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Snow, C(harles) P(ercy) 1905–
Snow is a British novelist and physicist best known for his "Strangers and Brothers" series of eleven novels. In his novels, Snow deals with problems of power and morality in English society. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[Critical] consideration of Mr. Snow...
(The entire section contains 6464 words.)
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Snow, C(harles) P(ercy) 1905–
Snow is a British novelist and physicist best known for his "Strangers and Brothers" series of eleven novels. In his novels, Snow deals with problems of power and morality in English society. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[Critical] consideration of Mr. Snow comes back to his style, that style which in its alkaline flatness blandly ignores half a century of experimental writing. The style is not the man. Mr. Snow is not imperceptive of the revolution in the novel's technique connected with the names of James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Joyce Cary and many others: he ignores them deliberately in pursuit of an aesthetic which has never been openly formulated, but is perhaps his own version of realism—a realism that looks back to Trollope rather than to the symbolic naturalism of Zola or the photographic technique of such an American novelist as James T. Farrell. The style is that of a lucid and uncommonly honest recorder, rather than of an artist. When the whole ten or eleven volumes of Lewis Eliot's saga ["Strangers and Brothers"] are ranged on the shelf Mr. Snow may well be regarded as the most faithful recorder of the figure to whom his work is really devoted, the corporate individual, the harassed and virtuous administrator, the bureaucratic man.
Julian Symons, "Of Bureaucratic Man" (1954), in his Critical Occasions, Hamish Hamilton, 1966, pp. 68-73.
Snow … is quite satisfied to take over, entirely unaltered, the machinery devised by Trollope. Sir Charles's interests are those of a practical man; he is concerned primarily with how the world works and how things get done. Since this kind of preoccupation has not altered very much in the last century, there is no reason why Sir Charles should trouble himself to adapt the Trollopian form; it will do as it stands; Galsworthy in The Forsyte Saga found that form perfectly suited to the task of describing the Edwardian social scene and Sir Charles finds it equally suited, for his own special purposes, to the mid-twentieth century. And indeed it may be that this kind of copious realistic novel, generously inventive as to episode and detail but entirely uninventive in regard to everything that concerns the art of the novel, can usefully be written in each generation. But there seems to be no possibility of any give and take between Snow and any other contemporary English novelist….
John Wain, "The Conflict of Forms in Contemporary English Literature," in his Essays on Literature and Ideas (reprinted by permission of Macmillan, London and Basingstoke), St. Martin's, 1963, p. 40.
The remarkable thing about all of [Snow's] novels, written over a period of thirty years, is how little stylistic change or development there is from one novel to the next. By 1934, in The Search, Snow's style had become set to such an extent as to show almost no important change thirty years later in Corridors of Power.
Snow's prose style is level, unadorned, realistic in the manner of many Victorian novelists. Considering his use of chapter titles and his interest in politics, he is most like Trollope. He scrupulously avoids any sort of poetic effects in his prose, and he particularly excludes experimental effects from his novels; as he has often said in his literary criticism, he is totally opposed to the James Joyce-Virginia Woolf experimental techniques.
In effect this means that Snow has eschewed all devices such as allusion, symbolism, the stream of consciousness, complex uses of time (there are rarely even any flashbacks in his books); little attention is given to the sounds of words or the rhythms of sentences; rarely are there any vivid passages or striking metaphors; and there is no conscious use of allegory or myth. Instead the prose is straightforward and never difficult to understand—"readable," as Snow puts it. In this respect Snow's style is similar to that of many popular writers—H. G. Wells or J. G. Cozzens, for instance—who tried never to baffle their readers.
The prose in Snow's novels is often ponderous; when he wishes to emphasize a point he repeats it….
In opposing the experimental writers, Snow has frequently come out against "poetic" fiction and verbal innovation; his own fiction shows, perhaps, too little concern with individual words and concentrates more on the plot. Despite the fact that the use of a strong plot line had never fallen into disuse among popular writers of fiction, Snow was one of the first postexperimental writers to reassert the value of the plot, make his verbal texture subservient to the plot, and justify this shift of emphasis by actively opposing (rather than merely ignoring) those experimental writers who had deemphasized the value of the plot in their works….
His novels represent a new phenomenon in that they deal with modern technical innovations, such as the development of the atomic bomb; but the language and style he uses in describing these phenomena are derived from the Victorian and Edwardian novelists….
The greatest impact of modern science on the experimental novelists came in an area which Snow ignores entirely: psychology…. Modern psychology may still be in its infancy, but it is the best knowledge we have in this area. Snow, however, prefers to use a more intuitive, pre-Freudian psychological approach…. What Snow has done, actually, is to reject the idea of the psychological unconscious. His fictional use of psychological motivation is similar to the method of the Victorian novelists; that is, a particular character will pursue only goals which he consciously recognizes as goals….
In Snow's fiction, the men at the top are seldom evil; they may have odd prejudices, like Lord Boscastle, or curious habits, like Thomas Bevill; but in general they are decent men. No one who is really villainous, in Snow's novels, holds a place of power very long. In this way Snow subtly equates the idea of goodness with success. This type of evaluation is generally common today, as much in the capitalistic Horatio Alger view of man as in the socialist-realist view of the Marxist….
Snow's moral system is society-oriented in this way. He praises those values in men which are most useful socially, and even his social criticism is of the socially acceptable variety: he makes few suggestions for social change which would offend the people in power. Such a moral system must forgo abstract concepts of justice and appeal instead to ambiguous phrases like "fairness" and "decency"; these terms do not so much refer to any moral code as simply mean actions which society would approve of….
Snow's hero is the bureaucratic man, and by romanticizing the roles of people in essentially mundane occupations Snow has endeared himself to readers in the countries with the largest bureaucracies, regardless of their political point of view. His heroes engage in no heroic quests; they seek good incomes, but not fortunes; instead of fame they are happy with a bit of official recognition; if they have any really great ambition, it is to be able to control their fellow men. People like to read about themselves: the professional, middle-class people Snow writes about are also his greatest readers.
Rubin Rabinovitz, "C. P. Snow as Novelist," in his The Reaction Against Experiment in The English Novel, 1950–1960 (reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1967, pp. 128-65.
[Snow's] Strangers and Brothers has many admirers and it does investigate whole areas of contemporary experience that other novelists are either disinclined or unequipped to deal with. Snow is uniquely concerned with the public life, with power struggles and politics, whether in a small, enclosed society, or in the state itself, and part of the interest of his sequence is in watching his narrator, Lewis Eliot, move, with immense deftness, onwards and upwards through one area of society after another. We start with Eliot as a young man in a provincial town in the twenties, then follow him to the Inns of Court in London, to the senior common-room of a Cambridge college, and into an ever-widening circle of acquaintances, taking in aristocratic life in a country house, big business and the intimate friendship of a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family. During the Second World War Eliot joins the civil service, and we see through his eyes the inner workings of an atomic research establishment. In recent years Eliot has been awarded a knighthood and has become the friend and confidant of cabinet ministers; now he seems to have given up public life and is devoting his time to writing. Snow himself has been involved in more kinds of occupation than most writers; first as a scientist, then as an administrator in the civil service and in business; and briefly as a junior minister in the Wilson government. Nor has he denied his own identification with Lewis Eliot….
In practice, whatever his overt beliefs, Snow is the most deeply backward-looking and nostalgic of living English novelists, forcing his civil servants and businessmen and scientists into a Trollopian mode that is maintained without the faintest hint of conscious pastiche….
[Strangers and Brothers] proceeds by a method of simultaneous rather than successive progression. That is to say, two or three novels may cover the same period of time, and in each of them Eliot will be concerned with a different set of events. Thus, by cross-referring between The Light and the Dark, The New Men and Homecomings, one can work out that in the autumn of 1941 Eliot was falling in love with Margaret Davidson, involved in his official capacity with the atomic project at Barford, and deeply concerned about the marriage of his friend Roy Calvert. Were Eliot really presented to us as a whole man, then these separate strands of experience would be co-existing in his consciousness and sensibility, modifying each other and converging to form new patterns. Instead of which they are presented in separate watertight compartments. Although Snow may have been prompted in his fictional project by the laudable intention of showing the unreality of our customary rigid separation between the personal and the social, in practice he has only made the distinction seem more absolute….
In his stress on pragmatic worldly wisdom, and his fascination with a world of manipulation and operation, Snow has come close to providing a fictional embodiment of what Marcuse calls 'one-dimensional man', where the very terms of reference preclude the possibility of transcendence. These strictures apply with much less force to the most recent volume in the sequence, The Sleep of Reason, where some new elements seem, very late in the day, to have entered into Lewis Eliot's understanding. Much of the book is taken up, it is true, with familiar and mechanically efficient committee-room stuff; Eliot serves on the court of a new university, and mounting pressure is put on the vice-chancellor to resign. But, more interestingly, Eliot is made to encounter death in a fuller way than at any point previously in the sequence…. Here, for the first time in Snow's fiction, we find not tragedy, but some faint realisation of the meaning of tragedy. The insufficiencies of a world of sensible men and practical solutions are exposed…. What is good in The Sleep of Reason is not enough to redeem the whole novel, which is more than usually shapeless, and Snow's linguistic resources are still inadequate to meet his emotional demands. Yet the new sense of self-knowledge, and indeed, self-doubt, that Eliot acquires in this book represents a significant development in the sequence, and one which is likely to make us see the preceding volumes in a different, though scarcely more flattering, light.
Bernard Bergonzi, in his The Situation of the Novel (reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press; © 1970 by Bernard Bergonzi), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, pp. 134-48.
Snow has little sense of tonality in dialogue, because the central obsession with decision means that the dialogue should be in short, clipped sentences; at a moment of decision, and at the really hard moments (a mother dies, a wife leaves us, we are sacked from our job) we all talk in clichés. The apparent aridity of Snow's dialogue may be an aesthetic decision: He may have chosen to represent and record only the properly dramatic moments, the moments of choice.
But this concentration on moments of choice does mean that, compared to the two novelists who offer us a rather similar range of observation of social change in England over the last thirty or forty years, Angus Wilson and Anthony Powell, Snow lacks certain dimensions. There is a certain sick and angry feeling about contemporary England, a feeling of humbug, which Wilson conveys admirably by means of Dickensian exaggeration. Socially, Wilson is a radical, and the English class system, growingly nonfunctional, growingly taking refuge in fantasies, makes him sick. At moments, he seems to see the modern English as a nation of compulsive role-players, infantile and regressive. If Wilson is a little like Dickens, Powell is a little like William Thackeray: The sheer rumness and oddity of the English establishment, the loose London network in which everybody "knows" everybody else and in which bumbling and determined ineptitude like that of Widmerpool gets to the top, fascinates him, but a sense of comedy gets the better of any sense of furious indignation. He feels, and rightly feels, how full of irreducible individuality, how lacking in faceless men, the English scene still is. It is the fine failures, like Thackeray's Dobbin or Esmond or his own Stringham, the rogues and oddities who are not such bad rogues after all, the Rawdon Crawley or Captain Costigan types, the battered, worldly women with good hearts, like his Lady Molly, who interest him. Some of Powell's characters in The Music of Time could have met some of Snow's in Strangers and Brothers—the areas partly interact—but I do not know what they would have talked about.
I think Powell and Wilson together give a richer picture than Snow of what England has been like since 1935, say, but it is a picture of what England means to an intelligent man with a firm artist's bias, a wish to see life in a certain way, because that way suits his gifts. A much flatter writer than either of them, eschewing the delights of accumulation of resonance. Snow, like Stendhal (see Stendhal's letter to Honoré de Balzac about Balzac's flattering review of La Chartreuse de Parme), wishes to sacrifice "style," atmosphere, "fine writing," for the sake of "small facts."…
Snow has not the great gift, which very great novelists as different as Tolstoy, Dickens, Thackeray, and Proust and also some minor writers of talent like Arthur Conan Doyle or Edith Oenone Somerville and Ross Martin have, of creating a character whom we feel we would recognize—his appearance, costume, tone of voice, idiom, bearing—if he came into the room. Nor has he that related but different gift, the peculiarly individual tone of voice that makes us go on listening to Thackeray, Henry James, James Joyce, or Virginia Woolf when they are being self-indulgent; doodling, freewheeling, over-elaborating, filling up blanks with arabesques. More broadly than this, one could say that Snow (who seems to me, as a man, like Sydney Smith in Thomas Carlyle's description of him, to have a great and generous sense of fun but little sense of humor, little natural relish for the oddities and anfractuosities of human character as something intrinsically valuable, to be appreciated for their own sakes) avoids exaggerative humor, like Angus Wilson's, and even the slow-motion comedy of exaggerated precision, like Anthony Powell's, for the sake of the seriousness to him of his subject matter. His is a sort of puritan prose; he does not convey the oddly self-enjoying quality of human life half as much in his novels as he does in some of his prose memoirs. He writes. I think, good puritan, or perhaps good early Royal Society, prose: a naked, plain, and natural style. One wouldn't guess from reading him that, as a person, he is an exuberant, boisterous character, eager and clumsy: a touch of Falstaff, a touch of Dr. Johnson (he snorts and heaves himself about), a touch of Peter Bezhukhov….
In novels like The Masters, The New Men, The Affair, and Corridors of Power Snow is dealing with centrally important questions of "pure" politics, in the sense that I have defined that: the relationships between knowledge and power (or knowledge and charisma), between expedience and justice, between one's affection for a certain person, say, and one's perception that another person, for whom one has little affection, is the better man for a certain job. These interests may possibly be "impoverished" in Leavis's connotational sense; Leavis feels that Snow's university characters seem to be indifferent to their subjects, as far as their conversation shows, but terribly keen about who shall be master, president, or whatever it may be. Professor Helen Gardner, on the other hand, seems to find the picture accurate enough; and if Snow's characters tend often to seem predictable and dim, so, to be sure, in my own experience, do many of one's university colleagues….
I sometimes wish that Snow had been a historian. But his novels are at least unique in modern fiction in giving us a dry but accurate notion of how we are ruled and some quite deep insights into the consciences of our rulers. They are the novels, also, of a good man who sees how very easily the human race could, through its representative institutions, destroy itself and who is anxious to improve these institutions and prevent that from happening.
G.S. Fraser, "C. P. Snow (1905–)," in The Politics of Twentieth-Century Novelists, edited by George Panichas (reprinted by permission of Hawthorn Books, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by The University of Maryland; all rights reserved), Hawthorn, 1971, pp. 124-33.
What is familiar about "The Malcontents" is Snow's habitual tone, characterization and obsessions. The tone is flat and explicatory, laying down sentences like railroad ties, without graces but also without many foibles; the occasional rare word ("lanthanide," "aphesis," "nepenthe") flashes across the scene like an exotic bird. The characterization is matchingly stolid: people are seen initially through a ready-made set of physical descriptions, and later through conscientious but inert summings-up of their gestures and manners…. As for the obsessions, as usual they are power and the motives for power; classic stuff for the novelist, certainly. Snow seems to suppose that the urge for power is our basic human drive….
Snow is not a seductive or ingratiating writer. When his novels work, they do so through sudden old-fashioned turns of speed … and through an involvement of a detective-story kind ("who did it, and why?"—just as in "The Masters" the question is "who will get it, and through whom?").
Anthony Thwaite, "In the Comfortably Ruminative Snow Manner," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 7, 1972, p. 5.
The Malcontents explores radical political thought and action during a state of adversity, when the activist—often for the first time—is compelled agonizingly to scrutinize self and purpose….
The Malcontents—not a part of Snow's massive "Strangers and Brothers" series—provides fascinatingly successful evidence that contemporary science can be incorporated into literature with enriching results. The subtlety that predominates is remarkable. Snow has wisely abandoned the reflective, discursive first-person narrator of his earlier fiction and reduced exposition and summary to a minimum. The result is a tautly structured skein of conflict and anxiety so dramatically projected that stage adaptation seems destined….
The "Two Cultures" controversy in which Snow, F. R. Leavis, and others were embroiled more than a decade ago has passed into history; yet it should not be forgotten. Then, Snow—trained as a physicist, but a novelist and social critic by choice—insisted that the general culture must begin knowledgeably to absorb the arcane specifics of its scientific subculture. He placed extraordinary responsibility for the erasure of a dangerous, internal cultural lag upon the artistic subculture, of which he was a part. At the time Snow evoked incomprehension and negation when he insisted that up-to-date understanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics was as humanistically essential and vitalizing as a reading of Shakespeare. The Malcontents is an exciting novel, displaying not only the continued ripening of Snow's literary art but also a model for those still doubtful that science and art can be harmoniously combined.
Brom Weber, in Saturday Review of the Arts (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 17, 1972, pp. 76-7.
Since the middle 1930s, C. P. Snow has been known as a writer of somewhat plodding novels, curiously old fashioned and solid in an age in which we have come to expect important things to be said in experimental forms. His novels have typically been saved by his sympathetic understanding of his subject—the stresses of men whose decisions influence large masses of people. Nothing has changed. The Malcontents are too young to be so influential, but someday they probably will be. Each of the malcontents is dissatisfied with the status quo—some because they have never been deprived and have an abstract longing for justice, others because they have been deprived. Their plans for a demonstration involving the exposure of a slum landlord who is a powerful political figure are exposed at the start of the novel; the remainder deals with the effects of the exposure on the group. Although Snow never gets inside his characters, he has a remarkable ability to present them and their conflicting social attitudes with fairness, warmth, and, above all, understanding.
Lee T. Lemon, in Prairie Schooner (© 1972 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Fall, 1972, pp. 267-68.
The world of C. P. Snow is clearly circumscribed, it has evident limits. Inside, there is a large population of usually very busy people. They, too, are conscious of limits. Sometimes these are imposed on them by their families, their jobs, the society in which they live, even the country they serve. Sometimes they are self-created, barriers thrown up by the temperament and moral character of the individual who strives to overcome them. Also, in spite of the large public issues raised in it, the world of C. P. Snow has rigorous physical limits. For the most part it is contained in a triangle drawn between the three points of an anonymous midland town (Leicester), Cambridge and London. Excursions from any of these three points into unknown territory are rare. When they do occur, the place at which we arrive is never in any important respect different from the places we left behind. Its inhabitants are still scientists, academics, Civil servants and government officials, with one or two other professional people (especially lawyers) and their appendages (clerks, landladies, messengers, wives) thrown in for good measure. They live in large detached houses and professional flats (one of them prefers a modest four-roomed flat in a Victorian high rise, but he is being uncharacteristically eccentric); they work in government offices, colleges, laboratories and law courts; and they spend their leisure time going to parties and watching cricket….
[Snow] displays quite remarkable powers of narrative…. It is a conventional narrative skill—the ability to control the pace of events, the tact with which information is disclosed at the right time, the handling of suspense—indeed, all those attributes which … are mid-nineteenth century ones…. [His] narrative power [sometimes] falters, and usually it is not co-existent with the form of the novel to which it belongs. With the exception of The Masters, individual novels in the Strangers and Brothers sequence are loosely constructed—tautly organized episodes alternating haphazardly with perfunctory incidental matter. Nevertheless the dominant plot is usually strong, oddly so, since it exists independently of most other kinds of control….
Snow is at his best where the circumstances of the action he is describing almost automatically produce a plot … Snow excels at touching up plots which are almost 'given' to him by the procedures inherent in the situations he has chosen to describe. When there is no pre-existent plot, he usually fails. And this is pre-eminently the case where the lives of the individuals at the centre of his novels conspicuously lack plot…. A tragic action, as Aristotle spent most of the Poetics explaining, requires a plot. But the plots C. P. Snow is able to work with are just those plots, those 'given' plots, that tragedy must do without. Although Snow has a marked sense of symmetry … he has an equally marked inability to construct his own artificial plots; and this is precisely what is required to bring out the truth of suffering through the quite unrealistic patterns of action such plots produce. The plots of Oedipus Rex, or Hamlet, or Phèdre, or even The Wild Duck are not 'realistic'. A tragic action seems to require this evident and unrealistic patterning of events. But Snow's commitment to a realistic picture of people in society prevents him from exercizing the imagination that would free his tragic picture of personal life from the constraints of his, in the best sense, pedestrian respect for facts….
None of this would matter if Snow had stuck to the [social] representation of life that occupies most space in the novels he has written…. However, the fact is that Snow does evince particular interest in [the] unsocial self, this mysterious repository of energy and suffering, of creative power and tragic depression. But it refuses to disclose itself in the plots that suit the other, social self so well….
On the one hand his meliorist—not merely scientific, but also humane and humanist—attitude to life has encouraged him to write a long novel of almost epic proportions (if not epic events) which for much of the time functions satisfactorily as a critique of English society. He has tried to produce the effect of lifelikeness by incorporating devices that I should judge he discovered in the Russian and the Victorian/Edwardian novel. But his clumsiness in using these devices, combined with the resistance that is set up against them by the highly plotted texture of his fiction, has left him with a patchy success at best. On the other hand he has often felt constrained to do something quite different. A powerful apprehension of the essential loneliness of life, of its absurd precariousness and its inevitable end, has forced him to explore levels of personality which fail to connect continuously, in terms of cause and effect, or plot, with that 'epic' life of the surface…. He cannot avoid, therefore, being pulled in two directions….
The tragic vision remains muddled and blurred…. No wonder the novels seem, with all their intelligence and humanity, a little remote from the lives most of us know, and that most of us live.
Patrick Swinden, "The World of C. P. Snow," in Critical Quarterly, Winter, 1973, pp. 297-313.
Snow's refusal to analyze and experiment, representing faith in the validity of the experience we live by, "infuriates Snow's harriers." However, when Snow's critics deplore his realism as the manifestation of an invalid form, they misstate the terms of argument. Snow's realism is less a matter of faithfulness to life than one of adherence to the conventions of genre. Snow's critics are objecting to the storyteller's necessary honesty, and ironically this honesty is an innate feature of storytelling form. The realism of the "Strangers and Brothers" sequence possesses an inherently valid form, a form we may first seek in another surface medium—the film. The avant-garde film-making concept of cinéma vérité incorporates in its union of cinematic surface and documentary realism a useful analogy. Considering "Strangers and Brothers" as C. P. Snow's cinéma vérité summons parallels that are the necessary parameters of subsequent discussion.
Snow is a linear writer. Unlike dramatists who attempt to reveal what is customarily hidden inside characters, he lets the weakness and blindness that defeat his characters appear right on the surface. His Chekhovian surface is therefore one that a camera might easily record, and "Strangers and Brothers" is cinematic in this sense of the word, not in the popular connotation of lyrical. The two-dimensional universe of the film is equivalent to the two-dimensional reality of Snow's fiction. That fiction also shares a second linear aspect with film. Both the film and "Strangers and Brothers" are sequential in construction; time is their third dimension. As still photographs are animated to make a movie, so Snow animates tales to construct a sequential novel. Snow's sequential art of the surface is cinema; seeking the inherent relationship between realism and the form of Snow's fiction means discovering that his cinema is cinéma vérité….
C. P. Snow's cinéma vérité refers to a synthesis of surface and verity, giving rise to an important recovered modern form….
An examination of Snow's verity suggests that his realism is never more than what Lewis Eliot describes in The Light and the Dark as "a sort of libellous verisimilitude" (p. 163). His cinema is a sequential art of the surface, that resists analysis to participate in the storyteller's circle. Cinéma vérité is actually no more than what we refer to colloquially as "the movie of the book," only in Snow's case the book is a movie of a play—as real as a television commercial. Another way to conceive of this is to think of Snow composing an analytical novel, then enclosing it in a narrative, and finally repressing the inner work. We are left with the surface alone, and Snow becomes the storyteller free from the burden of explanation. If the details of the story are only exigencies of plot, we arrive at stereotype reality. If, however, three dimensions have been reduced to two in an art of the surface, the surface will be experientially valid. Finally by animating that surface in a temporal dimension, we create a record of event; not a history but a chronicle, a chronicle entitled "Strangers and Brothers."…
"Strangers and Brothers" is a chronicle of conscience…. [The] modern novelist turned to the chronicle, discovering a form that expresses the underlying morality of realism in art. The chronicle recovers the ethical basis of realism. In "Strangers and Brothers," Snow stands against apocalypse. He recognizes the solipsism underlying contemporary nihilism; modern literature is irresponsible when it willfully solicits chaos….
The eleven volumes of "Strangers and Brothers" do not tell the same story, but all are about fraud public and private. The interrelationship stretches Snow's surface. Omission and ironic detail frequently indict acquiescent pragmatism in the early novels; later, gaps are filled to measure progress. Lewis Eliot does not simply or immediately discover himself or recover a previously hidden reality. Conscience is instead counseled into consciousness of hospitality in its classical sense—a welcome to a community of being. The governance of this community is shared and is a function of individual governance in its archaic sense of self-control, manner of life, good conduct. We are welcomed by the brightly illuminated window in "Strangers and Brothers"; when it shines in the dark, man is at home in a structural and humanistic sense. The storyteller and his companions, arriving home, are greeted with revelation. There is no apocalypse; instead the oldest character in "Strangers and Brothers" the singularly positive M. H. L. Gay, falls asleep in his chair at home—and the entire sequence ends with the announcement of the birth of his great-grandson….
The storyteller is the artisan of literature, and the governance expressed in "Strangers and Brothers" is rooted in Snow's disciplined prose style, in prose subservient to use. There is little lyricism or ornament in Snow's straightforward exposition and dialogue of plain (but learned) speech. His sentences are built by handicraft and functional skill…. Forgetting the craftsmen and remembering dada, we often believe use and permanence antithetical to unique aesthetics. But the governed prose of "Strangers and Brothers" evolves symmetry from the craftsman's demands, achieving economical style, perhaps Shaker beauty…. The storyteller counsels us with community, and the unfolding of a sequential novel is a chronicle of conscience. When all is unfolded, consciousness comes into being, a moral consciousness—predicated on the ethics of realism. From governed form comes governed content. Returning to our earlier analogy with cinéma vérité, we may think of each frame of film as a disciplined unit, a moral emblem in a connected chronicle; when the film is animated and played to completion, the emblem becomes an identity whose consciousness we have created from validated experience.
Thomas L. Ashton, "Realism and the Chronicle: C. P. Snow's 'Cinéma Vérité'," in South Atlantic Quarterly (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1973 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Autumn, 1973, pp. 516-27.
Snow's open-ended world was a hopeful world, demanding from the man of hope and science in the early novels and the man of affairs in the later ones a ceaseless attention and moral energy. In the aesthetic rightness of all this we had acquiesced. In ending the sequence, that sense of rightness has to be rescinded, and one of the strange merits of Last Things is that it does achieve that striking change of direction, if by somewhat odd means. In the course of Last Things, Lewis Eliot makes a struggling renunciation of political office, of 'the world'; he has made them before in earlier books, and it has been part of a certain moral banality in him that he has never made them properly, as if we knew that the world's plot needs an Eliot to untie it with reconciling efficiency. But this time a sort of finality, an obituary sentiment, suffuses the entire novel. For here we have a world that does not seem to need an Eliot, a world in which a generation comes to an end and with it an entire set of possibilities and affections; the end of it all is, appropriately enough, a roll-call of the dead.
Finality, the closing of the open doors, in fact dominates Last Things, and it is in this larger mood rather than in local detail that one senses Snow's novelistic authority. The big world of the earlier novels is seen shrivelling. Whether we took it as the world or not, we had to recognize it; it contained a large movement tracked through twentieth-century history and society, the movement of a meritocratic class towards power and responsibility, the movement of a certain kind of decent, optimistic, rational, mediating mind towards pre-eminence in the affairs of men. The mediation had its authority and its proper compulsions, but it constituted an odd version of modern heroism when one measured it against the literary witness, though not the witness of one's own social and political world….
Like Fitzgerald, who took the world of the rich as the place where, for better or worse, men act on the front edge of history, Snow took the world of power and gave it meaning as a line of force and morals running through the society. In his novels, social mobility, the emergence of the bright young man, is a metaphor for the mobility of the human race; he is a fairly exact heir of Wells and the evolutionary writers of the turn of the century who could make plots out of the belief that the emergence of a new class was a manifestation both of the life-force and a redeeming kind of knowledge, the special knowledge in question being that socially emergent and hence radical doctrine, science, a doctrine of responsibility and problem-solving redemption. Lewis Eliot carries this temper, and it is because of this that his emergence from lower-class provincialism into the world of universities, law, and government could be taken, of itself, as a working of history, a generalized manifestation of man. But Snow's universe has always been one in which the general moral and biological movement which he catches, first in The Search and then in the eleven-volume sequence, has also been at odds with the position of the individual, for whatever his part in the general human affair he has always been left to seek his personal validity, his emotional poise, his human assuagement, in tragic isolation. And his arrogant, powerful women, his self-seeking men, his politicians and dons and scientists, his fervent radicals, are the embodiments of a life force often dangerously untempered by reason, the power to be fair, or compromise. They perform frenziedly and fall back into lonely angst. In the New Men there is always the Old Adam, and it is a world of strange hauntings and disorders lying outside the firelight rooms of reason where Lewis so often sits….
Snow's sense of family and place, of the momentousness of these things, and of their continuing energy even after one has left them behind, as Eliot was always about to do, is powerful and remarkable, a striking effort of literary colonization—which is one reason why he so interested a number of novelists in the 1950's. What in fact seems to lie behind Snow's fascination with these things is not simply the function of memory, nor only the desire for cultural distillation; he finds in this dense contingency forces of reason and growth at work, and in some of the later novels about the good family at the top he saw a rational social development, man using those decencies, those gifts of morally filling out his place, to make a reasonable society which was a fair embodiment of experience. History would move and times would change; generation would grow in new form out of generation; but this was the natural evolution of life, like sons leaving mothers and striking out into the feel of their own world. It was humane evolution, and it simply needed the right kind of administration. Snow's model for that becomes something like that of the good committee, where man adjusts to the new business thrown up by the evolutionary cycle, and above all the momentous changes of science itself. The college meeting or the parliamentary committee is a characteristic focus of his literary action, and whatever the separate passions at work in it, it is morally decisive. Of course between the thesis and the antithesis falls the Eliot, who comes out of the novels as an odd and morally disconcerting mixture of the good committee man and the struggling moral agent. There is the family of man moving densely through history, then; but there is another motion in the world, which belongs to the self. For, outside the meeting, man is left prey to Tolstoyan fears about his own place in that history.
Malcolm Bradbury, "C. P. Snow's Bleak Landscape," in his Possibilities: Essays on the State of the Novel (© 1973 by Malcolm Bradbury; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 201-10.