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

“We cannot think if we have no time to read, nor feel if we are emotionally exhausted, nor out of cheap material create what is permanent. We cannot co-ordinate what is not there.”

I picked up The Unquiet Grave thinking it would be a quick read, it is only 138 pages long after all and even at my slowest pace I can knock out a sub 150 page book in 3 days. How wrong I was! It has taken me a couple of weeks, slowest of the slow reading, but for reasons which are myriad and which I will get into in a little bit.

The Unquiet Grave is described as a ‘word cycle’ by Connolly, something he elaborates as “the doubts and reflections of a year, a word-cycle in three or four rhythms; art, love, nature and religion: an experiment in self-dismantling, a search for the obstruction which is blocking the flow from the well and whereby the name of Palinurus is becoming an architype of frustration.” It is split into three parts, each loosely representing a frame of mind and a season, followed by an epilogue explaining who Palinurus is. For the purposes of this book Palinurus is an alter-ego for Connolly, an avatar which represents his artistic self and in which he can explore his feelings in what is essentially a personal journal. In reality Palinurus was the pilot of Aeneas’s vessel, taken from the story of the Aeniad in which the Trojans flee the destruction of Troy and found the city of Rome (which nicely links to my earlier, and not particularly happy, reading of Doomed Love by Virgil). In Connolly’s mind, in his interpretation, Palinurus “…stands for a certain will-to-failure or repugnance-to-success, a desire to give up at the last moment, an urge towards loneliness, isolation and obscurity.” This, perhaps, best sums up the theme and feel of this book, which is shot-through with melancholy and misanthropy, disappointment and failure. Yet…it is quite beautiful and there is much more to this slender book than first meets the eye and it, perhaps, helps to understand that Connolly wrote this during WWII and perhaps his mindset was turned towards a grimmer view of human life.

Each section of The Unquiet Grave consists of short extracts – personal musings interspersed with quotations and reflections – each under a theme. So, for example, in the first part, titled Ecce Gubinator or “Enter the pilot” (a reference to Palinurus) Connolly reflects on love and marriage, on women, on the wisdom of Pascal, the wisdom of de Quincy, and what he terms ‘Masterplay’ or, in simpler terms, art. Within each section is a jumble of thoughts about art, religion, human nature, society, himself, human behaviour, the difficulties and disappointments of being. The tone tends towards the melancholy and misanthropic, one senses that Connolly does not have much faith in people or himself. Yet, still, it is thoughtful and wise, there is comfort to be found there, consolations, moments of clarity and hopefulness. There is an artfulness to it, each passage and each quotation is beautifully written and whilst there is no ‘story’ as such, there is continuity of theme. Each piece works in juxtaposition to its neighbour and like twigs and leaves carried on a stream, it creates a unity and flow.

What The Unquiet Grave certainly is, is infinitely quotable. Every section has something in it which is profound, which taken in isolation is thought-provoking or insightful. I am not sure if it has meaning to every life, but I think anyone who has ever felt lonely, who has ever been mystified by life, who has ever doubted themselves or felt out of place or lost or struggling in some way (and who in this world hasn’t felt those things) will find some wisdom and solace in this book. And though written 80 years ago it still has value, it felt, to me, that it still speaks to who we are and how we live today.

“When we reflect on life we perceive that only through solitary communion with nature can we gain an idea of its richness and meaning. We know that in such contemplation lies our true personality, and yet we live in an age when we are told exactly the opposite and asked to believe that the social and co-operative activity of humanity is the only way through which life can be developed. Am I an exception, a herd-outcast? There are also solitary bees, and it is not claimed they are biologically inferior. A planet of contemplators, each sunning himself before his doorstep like the mason wasp; no one would help one another, and no one would need help!”

So why did it take me so long to read this slight and yet so deep volume? Partly it was the desire to really do it justice. It is not a book to be skimmed through or dealt with lightly. I realised fairly quickly that it was a book which justified more than one reading. In my first reading I tried to absorb, I took time to try to appreciate each little part. I noted parts I specifically wanted to come back to, because they spoke to me in some way or felt important or meaningful or true.

“Cowardice in living; without health and courage we cannot face the present or the germ of the future in the present and take refuge in evasion. Evasion through comfort, society, through acquisitiveness, through the book-bed-bath defence system, above all through the flight to the romatic 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 religion or eighteenth century wonderlands. We fly to Mediterranean womb-pockets and dream-islands, into dead controversy 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.”

It is a book, also, which has a huge volume of untranslated French in it. This I found frustrating because the effort of translating, even though all I did was use Google Lens or, for smaller passages, type it into a translator tool and then copy it out into the book, really slowed me down. Yet in a way, slowing down was exactly what I needed, I appreciated it it. Then again, overriding this small gratitude was annoyance at a publisher, in the 1980s (this being a reprint), failing to acknowledge what poor command of other languages most English readers have. Even if I had a reasonable command of French (I somehow managed to get an A at GCSE, a long time ago. I can still order a sandwich and drink, but little else) I doubt this would have helped me because this was not basic French. This was French in the pen of Pascal, Saint-Beuve, Chamfort. Some pages were not too bad, but there were others like this:

I may never be able to read this

and like this:

Starts so neat, ends so messy

which took me the best part of an hour to get through. On some days I managed maybe 5 pages, on others 10 or more. But the reading was slow and on my first read through at times it felt a lot like work.

That being said, it was work that was worthwhile. The second reading was more pacey and it felt easier to really absorb the overarching theme, the tone and the intention. I was glad I made the effort to translate and glad I stuck to my plan to read it a second time. It felt like the effort paid off. It also confirmed in my mind that this is a book I will never donate. My writing, all cramped and barely legible, is the way I will be able to read it again. And I will read it again, of that I am sure.

Perhaps one day someone will republish this book with the French translated and then I would heartily recommend it to anyone and everyone. It is a special book. Even with the French untranslated I would recommend it, but I would also recommend the patience to translate and absorb it, and to never, ever think you can only read it the once.


About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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7 Responses to The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle by Palinurus (Cyril Connolly)

  1. Well, how fascinating! I have read and loved Connolly, and have wanted to read more, particularly this! But my French never got past O Level and is patently not going to be up to those quotes. Like you, I hope someone does a new version with the French bits translated…

  2. Pingback: My 20ish books of summer list #20booksofsummer23 | biisbooks

  3. lauratfrey says:

    I missed this so I’m glad you linked it from your 20 Books post! Sounds fascinating, and I agree, you can never get rid of this book, it’s too personal with all that translation in there 🙂 I did okay with the first French passage but not the second. I also just saw a Booktube channel I follow reviewed this a few years ago (Better than Food) if you want to check that out!

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