It’s odd how I seem to be spending a lot more time reading old Penguins at the moment, although this one I confess attracted me purely because of the cover – I just loved the image of the south of France! However, it’s a slim little volume so I decided I could get through it quite quickly.

Wikipedia says this about Connolly:

Cyril Vernon Connolly (10 September 1903 – 26 November 1974) was an English intellectual, literary critic and writer. His only novel, The Rock Pool (1936), is a satirical work describing a covey of dissolute drifters at an end of season French seaside resort, which was based on his experiences in the south of France. It was initially accepted by a London publishing house but they changed their minds. Faber and Faber was one of the publishers who rejected it, and so Connolly took it to Jack Kahane, who published it in Paris in 1936.Connolly followed this up with a book of non-fiction, Enemies of Promise (1938), the second half of which is autobiographical. In it he attempted to explain his failure to produce the literary masterpiece that he and others believed he should have been capable of writing

This intrigued me even more and I wondered why it was considered too obscene to publish!

The novel is narrated by Edgar Naylor, a wandering academic who is apparently writing a biography – although he seems to be just cobbling it together from other biographers’ work. Naylor arrives in the south of France at the end of summer, deciding he will observe the local characters in their environment, their ‘rock pool’, as this could be material for a book. One senses here that Connolly is actually parodying himself in writing this novel!

The locals are a mixed bunch – artists, bar owners, down-on-their-luck lords and ladies – plus a large smattering of lesbian couples. I assume it is this element, which is treated in a very matter-of-fact manner, which caused all the furore at the time, because the book is very mildly written. The various characters spend their time drinking, partying, sleeping with each other and fighting. There is much frantic rushing around on buses and in taxis, usually involving Naylor in pursuit of his grand passion, Toni – who will not really have anything to do with him as she is in love with a variety of females! Inevitably, Naylor is drawn into their world – he cannot maintain any detachment and ends up drinking and partying just as much as the natives.

The season draws to an end and many of the characters move on, leaving Naylor stranded with Ruby who he loves and fights on an equal basis. The weather changes, and the books ends with Naylor undertaking a prolonged meditation about the mediterranean way of life. Connolly becomes quite poetic here, ruminating on the freedom experienced away from the strictures of 1930s London. But the end is ambiguous and we are left unsure as to whether these are simply the meanderings of another coastal drunk or really profound insights.

I think this is a deceptive book – although superficially a comedy of errors descending into depravity, there are actually some interesting observations of the way of life in the 1930s. The characters have been witness to a world war, the change of attitudes of the 1920s, the financial crash and are in the midst of that strange uncertain decade when a second world war was building. Their behaviour is therefore understandable – many had the ‘live for today’ attitude as the world was in such a state of flux. Although I didn’t particularly identify with any of the characters, I enjoyed the book and found it gave me much to think about. There was also a very poignant foreword which noted that many of the originals of the people portrayed had perished during the war. An interesting and intriguing volume…