C. P. Snow Snow, C(harles) P(ercy) (Vol. 9) - Essay

Snow, C(harles) P(ercy) (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Snow, C(harles) P(ercy) 1905–

A British novelist, statesman, physicist, and biographer, Snow is noted for his ability to realistically inculcate his fiction with aspects of science, education, business, and government. He is perhaps best known for his "Strangers and Brothers," a series of eleven novels that deals with questions of morality and power in contemporary England. Snow was knighted in 1957 and created Baron in 1964. (See also CLC, 1, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

It is hard to tell whether the creator of the 'Strangers and Brothers' sequence is a very modest man or a somewhat self-satisfied one. Self-satisfied, because of the pervasive smugness, the transparent if subfusc gratification which the author derives from his acquaintance with men who matter and his intimacy with the ins and outs of the corridors which they walk. 'A kind of pleasure, the pleasure, secretive but shining, that they got from being at the centre of things': but hardly secretive in this case. Modest, because of the emotional moderation, the spiritual abstemiousness, which the author enjoins upon his creations. Because it is not a lord he loves, but merely a Parliamentary or even a Permanent Secretary. And because usually his corridors of power lead, if not to the grave, then to nothing especially grand or shining. The stock explanation is that, neither modest nor self-satisfied, Sir Charles Snow is simply the detached historian of the British Establishment, detached and accurate. So. This Establishment had hitherto inspired me with considerably more respect, or more fear, or more something, than does Snow's epic portrayal of it. (p. 106)

[It] is not to ask that her personages should talk like Durrellian diplomats—he ought to try to fuss just a little. He employs clichés as such; not, for better or worse, wittily or questioningly; no, he has the courage of his clichés. His style has been praised on the grounds that it doesn't exist …, and his use of commonplaces has been defended as sound naturalistic practice. That is to say, people talk in clichés—politicians, Civil Servants, scientists especially?—and life consists largely of banal situations, and Snow's themes are of such public moment that the artist's fine Italian hand may not be allowed to distort the account. There is a decent scruple at work here, which novelists of a documentary sort can honestly feel; and it is best conciliated by the reminder that a novel is only a novel, after all; or, better, that a novel is a novel.

In one way and another I found Corridors of Power a lowering experience. The fearful rumpus in The Masters was less dispiriting, because we know that dons … tend to triviality the moment they cease to be profound…. [It] must be granted that a college was a suitable setting for the subfusc intriguing which so fascinates Sir Charles. The intrigues of this new novel concern a government and a reasonably important public issue, the attempt of a Conservative Minister to scrap Britain's independent Bomb. Yet the people involved are as long-winded as the dons and considerably less entertaining. Naturalism here reaches its climax, in what seems little more than a waxworks show. Hansard, presumably a naturalistic document, is distinctly more animated and (since no one is so simple, or so aesthetic, as to take people's words, spoken or written, as necessarily a true and complete representation of their thoughts and feelings) hardly more deceptive than Snow's stolid, cautious narrative. When there is so much craft in human nature, surely we might as well permit our art to indulge in a little art.

Naturalism, then, requires the chronicling of resounding commonplaces and even what might look like plain bad writing…. Snow's didactic urge is endearing, and would be more so if by implication it didn't represent our masters as (more or less) honest (more or less) simpletons. His prose sometimes reminds one of orthodox Soviet writing: solemn, shrewdly simple, bucolically genial, heavily tolerant of minor sins, so ponderous in its humour as to be humourless—and apt to excite acute suspicion and alarm in the not-utterly-credulous. (pp. 106-08)

With the worst will in the world I cannot believe that the rich and leisured are as consistently tedious and nerveless as most of Snow's guests and hosts show themselves. (pp. 108-09)

There is little to be seen [in Corridors of Power] of the inner life. Eliot is happy with Margaret, and vice versa: indeed the uxoriousness contributes generously to the suffocating smugness of the whole. Perhaps it is because Snow deems it advisable to inject a dash of mere humanity into all this high dignity that the Minister is given a mistress, otherwise supererogatory, since his sexual life features minimally if at all in his downfall. Hence, perhaps, such concomitant excitements as 'She was speaking without constraint, self-effacingness stripped off, codes of behaviour fallen away. Her face had gone naked and wild.' Or, 'He was speaking, as usual, the naked truth', when we didn't for a moment imagine the man was fibbing, and the truth in question (a Tory M.P. is indicating his reluctance to leave the Commons for the Lords) is hardly so momentous as to call for the epithet 'naked'…. [The men and women of Sir Charles's Establishment] aren't going to get excited about nothing. They're a canny lot. They don't believe in any heaven round any corner, they haven't sufficient imagination to conceive of pie in the sky…. (pp. 109-10)

To me Corridors of Power seems distinctly more wooden than the majority of its predecessors….

[A critic once said], 'Well, I suppose he's important because he writes about those things which really matter'. Taking the remark in perhaps not quite the same way, I would be inclined to agree with it. But is Corridors of Power the work of a sober patriot, soberly chronicling …? Is Britain run by zombies, with a choice of zombies Right or zombies Left? An admirer of Snow has spoken of his 'immense, almost Johnsonian, weight of experience of society and knowledge of men'. Certainly some sort of weight is there. So perhaps this book is the 'great political novel' that the blurb claims. It is frightening that Corridors of Power should almost succeed in arousing nostalgia—almost—for the sort of politics which is accompanied by arrests, disappearances, riots, torture. There, someone seems to care at least. (p. 110)

D. J. Enright, "Easy Lies the Head: C. P. Snow and the 'Corridors of Power'," in his Conspirators and Poets (© D. J. Enright 1966), Chatto & Windus Ltd., 1966, pp. 106-10.

In its careful psychology and closed politics, in the spaciousness so symbolized by the elaborate, dry chapter headings, and the way in which major characters in some novels move on the edges in others, the [Strangers and Brothers] series is reminiscent of Victorian and Edwardian forebears. But this does not belie the contemporaneity Snow has always blended with tradition. The first—and titular—novel, Strangers and Brothers (1940), as it focuses upon a precursor to the hippie cults and communes, here an isolated farm on the edge of the Midlands town in which Lewis Eliot grows to maturity, is as modern as tomorrow. Presided over by the pathetic George Passant, whose promise is foreshortened by a dedication to an intellectual and social freedom for which society is unready and which may be too morally obtuse for any time, the weekend utopia leads to predictable disaster. Here as in all the novels, Eliot tells the increasingly convoluted story of his family and friends as well as his own; and in Last Things it is fitting that some of them—like George Passant—have their obsequies tolled. (pp. 136-37)

"The sleep of reason," says Goya, "brings forth monsters." The sleep of reason, in our time and his, is what Lord Snow has been seeking in his cycle to understand, his psychological penetration often masked by the deceptively flat, disconcertingly solemn and understated style so appropriate for his stodgy and pragmatic narrator. The difficulty intensifies when other characters speak, and although the failure of differentiation of voices here and there may be ascribed to their being recorded for us and played back by Lewis Eliot, it is a problem nevertheless.

There is no denying the problem of style…. The administrative, often scientific, prose, precise, flat and unemotional, with its figures of speech more often from chemistry or anthropology or medicine than from aesthetics, seems Snow's personal bridging of the chasm of the "Two Cultures"—another term and concept he put into the language. Whether or not such prose is appropriate to someone else's fiction is irrelevant: it is consistent with what we know of Lewis Eliot.

It is unlikely that Lord Snow's ambitious roman fleuve will flounder on the shoals of style. He is too skillful a storyteller for that, although the satire, subtlety and symbolic luxuriance that make other novelists of his generation ripe for textual exegesis are lacking. He will have little appeal for footnote writers but a great deal for thoughtful readers of books. Contemporary novelists of greater stylistic flair have found their themes in the flux of society but none have dealt so successfully with not only the larger issues but with the mysterious and fascinating complexities of the new bureaucratic world. (p. 140)

[We must note] the balance and fairness of Snow's perspectives. He has always communicated the feel of his times; his characters do not merely play out their lives against a background of events—they make and shape and attempt to comprehend their era. "Why in hell," wonders Charles's uncle Martin [in Last Things], "does he want to set up as the conscience of the world?" But as Charles's father remembers, twenty years before (in The New Men) that very gesture restored to Martin his integrity at the cost of his future. The "inner design" of the cycle, Snow once wrote, "consists of a resonance between what Lewis Eliot sees and what he feels. Some of the more important emotional themes he observes through others' experience, and then finds them enter into his own."… Such resonances vibrate through Last Things, although for the initiated, the explanatory asides meant to mesh experience with earlier novels come as unsubtle intrusions.

It is the uninitiated who will be more puzzled when they discover following the final chapter a group of pages of "Announcements 1964–68," listing, godlike, marriages, births and deaths of characters many of whom either play no significant part in the action or who are recalled for the purpose from previous books. Some of them indicate how many additional plot lines Lord Snow has resolutely put aside in order to complete the sequence in the promised eleven books. Others fill in matter which the reader should have learned in the novel itself, one death, in fact, coming as a cruel and gratuitous shock. But in the device is the sense of finality. The long and memorable cycle has ended, and through it as in no other work in our time we have explored in depth the inner life of the new classless class that is the twentieth century Establishment. (pp. 140-41)

Stanley Weintraub, "Last Things: C. P. Snow Eleven Novels After," in MOSAIC IV/3 (copyright © 1971 by the University of Manitoba Press), Spring, 1971, pp. 135-41.

C. P. Snow is one of the best contemporary practitioners of Late Victorian Humdrum, that style in which an all-knowing but coy narrator (larding his omniscience with "perhaps" and "maybe") sluggishly unfolds a story patched together from conventional plot elements and occurring to conventional characters—a narrative repeatedly interrupted, as if by commercials, while the author informs us of facts he has not troubled to work into the action, meanings he does not trust us to perceive, details we could do without, and literature's equivalent of the Chinese water torture, a persistent drip of ponderous platitudes….

The insights [of "In Their Wisdom"] are … commonplace: we learn that similar events evoke similar responses; that politicians, lawyers and other professional men usually treat their work professionally; and that people take money seriously. Such bland and fuzzy meanings as these are drawn with agonizing slowness (a tooth extraction performed by an absent-minded dentist) from exhausted materials: who will win, who will marry whom, who will die first. The plot centers on a contested will. We are asked to be interested in the cardboard characters who contest it, though they have little identity and nothing to do but sit by and wait for the legal outcome, and though the narrator makes clear his dislike for people who take such mercenary concerns seriously….

Snow professes to give us insiders' views of the law, the House of Lords and political and economic concerns during the last five years, but he is specific only about place names, furniture and clothes….

The writing itself is distractingly bad … [and thus] fatigues the attention. Lord Snow has done yeoman service in reminding the sciences and the humanities of each other's existence, and he has borne the silly attacks of F. R. Leavis manfully. But however interesting the author, a novel must stand on its own feet …; and "In Their Wisdom," though pedestrian, is not ambulatory. (p. 7)

J. D. O'Hara, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 27, 1974.

In mid-Victorian England, Anthony Trollope practiced simultaneous careers as popular novelist and managerial-level civil servant. C. P. Snow has combined parallel careers a century later with even greater contemporary eminence, earning fame as a novelist while rising far higher in government than did Trollope. Now Lord Snow has written [Trollope: His Life and Art], a critical biography of the 19th-century English novelist whose fiction is often thought of as an earlier counterpart to his own. The result is striking. Wasting no words on embellishments, Snow furnishes the reader, in spare, matter-of-fact prose, the fabric of the milieu in which Trollope lived and worked, provides insights into Victorian bureaucracy, publishing and society, and offers lessons—from a professional—in the making of the psychologically realistic novel of moral choice. (p. 30)

One may quibble that there are more words about Trollope's life and art in other, earlier books of biography and criticism, but there can hardly be so many wise ones. The predictable bias—Snow's conservative view of the way the English novel has developed—is there, but Trollope's achievement represents one of the lasting triumphs of that tradition. (p. 31)

Stanley Weintraub, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic, 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 25, 1975.