Thursday, 14 April 2011

Penguin no. 1891: The Rock Pool
by Cyril Connolly

" He remembered a criticism of Ruby's: 'The trouble with you, Edgar, is that all you English boys are brought up on marks. You say you got marks for learning the collect, whatever that is, marks for taking out the best books from the library, marks for good conduct, for scholarships, and examinations. Marks for every time you opened your mouth till you left Oxford, and now that they've stopped giving them, you don't know what to do.' "

Edgar Naylor is holidaying alone in the south of France, and hops off the bus in the town of Trou-sur-Mer. It had been an artist's colony in the 1920s, a magnet for expatriate Americans, and Naylor conceives the idea of writing about it, thinking of it as an archeological excavation, Cnossus-sur-Mer. He has literary ambitions, but weak ones. He didn't finish his previous book; his current work, a biography of the banker-bard Samuel Rogers has been chosen for its ease:
"...unconsciously he had chosen a man who, besides being easy to fix, and rather coming into fashion, was also, through his snobbery, his great wealth, and a certain niggling smallness of soul, by no means unsympathetic."
and here he contemplates a new book. Cyril Connolly never tries to sell his hero to the reader; we know from the start that he is snobbish, slack, not particularly intelligent, not particularly likeable, and not very successful. But he has some money.

When Naylor realises that some artist-Americans remain at Trou-sur-Mer he changes his plan. He conceives the metaphor of the rock pool. The economic tide has receded and left a few of these expatriates stranded; he will remain apart and observe them, agitate the water a little and see how they respond. He goes to his task with a sense of his own superiority. But here the rock pool analogy works on two levels: it is the book Edgar Naylor contemplates and it is the book Cyril Connolly has written. This is the story of how Naylor is attracted by the micro-world of the rock pool, how he adopts a romantic view of the inhabitants, and how he is ultimately captured and submerged. This is the story of Naylor's descent; he becomes the last expatriate.

It is a frustrating book to read. Perhaps the portrayal of the artists is satiric, for they are living the bohemian lifestyle of the expatriate while very few are actually producing any art. And it is noted that anyone can consider themselves an artist, musician or writer indefinitely, provided they don't put it to the test.  But if it is a satire it lacks wit, and its effect is undone by the fact that we have access to Naylor's thoughts, and he believes it all: he falls for the idea that these are people with a vocation, and he admires them; he corrosively believes they are living a lifestyle superior to the one he knows in England.

But it is all a con; they are fleecing him; he is buying their friendship and they take advantage of him. No matter how unpleasantly they treat him, he comes back for more. And while it is difficult to comprehend his attitudes, his behaviour and his lack of spine, it is also difficult to feel much pity for him. He seems to think that his money should gain him access to the things he desires, principally friendship and sex. I looked in vain for anyone to like in this book.

This was Cyril Connolly's only novel, and it was a book he had difficulty publishing in England, perhaps because of the bohemian lifestyle it describes, and the preference that the women have for other women. It was written in 1935, published in Paris in 1936, and not published in England until after the war. And the war provided its own conclusion to the story. For in the postscript, which he wrote twelve years later, the author makes it clear that the characters were drawn from people he knew. The tidal wave of the war flooded the Rock Pool, and when it ebbed only one of the originals remained alive.


  1. I might give this book a try Karyn. You sound ambivalent about it, but I think it sounds like an interesting premise for a story.

  2. I think it was important to read, but perhaps not enjoyable to read. And I still think the premise is interesting, it is just difficult to feel particularly interested in the people being described.

  3. Gosh, as a MUCH older person than you, I find I remember quite a few of the titles featured on the first page of your blog. A brilliant idea - and what an interesting site

  4. Hi I just read this and had the same feelings as you. I found it interesting but a little odd and unlikeable. The tone was difficult to judge, ie and it was quite obvious we're not meant to like Edgar but Connolly seems to make us try at times. Liked some of the outline characters. Glad I read it. I'd love to know the real people he based the character on - any ideas?



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