If his friends are to be believed, Cyril Conolly was a monster of sloth and self-regard. And yet, what an endearing figure he cuts – if that’s the verb, with Connolly – through their letters and memoirs: maundering over failed affairs of heart or wallet, brimming with excuses for his unwritten books, ever ready to start afresh with the bubbles when the night wore on. He was, according to V. S. Pritchett, ‘a phenomenal baby in a pram’: grasping at toys and prizes, mostly failing to connect. In his preface to The Missing Diplomats, Connolly’s short book about the Cambridge spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean (he had vaguely known both), Peter Quennell wrote, ‘With an agile and intensely active brain few writers have combined a greater disposition to extreme bodily indolence.’ Supine for weeks or months at a time, Connolly could spring up when needed and, provided there was secretarial help on hand, thrash out an overdue essay or review, or rush a magazine to print. Quennell again: ‘his armchair becomes miraculously jet-propelled.’

It is not a method guaranteed to secure a solid oeuvre that will live for the ages. Connolly’s narrow reputation now rests largely on the mixture of memoir and high literary journalism in Enemies of Promise (1938), and not on his single novel The Rock Pool (1936), or the several collections of reviews he later packaged in lieu of proper books. Fewer still today are references to The Unquiet Grave: the odd, fragmentary ‘word cycle’ he published under the pen name Palinurus in the autumn of 1944. But this is the book – an essay of sorts, an anthology, a complaint – in which the contradictions in Connolly’s talent and personality fail to resolve, with the strangest, most seductive results. Here he anatomizes his worst traits: laziness, nostalgia, gluttony, hypochondria, some essential frivolity of mind that means his writing will always be summed up as ‘“brilliant” – that is, not worth doing’. It’s a work of ruinous ambition, sometimes attaining real profundity of thought and (more important) perfection of style, but lapsing time and again into sentiment, bathos or outright silliness.

The Unquiet Grave begins with a sentence from which it cannot recover: ‘The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence.’ Connolly was addicted to inconsequence, and knew it. His failure as a writer was due not only to the temptations of journalism, which he had warned against in Enemies of Promise, nor the distractions of marriage: ‘a kind of exquisite dissipation’. The more fundamental problem – alongside food, drink and drugs (of which more below) – was a catastrophic attachment to ‘the bed-book-bath defence system’. Connolly could not write, he thought, without first calming the body and tuning the mind. As a result, he could hardly work at all, and was almost proud of the fact: ‘Others merely live, I vegetate.’

Protestations of debilitating sloth are common among writers, and more frequent among prolific ones; Boswell and Johnson, for example, had many sympathetic chats about their shared reluctance to get out of bed and down to work. Rarely, though, has a writer so cruelly studied his own sluggishness, nor cast it in such bleak existential terms, as in The Unquiet Grave. Connolly wrote the first of many drafts in three small notebooks between the autumns of 1942 and 1943; it was, he said, ‘inevitably a war book’. He was then a few years into his editorship of Horizon; the first edition of The Unquiet Grave appeared under the magazine’s imprint. Connolly borrowed the title from an old ballad, and his pseudonym from the Aeneid: Palinurus is Aeneas’ pilot, who falls overboard in his sleep and is murdered by inhabitants of the coast where he is washed ashore. In his book’s epilogue, Connolly labours to make links between himself and the Trojan tiller-man; in truth, the classical analogy does not matter much – the new Palinurus’ problems are modern ones, not mythic.

In her essay ‘Notes on Failure’, Joyce Carol Oates calls The Unquiet Grave ‘a journal in perpetual metamorphosis, a lyric assemblage’. In places, sometimes for several pages at a time, it’s no more than a high-toned commonplace book, corralling quotations from Connolly’s mid-war reading: Chamfort, Pascal, Sainte-Beuve, Nerval, Baudelaire. An atmosphere of disabused, ironic alienation pervades the passages he selects, and quotes for the most part in their original French. (Evelyn Waugh took this habit as evidence – further evidence – of Connolly’s pretension. He even quotes Heidegger in French, though in fairness the German philosopher has probably been filtered through Sartre.) When the author’s own voice is heard it is by turns languid, styptic, childish and self-lacerating. Melancholia wins the contest between moods, and The Unquiet Grave is notorious for certain passages of intense self-pity, which Connolly would like to elevate to essayistic grandeur.

Consider this sequence of nostalgic yearning and desire to disappear: ‘Streets of Paris, pray for me; beaches in the sun, pray for me; ghosts of the lemurs, intercede for me; plane-tree and laurel-rose, shade me; summer rain on quays of Toulon, wash me away.’ We’ll return to those lemurs shortly; but for the moment, observe the tone: genuinely dismal, aspirantly aesthetic, knowingly parodic. It’s one (mixed) style among several in Connolly’s efforts to ape his aphoristic precursors. Elsewhere, he tries for the cool, paradoxical self-sufficiency of the epigram or emblem, and sometimes he almost gets there. ‘Today an artist must expect to write on water and to cast in sand.’ ‘Is it possible to love any human being without being torn limb from limb?’ ‘The civilization of one epoch becomes the manure of the next.’ But you can hear that his pensées are already on the turn; his taste is for the overripe. Connolly’s perfectly wrought, disconsolate phrases revert to what one suspects they had been in life, before reaching the pages of his notebooks: jokes, that is, one-liners and gags.

The best known of those is also a clue to what keeps happening to Connolly’s philosophical aspirations: ‘Imprisoned in every fat man a thin one is wildly signalling to be let out.’ The Unquiet Grave casts its author’s misery, detachment and degradation in spiritual and sometimes political terms, when the trouble in fact is with the body. Approaching forty, heaving his well-lunched frame into a new decade, moving already with the anonymous waddle of midlife, Connolly is convinced that if he can just lose half a stone the rest – his masterpiece – will follow: ‘Obesity is a mental state, a disease brought on by boredom and disappointment.’ There must, he frets, be some physical and metaphysical mean, or state of equilibrium, that would allow him to write. Perhaps drugs are the answer: ‘a sleeping-pill to pass the night and a Benzedrine to get through the day’, champagne as always to ease the transitions.

You can read The Unquiet Grave as a sustained fantasy about the ideal physical state for literary production. It is a curiously inhuman condition. The book is full of envious passages regarding the animals Connolly has known: notably his beloved lemurs, which are said to have stunk out any house he lived in. He reflects morbidly, in a manner that recalls the surrealist writer Roger Caillois, on the mimetic urges of certain creatures: ‘Why do sole and turbot borrow the colours and even the contours of the sea-bottom? Out of self-protection? No, out of self-disgust.’ But his imagination is properly dominated by a weird affinity for the vegetable world that is well in excess of mere love of food or nature. There are precious encomia to the melon, quince and opium poppy, but the more lurid vision is of a humanity overcome by an almost sentient army of plants, ‘selected as the target of vegetable attack, marked down by the vine, hop, juniper, the tobacco plant, tea-leaf and coffee-berry for destruction’. The nightmare, or possibly the consoling daydream, is that all of this teeming life might go to work in and through the writer’s body – to write and to vegetate would amount to the same thing.

Connolly is trying to do what all stuck or stymied writers attempt in the final, decisive phase of their desperation: to turn distraction into the task itself, to write out of rather than against inertia. The effort (or lack of it) gives rise to some of his most affecting passages: Palinurus adrift among Parisian bookstalls, jolted awake mid-afternoon in his Left Bank hotel room, stranded in search of epiphanies above a succession of sunlit harbours. But even his flânerie is unreal and out of reach, the object only of pre-war nostalgia. Instead, he waddles along the Charing Cross Road, spots a brittle young woman in a green corduroy suit and linen coat outside Zwenner’s bookshop, follows her towards St Giles and loses her. According to Quennell, Connolly pined after this ‘aloof and primitive’ girl for days, traipsing around Chelsea on a hunch, nursing his boyish desire for ‘beauty and intelligence in distress’.

This kind of detail is easily mocked, and more so in a freeloading, unhappily married literary journalist in early middle age. But among his bouts of yearning, alcoholic indulgence and near-suicidal (so he claimed) insomnia, Connolly had discerned an existential unease that would define the decade following the war. As Kenneth Tynan noted in 1967, by which time Connolly’s promising phase was long gone and The Unquiet Grave routinely disparaged as a piece of mandarin preciousness, he had done more than anyone to popularize an idea of angst borrowed from Continental thinkers. That he had done it early and in such an English fashion – that is, with an inflated sense of what European thought and literature signified in the first place, and with such an incurable addiction to low comedy – meant Connolly’s existential plaint could never take its place alongside the chic talismans of outsider culture in the years to come, let alone among the works of the great aphorists he aspired to emulate.

Still, The Unquiet Grave had a brief celebrity before it began to look antique. Elizabeth Bowen, Philip Toynbee and Edmund Wilson all admired it; Hemingway even wrote to say that he was ‘almost sure it will be a classic (whatever that means)’. Connolly’s wife Jean, by then estranged, told him, ‘I think you are one of the few people whom self-pity or unhappiness develops, rather than shuts in.’ Hamish Hamilton had rejected the manuscript in 1944: ‘You write like an angel and think like a sage, but we are disturbed by the bitterness and despair which pervade the book.’ Following the success of the limited Horizon edition, however, the publisher changed his mind, and The Unquiet Grave appeared under his imprint in 1945, with a cover design by John Piper. Others remained unconvinced. An anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement spoke of the book’s ‘bleak silliness’; R. G. Lienhardt, in Scrutiny, regretted ‘his fondness for words like “exquisite” and “graceful”’. Waugh, who never missed a chance to pick on the sometime friend he called ‘Smartiboots’, complained that ‘Cyril has lived too long among Communist young ladies’.

Nobody at the time appears seriously to have asked what Connolly thought he was doing with the book’s form. It is surely what strikes us most forcefully now, this exotic and untimely attraction to fragments, and the loose essayistic agglomeration of same. It would be stretching things to say that Connolly’s art of quotation has much in common, say, with the collage of citations in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project or the patterned fragments in Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, the latter written in the same years. (Though anyone who has read Benjamin on hashish, or Adorno’s exiled reflections on American bathroom layout, will not think these references so absurd.) But there is a comparison to be made with a post-war European philosopher of similarly glum, aphoristic aspect. Connolly sounds at times remarkably like the displaced Romanian E. M. Cioran, whose A Short History of Decay was published in Paris five years after The Unquiet Grave. Both writers knew it was impossible to mimic fully, without falling into kitsch, the brisk authority of a Pascal, Lichtenberg or La Rochefoucauld. But they were both also in love with the moral and stylistic implications of the form. You only have to acquaint yourself with a sliver of Cioran’s sour laconism to start hearing Connolly differently. Here is Cioran: ‘I have known no “new” life which was not illusory and compromised at its roots.’ And Connolly: ‘What monster first slipped in the idea of progress? Who destroyed our conception of happiness with these growing-pains?’1

Connolly’s tone is unthinkable today, but not his form, nor commitment to a kind of essayism at once gluttonous in scope and exacting in its search for style. The Unquiet Grave, worked up from notes and diaries, larded with undigested reading, scarcely seemed a book at all to some of Connolly’s contemporaries. And Palinurus – the sulky, inflated, pleasure-loving version of himself that he placed at its centre – a simple embarrassment, with his ambitions, regrets and infatuations. But is it really so unlikely that the most experimental and self-revealing of mid-century English essays was written by a figure we’ve learned to think of as cosseted, pretentious, witty but middlebrow? A writer out of time, with a fetish for his own failure? An adept, and addict, of minor modes? I think not. The Unquiet Grave is a lesson, seventy years old this year, in the potential still of an elegant, unruly form. It is a masterpiece of sorts, despite all, and Palinurus our essayistic contemporary.

1.^ Who knows if he ever read Cioran, none of whose books is among the reviews, mostly for the Sunday Times, with which Connolly saw out the next three decades. But Cioran had certainly read Connolly: Drawn and Quartered, from 1971, begins with an epigraph from the most famous of Horizon’s wartime editorials, ‘It is closing-time in the gardens of the West.’