and aphorisms, many of which have passed into the language, their origins forgotten and uncredited.
‘Who the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.’ This was written as a wry personal observation (the autobiography he tried his hand at was called Enemies of Promise), but those of us who started out as cocky young lads will recognize its truth.
And I am certain he wasn’t cynical when he observed: ‘The dread of loneliness is greater than the fear of bondage, so we get married.’ I think it is true.
But most famously he wrote: ‘Inside every fat man there is a thin one wildly signalling to be let out’ – which has been said so many times it is almost a cliché. But who remembers who said it, and who said it of himself?
The Unquiet Grave – three notebooks of thoughts, classical allusions, reflections on religion, nature, love and art – was written during the war and was published un
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