C. P. Snow Snow, C(harles) P(ercy) (Vol. 6) - Essay

Snow, C(harles) P(ercy) (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Snow, C(harles) P(ercy) 1905–

Snow, a distinguished British novelist and physicist, has held numerous government positions unconnected with literature and received his knighthood for that public service. Often noted is the interrelationship of his various careers, particularly evident in the eleven volumes of his "Strangers and Brothers" series. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

C. P. Snow, the dynamic, prolific apostle to the two cultures, scientific and humanistic, has made some stunning contributions to the thought of the postwar years. By immersing himself in virtually every eventful intellectual flood of the past decade—science, literature, business, education, government—and by having swum to the top, Snow, through a high-caliber dilettantism that can only be envied, has proved himself a distinctive, if not wholly influential voice, and of enormous, if not original, resources. Snow's legacy, and his most sustained attempt at codifying fictionally the dilemmas and directions of our age, is the long novel sequence, Strangers and Brothers…. The eleven volumes are the works of a clear, intelligent, logical, and synthesizing mind, one rigorously devoted to the human condition, one that grasps the realpolitik of society's functioning (or, in many cases, malfunctioning) on every conceivable level.

Qualities like these should foster compelling and exciting fiction, but such, alas, is not the case. For all their concern with man's fate and with society's burning issues, Snow's themes seem in too many ways procrustean beds for his ill-fitting characters; and his settings, for all their societal crosscutting, are in the end battlegrounds on which armies of logic (with Snow as field-marshal) do battle over personal morality and public expedience. It is too easy to conclude (as F. R. Leavis and Malcolm Muggeridge each has in his notorious way) that Snow is arrogant and inflated, an unquestionably articulate but sorrowfully incomplete talent, swelling with apologies for the Establishment, bolstering mediocrity, and foisting his fiats on the world at large. For conversely, Snow is equally one of the sole remaining advocates of reason and compromise in an hysterically intractable world growing progressively more insane. Yet in all truth this ameliorating myopia of Snow's cannot be divorced from the aesthetic deficiencies of his fiction. In the last and crucial analysis he lacks the all-around poetic vision that enables him to see man as other than a social being, that admits man's physical and metaphysical needs, and, most regretfully, lacks a novelistic intuition that allows man to grow out of a communal history and into a life of his own.

All this reduces to the one thing that may be the alpha and omega of Snow's work in the novel: each character is seen as an exponent of a rational, efficient, and often higher morality but rarely, as our lifetime and philosophies have repeatedly confirmed, a comic or tragic thing in himself. In his mission as regulator of the two cultures, Snow has gone so far as to tell us that science (which he takes as a robust handmaiden to civilization) is gradually enriching our lives by expanding the potentialities of our will and, consequently, by limiting the areas of tragedy. Science can inoculate us against the temptation to poke about in our souls, can make us immune to "defeat, self-indulgence, and moral vanity." Snow realizes that art has seldom been born of healthy parents, that sickness has in fact generated it; but in his utilitarianism he chooses the road to health over the road to art—at the expense of his writing. His fiction of morality—impeded more than aided by the naturalistic technique and unframed by either comedy or tragedy (which may coalesce as they do in Powell or Durrell)—becomes too often pallid, boring, and lifeless. (pp. 93-5)

Unlike Zola's naturalism, which overlays science on artistic realism or impressionism, Snow's emerges from scientific precepts that are only then decked out with trappings of plot, character, and theme. A Snow novel becomes in every sense a problem and a syllogism. Thematically any one of them could be entitled "the affair"; technically each is an experiment. Logical men posit logical theories about logical happenings, and, given free play, free will, and the proper laboratory conditions, posit logical conclusions dictated by logical proofs. (p. 95)

Snow's impartial partiality for the scientific method has proved unfortunate for his fiction, but not disastrous. His direct, if limited procedure is actually the groundwork for one of the more self-contained approaches to the novel sequence, an extension in "width and depth" of certain central themes. When it comes to organizing and solidifying these themes qua themes, Snow is master. Work of this sort, however, is but one-half a novelist's job; and Snow is hard pressed to make the required division between the aesthetics and technics of his novels. Compared with Powell, say, who is also concerned with extension in width and depth, but who manages it through the shifting interplay of people as they move through time, Snow counterpoints the lives of his characters against a droning ground bass of history, finding that situations do not so much change as recur, and that there is a continuity, not disparity, between past and present events. Strangers and Brothers ultimately concerns the viability, justness, and equitableness of time, as it applies to the individual, as it applies to society. Time is the great arbitrator and ameliorator that works things out. Snow's is the morality of history.

The surrogate intelligence that records the historic continuity of events in the series is Lewis Eliot. Seemingly motivated by a thousand passions and conflicts, Eliot moves from obscurity to success; he is cool, flexible, enterprising, yet lacking any real personality. His greatest change has been from an easygoing bore into a crashing one; yet Snow has defined the "inner design" of the sequence as the "resonance between what Eliot sees and what he feels." In theory "resonance" would seem the proper word for a physicist-novelist and for the sequence as a whole. The response between a vibratory system (Eliot) and applied forces (society and its various themes) suggests a vital and continuous exchange of amplification, but it is often difficult to tune in on Eliot's vibrations, detect his impulses, or gauge his soundings. (pp. 95-6)

Snow, while he has almost no trouble in manufacturing scenes pregnant with latent meaning, has great difficulty in delivering such meaning at the crucial time. (p. 97)

Potentially deep, clear resonances between things seen and felt more often than not die in a muted twang. (p. 98)

Powell creates character through accretion, Durrell by shifting and dimensionalizing, Mrs. Lessing by internalization. Snow, however, works with bits and snippets, cutting here, pasting there, until he has not composites so much as collages—patchwork characters set against a moral backdrop.

Fortunately he does at times fight free of theory to score considerable success with character. Roy Calvert, a figure incidental to several of the novels, and the protagonist of The Light and the Dark … is, by any standard, inspirationally conceived, being at once logical, vital, confessional, melancholic, anguished, what, in fact, Ivan Karamazov might have been had he grown up in the Midlands and read philosophy at Cambridge. (pp. 98-9)

In the Snovian universe of essences, Calvert emerges an existentialist whose contradictory nature, fears, and hangups are at variance with action. Curiously the novel may almost be construed as a morality play on failed success and the evils of genius—a contemporary De Cassibus, removed from theology but given a like moral twist. (p. 101)

Doubt is never discounted in Snow's scheme, but it cannot remain forever fixed; it should lead to compromise and resolution, not more doubt. Whether one does the right thing for the wrong reason or vice versa is superfluous, since the belief that choice, once made, must mean something is perhaps more important than the actual choice itself. Martineau's decision in Strangers and Brothers to become an itinerant mystic; Passant's commitment in the same novel to stick by the worthless Cotery; Charles March's in The Conscience of the Rich to balk his father and the Jewish "crowd"; Luke's in The New Men to work on the bomb; and, finally, Eliot's in The Affair to take on Howard's case all equally imply Snow's positive (if limited) belief in the necessity for action, and in rational human beings ultimately acting and choosing effectively, though not necessarily wisely.

Entrenchment in the moral certitude of events is the premise of the entire sequence. It is also stuff for a working dialectic. Riddled though Strangers and Brothers is with negativisms, it continually moves toward affirmation of political, social, and intellectual control in a world where, according to Snow, problems do not increase so much in scope as magnitude, and where the future, with retrospective benevolence and sagacity, can generally understand and encompass the past. Perhaps no one has been so publicly optimistic since Tennyson, who could also subsume personal doubts and bêtes noirs of existence in hope. (p. 102)

One does not simply draw truth from the past but one imposes truth upon it…. Today's agonies and crises of truth become tomorrow's platitudes. Truth, then, for Snow, is never absolute, hardly even relative, only historic.

Here is a reducible logic that may explain why most of the novels in the sequence, though ending either in defeat, frustration, or tragedy—rarely, that is, in anything "hopeful" or "positive"—are, nevertheless, hopeful and positive; and why Eliot's professional stoicism borders dangerously on Panglossianism. Strangers and Brothers does not profess that "all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds." But if the "new men"—those who have conscientiously arrived at truth by manipulating, at the same time heeding, history—do not represent the best world, at present, Snow cannot imagine a better one.

Snow's "new men" (Martin and Lewis Eliot, Walter Luke, Charles March), despite their integrity, morality, and conscience, despite their intellectual and/or social rebellion against the arch-reactionaries (Leonard March, the elder Calvert, Hector Rose), are at bottom conservative revisionists. Their rebellion for the most part proceeds cautiously, even (perhaps owing to Snow's bias) scientifically: alternatives weighed and balanced; movements calibrated; choices equated; decisions modified; results measured. In the last analysis, everything of permanence becomes an exponent of logic, place, degree. No character, for example, is really an eccentric, just as none is an "original"; and the "mad" (Sheila Eliot, Roy Calvert) either die or commit suicide.

Other moralists, like Melville, Lawrence, Camus, Faulkner, or Golding, in the fullness of their art and the inhospitality of their vision, have taught us to view the world otherwise. Order proceeds eventually from chaos, ripeness from sterility, good (or potential good) from injustice. They have shown us how man, beginning in wonder, may move on to joy through blackness, or to blackness through joy; that life, in order to be intense, must proceed irrationally, no matter what the end. This is modern man's vitality, what Snow's "new men" vitiate through an insistence that life, because it is governed by rational processes, must always unfold rationally by design. (pp. 104-06)

Snow's overall technical fallacy arises from forcing time and man to move together concomitantly and contingently, from patterning, in other words, the temporal advance upon the psychological one. Time, which is fluid—as opposed to man's progress through it which, whether rational or irrational, is anything but—cannot work this way. A temporal line may steadily rise (Mrs. Lessing), or fall (Burgess), run forward or backward singly (Powell), or as one of a number of parallel lines (Durrell), but that it can be made to zig-zag with any artistic effectiveness is unlikely. The picture of Snow, however, armed with a stopwatch, clocking the movements of his characters is, on any count, unique. He lets the second hand run around to a point; stops it; clicks it back to zero; and then lets it run around again. His use of overlapping scenes—scenes from one novel duplicated with slight variation in another—partly justifies the analogy, as does the order of the sequence. Taking the novels chronologically by publication date and correspondingly plotting on a graph the years they cover will produce the anticipated zig-zag peaks and valleys.

This erratic charting of time poses a double jeopardy: the writer fails to develop character, and subsumes it within a shaky superstructure. Snow's characters have justifiably, if somewhat harshly, been labeled flat, dull, lifeless, two-dimensional, and so forth. With the few important exceptions of Charles March, George Passant, Sheila Knight, and Eliot himself, and at least the one notable exception of Roy Calvert, this is quite true; they are jerked through the sequence like so many puppets to fulfill narratorial obligations. Casual in the mechanics of mise en scène, Snow becomes distressingly callous immediately his personae shuffle or collapse into the wings. When they appear again they are revived and full-blown; but what has happened in the interim in their movements from peak to valley is never clarified, nor does it even seem relevant. Faces presented upon initial entrances are identical to those prepared for exeunts, unaffected by change or time.

What can be said of the narrator in Strangers and Brothers is true of everyone else. Like Eliot, they all feel the lapse of time, without possessing additionally the heightened awareness that time has touched anything in passing…. While Snow rightly shies from such set pieces on ubi sunt and mutability that mar Durrell's Quartet, he settles instead for the banalities of intetg the lapse of time. One must, especially in a sequence that leaps radically from interval to interval, at some point along the way intercept time in the lists at full tilt….

Half-truths and epigrams that stitch together the moral fabric of real life are not successful, per se, in binding the seams of fiction, since one generally reads novels not to see why things remain the same, but why they do not. It is novelistic prerogative, perhaps a feat, to render continuance without the counterpoise of change. But Snow, or any novelist interested in reduplicating dimensions rather than merely shifting perspective, is obliged to bring the techniques of variation to bear upon the idea of change: as an actor, say, portraying a bored character on stage must be continually bored with energy.

In Strangers and Brothers we too often feel the boredom without the energy…. [The later books are] tautologous to the earlier work and to each other. While an essential naturalism and a fine historic sense possessed by Snow would seem to compel an ethos of change, his characters do little more than leisurely relive and reiterate the events of the past. (pp. 106-08)

Snow attempts continuity for the series by modulating the nature of the issues his characters confront rather than showing change within the characters themselves. And since any abstraction like truth, justice, freedom, happiness, and so forth, must, within a civilized, conventional framework, alter quantitatively or directionally—not qualitatively on any count—Snow gives us a candid, if limited picture of how change works in individual volumes, never throughout the series as a whole. Though altering characters, setting, time, method, and the crucial "affair," Snow has written not a novel sequence so much as a sequence comprised of the same novel. (p. 109)

The lesson of The Masters is central both to Strangers and Brothers and to Snow's theories of change. It teaches us that the new men of sound mind and controlled affections, guided by codes of "honour and behaviour," a stern morality, and a near-devout belief in the validity of their position relative to others, can effectively force an internal reconciliation with the externals of change. What bolsters these men from within is their ability to understand, categorize, and formulate what is happening without. "Facts" or "things" are of paramount importance in a Snow novel because on these hang the visible signs of change. (p. 116)

Conservatism and stodge are the lot of those who roll with change, rather than buck it. But even Snow's rebels, through ego or passion, out of idealism, stupidity, madness, must eventually bend to the inexorable forces that round off their lives in the series, in this fictional world which, because of its overall validity, is more uncomfortably real than we would like to think. (p. 121)

Snow's solutions are not entirely unattractive. Through identical beliefs in the sense of order and the respect for reason, strangers may become brothers. But if Snow looks toward time, change, and history to supply the enlightened commentary and patterns for our codes of behavior, he also implies that the free-wheeling zig-zag may decline into narrowing, concentric circles; which is only to conclude that Snow, for all his deficiencies as an artist, is, as thinker, wrestling with the central paradox of our age. Living within a controlled society may provide the sole key to historic order, may buffet the chaotic forces of time or change. Yet is this not a terrible price to pay if individuality, freedom, and the demonic, creative, even self-destructive urge is totally absorbed into a strong, saving, uniform, but equally horrifying morality? (pp. 121-22)

Robert K. Morris, "C. P. Snow: 'Strangers and Brothers,' The Morality of History," in his Continuance and Change: The Contemporary British Novel Sequence (copyright © 1972, Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1972, pp. 93-122.

Last Things is the eleventh and last novel in C. P. Snow's series, Strangers and Brothers; it is also the best. The mind and imagination here demonstrate a depth, a range of vision only partly suggested by the earlier novels, certain mannerisms and quirks of expression notwithstanding. There is a firm grasp of the subject—a direct, lived experience of the soul confronting the death of one's friends, relatives, even oneself (Lewis Eliot, Snow's narrator, learns that his heart stopped for several minutes during an eye operation). The book's title thus has a theological reference to the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Lewis Eliot's frankly secular outlook, however, renders the last three terms figurative—the heaven and hell one makes in his own life, the judgments delivered upon others or oneself. The novel is full of this sort of thing. But they are all brought into sharper focus by the fact of death, especially in the chapter called "Nothing," where Eliot contemplates his own annihilation in simple terror and dread, not of hell-fire or punishment but of nothingness. To be dead is easy; to die—to apprehend this absolute nullity—is something else. The perspective is exactly the opposite of Kostoglotov's [in Cancer Ward] for Lewis Eliot has lived a very full life, experiencing vastly more than Oleg can even dream of. But for all that, the sheer existential terror is not diminished; if anything, it is accentuated, as everything else becomes concentrated in a single, ultimate, total loss of self. (p. 461)

Jay L. Halio, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1973, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. IX, No. 2, Spring, 1973.

[Snow's lords] keep strolling from the Lords round to Brooks's Club (leaves falling or budding, just to remind you they are now out of doors), like Greyfriars cronies hurrying to the tuck shop. In fact, in a way—and I don't mean this unkindly, because I believe the Billy Bunter creator to have made an important contribution, particularly, like Wodehouse, in pointing the comedy of pedantry, wouldn't you think? (one borrows Snow's dialogue tricks for several days after finishing one of his books); in a way then, as I say, C. P. Snow is to the ignorant, shut-out working-class reader, who is dependent upon the experts at Westminster, what Frank Richards was to us elementary schoolboys every Saturday in the Thirties. Richards took us to public school, Snow takes us into the Upper Chamber….

Harold Wilson is simplifying it a bit when he calls a defecting lord a Bertie Wooster, but there is this feeling about the aristocracy, and In Their Wisdom is an excellent book to read if you want the realities, if you want to cry. All the conniving, and the conspiracies, all the ambition and force you found in the Lewis Eliot books have come down to the depressions and confusions you get at the end of an epoch—this is Snow's message. The errand boys have moved into Greyfriars….

In this sad, lid-off-the-lords book, there are enough characters to cast a Hollywood musical, enough geriatric diseases to support several episodes of TV hospital drama and about enough plot (never important in a Snow) to fill [a] nutshell….

[His] books sound heavy and momentous and formidable, but he is not like that at all…. You'll like this book for its soft-as-snow style—if someone says 'damn' you fall off your chair—for its quaint correct idioms and for its humour. Humour? But, of course. C. P. Snow is recording his—our—times with extreme accuracy; and his humour—essential to anything so abysmally bleak—is built into his writing like central heating. Hope now rests with the errand boys.

Jack Trevor Story, "Lid off the Lords," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of Jack Trevor Story), October 10, 1974, p. 482.

Set against the background of troubled, contemporary England, C. P. Snow's latest novel [In Their Wisdom] is an elegantly crafted tale about a contested will. The novel develops around a number of fully drawn characters who become to varying degrees involved in the legal struggle, both in and out of court. Among the book's most notable successes is the gracefulness with which its author controls and weaves together its several story lines.

As it emerges during the course of the novel, the portrait of modern times is a dismal one, and the reader is subtly but consistently prompted by the narrative to remember that England's gradual deterioration is the reduction of one of the world's most splendid civilizations. Ours might seem to future historians, as the narrator remarks at the novel's close, "a period of confusion between great epochs, and those didn't shine very bright in history." Snow's ruminations in this vein, however, are not the sort of doomsday pronouncements that have become run-of-the-mill in much of contemporary fiction; an essential intelligence and lucidity saves In Their Wisdom from banality and ordinariness. Too, there is a strain of affirmation here that even total immersion in the shabby century does not begin to quell. If, for one thing, the narrative's concern with the law serves primarily to demonstrate the fallibility of human reason, its thematic treatment of modern science is little short of celebratory in its acknowledgment of the potential efficacy of that same faculty. Despite a certain lack of resonance, some occasional tendency in the narrative tone to participate in rather than articulate the kind of depletion it investigates, In Their Wisdom is on the whole a satisfying novel that seeks to illuminate, not merely to disparage, the era with which it is preoccupied. (p. 26)

Jane Larkin Crain, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), January 11, 1975.

Early in this padded-out seminar-talk of a novel ["In Their Wisdom"] the author describes his countrymen as "almost totally unprudish about sex: more prudish about death than their predecessors: and, as they didn't like to recognise, far more prudish about money." Lord Snow's intention, then, is to examine matters that he thinks other Englishmen prefer not to discuss. He scrutinizes the contesting of a rich man's will, and relates the lives of three peers—a politician, a scientist, and a historian—as they variously approach their own deaths. His characters are entangled in a web of financial maneuvers and lethal medical facts. Dignity, manners, intelligence, accomplishment, and honor are the main distinctions in this cold world. Love and happiness exist, but almost in the form of clinical specimens. Lord Snow's style, which is marked by a very personal mixture of offhandedness and solemnity, seems appropriate for expressing his bleak views. (p. 90)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 13, 1975.

It is inevitable that Snow's latest book, In Their Wisdom, which has scenes in the High Court, in the homes of the well-to-do and of the genteel-yet-impoverished, should affect us according to whether or not we see the life with which it deals from within or from without. Snow's characters seem to me to travel inside an invisible bubble of the kind of well-being that comes from their having had a confident and well cared-for time when they were young. It is for this reason that when they are in trouble there is additional difficulty in reaching them because of the defensive clouding opacity and impenetrability of what surrounds their personalities. What has immunised these people against attack also prevents aid from reaching them. (p. 55)

Snow has the gift of finding the exactly right phrase or sentence in describing his characters or a situation. In this connection one looks back over the years when there was to be expected a new arrival in the Strangers and Brothers series. There is a satisfactory feeling of time passing accompanied with maturing development. He is a better writer now than he was.

Here is an author with the odd and poignant ability to describe rich and powerful people. We have all read novels about the poor and under-privileged with whom it is easier for us to identify. But those most in need of an excuse for their lives have thought themselves too useful ever to be questioned. They have lived in the limelight; they have been there in times of crisis or notoriety and have said things in public that, in other men, we would have thought simplistic and foolish. Often arrogant, certainly over-confident in spheres where one can be certain they know very little, the 'men of power' have needed the kind of novelist they have in Snow. Our symbols for formal occasions, we have now and then questioned their real humanity. We have seen them facing television cameras or heard them over the radio talking smoothly and at length about 'feelings' and 'indignations'. There is nevertheless something in the stare of the electronic eye, a betrayal in the voice, that serves to uncover, sometimes, more contradictory emotions. In face of this even when they mean us well one wonders why they trouble overmuch to say anything at all to explain their reactions: after all, the national Press will put the wished-for interpretation upon what they have said or done.

Snow offers no facile explanations for these ambiguities and does in fact describe an older type of man of power than those to which we are becoming accustomed: he describes him in the round so that we understand him in the same way we understand stodgy suet pudding. Their plots, their private schemings when they are that kind of person, seem too simple ever to take us in.

A new book by Snow is always welcome, and when the time comes later for a proper assessment of the value of his work there will be a need for literary judges who, having more than merely sensibility, are equipped too to care for human beings outside of books. And, too, with a rare ability to detect the poetry behind this kind of prose. The caring and the poetry are surely there. (p. 56)

James Parkhill-Rathbone, "The Public and Private Faces of C. P. Snow," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Hansom Books 1975), March, 1975, pp. 55-6.