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Snow, C(harles) P(ercy) 1905–

A British novelist, statesman, physicist, and biographer, Snow is noted for his ability to weave into his fiction realistic aspects of science, education, business, and government. He is best known for "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, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Bernard Bergonzi

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[Future] social historians may find a lot to interest them in Snow's novels. But no literary work can be justified by its subject matter alone, though Snow's admirers sometimes seem to imply that he is such a good novelist simply because he writes about so many different aspects of our society…. Inevitably an author must be judged not merely on the variety of his materials, but on what he makes of it. (p. 215)

One of my initial difficulties in reading Snow at all is in coming to terms with his prose, which is at worst so arid as to be almost unreadable—Strangers and Brothers is particularly bad in this respect—and at best efficacious but banal…. I must emphasize that my objection to Snow's style is not primarily aesthetic; it is, rather, that I find it functionally disabling. Eliot's account of significant events is frequently so inexpressive that the reader has difficulty in being convinced of the emotional reality of what is described.

Snow himself has made it clear that though 'Strangers and Brothers' is meant to provide a variety of insights into contemporary society, the central interest of the work lies in Eliot himself. In a note to The Conscience of the Rich he writes that the inner design of the sequence '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.' He instances the theme of possessive love, which appears in The Conscience of the Rich with Mr March's relation to his son, and which reappears in The New Men with Eliot's relation to his brother Martin, and again in Homecomings in his relations with Margaret. As a statement of intention this is of some interest, though it doesn't much modify my actual reading of 'Strangers and Brothers.' Yet it does indicate that Snow regards the sequence as a carefully planned whole. This being so, it is all the more surprising that he seems to have had no qualms about sticking throughout to the convention of the first-person narrator. There is no absolute reason why it shouldn't be used, provided the author understands its limitations. Snow, unfortunately, doesn't seem particularly aware of the inherent difficulties: here, in my opinion, lies the central flaw of 'Strangers and Brothers.'

In general, first-person narration falls into two kinds. In one the narrator is no more than a detached observer, a 'camera eye', who records the events taking place around him and keeps his own personality as unobtrusive as possible. The other is more avowedly autobiographic in form, where the narrator is actively involved in the tale, and may even be its central character…. Both these kinds have their characteristic dangers. With the 'camera eye' method the narrator has to see and record everything important that happens: if he is describing a small and enclosed world this need not present any difficulties, but the larger and more varied the society, the greater the danger of manifest contrivance on the author's part in order to have his narrator in the right place at the right time....

(This entire section contains 3001 words.)

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With the 'autobiographic' method, where the narrator is much more at one with what he writes about, this difficulty may not arise: but there is a corresponding one, which is that he will be unable to describe naturally and convincingly his own deepest emotional experiences: in such cases a note of embarrassment or strain nearly always obtrudes. In 'Strangers and Brothers' Snow uses both types of narration: inTime of Hope and Homecomings Lewis Eliot tells his personal history, and in the other novels he is an observer of the lives and actions of others.

In Time of Hope and The Masters, which I take to be his two most successful novels, Snow is largely able to avoid these inherent difficulties, though for very different reasons. Time of Hope was the third novel in the sequence to be published, but it takes first place chronologically, for it deals with Lewis Eliot's boyhood, youth and early manhood…. [The] first part of Time of Hope, which tells of Lewis Eliot's boyhood, and his ambiguous relations with his possessive and ambitious mother, seems to me to have an imaginative quality and emotional force that I don't find anywhere else in Snow's fiction. One is reminded, at times of the Lawrence of Sons and Lovers. The disabling quality of the style is less apparent here than in the other books, and the events of Eliot's boyhood are both intensely felt and given the kind of distancing that enables the author to describe them with imaginative freedom. There is an authenticity of feeling in the first part of Time of Hope which makes one aware, by contrast, of the thinness and shallowness of other parts of 'Strangers and Brothers.' In the later chapters we follow Eliot through his early struggles and successes, and his intense and hopeless passion for Sheila Knight. In his account of this relationship Snow's success is certainly less assured than in the boyhood chapters, but it must be recognized.

It is true that we don't really participate in Eliot's love for Sheila, and this is not surprising. For a first-person narrator to convey successfully and convincingly the quality of an over-mastering sexual love is so rare as to be almost unknown (the only work I can think of that comes anywhere near doing this is Hazlitt's Liber Amoris, though there may be others). Snow's attempts to do so result in vague emphatic gesturing, in a prose that is not just banal but positively and embarrassingly bad…. Yet despite this, we are made aware of the object of Eliot's love. The elusive personality of Sheila Knight, neurotic, destructive, pitiable, and yet oddly engaging, is caught and realized. She is almost the only one of Snow's female characters of whom this can be said. And though we can't share in Eliot's love for Sheila, we do sense the anguish that was an inescapable part of their relationship, both before and, still more, after their marriage.

In Homecomings, Snow's second sustained essay in the autobiographic mode, Eliot is further from his roots in early life and almost wholly absorbed in the world of affairs. In consequence the emotional texture of the novel seems very much thinner than that of Time of Hope…. Unlike Sheila, [Eliot's second wife] Margaret (for me, at least) doesn't begin to exist as a person: she is a mere cypher, adorned with various agreeable attributes…. [In] Homecomings [Snow] seems no longer interested in even attempting to present the quality of Eliot's love. (pp. 215-19)

In the other novels Eliot is not at the centre of affairs, but is, to a greater or lesser extent, an observer of other people. And here Snow falls foul of the danger that the 'camera eye' method of narration will make the story-teller seem overtly inquisitive, and even something of an eavesdropper and voyeur. Though Eliot's personality remains in many ways elusive, one does carry away the impression—which is probably irrelevant to Snow's intentions—that he is an indefatigable recipient of other people's confidences, and the kind of person who is much given to listening quietly and intently to private conversations…. [The] weakness is particularly apparent in The Conscience of the Rich, where we have to believe that Eliot, a Gentile and something of a social outsider, is so completely accepted by an aristocratic and clannish Jewish family that he is able to be present at their most intimate family discussions…. Few of us have the good fortune to be so invariably in the right place at the right time as Eliot does. Things might be more plausible if, just occasionally, Eliot missed some vital piece of information by not being on the spot when it was delivered. Again, in The New Men, one can believe that Eliot, as a wartime Civil Servant, is actively concerned with an atomic research project, but when we also have to accept that his brother is one of the scientists engaged on the project, so that Eliot has personal as well as official knowledge of the scheme one becomes a little incredulous. In the 'autobiographic' method the narrator is in some sense prior to the events he describes, they only happen at all because they happen to him; whereas with the 'camera eye' approach he is subservient to events, and is only there because they must be described. Snow has, I think, failed in the surely impossible task of effectively combining the two modes.

In some of the novels in 'Strangers and Brothers' Eliot is not so much concerned with a succession of events as with telling the story of some particular personality who is close to him. This, for instance, is the basis of The Light and the Dark, a work which I can only regard as a total failure. The central figure is Roy Calvert…. He is constantly before our eyes, and we are told a great deal about him. Nevertheless, he remains totally unrealized as a character: we simply don't feel that he was such a remarkable man as Snow tries to make us believe. In this failure of realization the limitations in Snow's narrative style become very apparent…. [His initial description] makes Calvert no more than a walking cliché from an old-fashioned novelette. (pp. 219-20)

Strangers and Brothers is another novel where the action is centred in a supposedly powerful and unusual personality. In fact, George Passant emerges much more fully as a character than Calvert, and within limits one can accept him for what he is: a solicitor's clerk in the provincial town where Eliot grew up, who is unusually able and intelligent, idealistic and at the same time somewhat boorish, with strong physical passions. Yet the whole intention of the novel is that we should see Passant as more than just this. We also have to believe that he was a man of such charm and personal magnetism that he could command the devotion and allegiance of a large circle of young people. And this is asking us to believe rather more than we are actually given: one isn't at all sure precisely what it was in George Passant's character that made him such a commanding person.

It is, then, to The Masters that we must turn if we wish to see Snow at his best in using Eliot as an observer. This story of Cambridge college politics has become deservedly popular, and has been aptly described by Lionel Trilling as 'a paradigm of the political life'. Though it lacks the imaginative depth of parts of Time of Hope it is certainly Snow's most successful piece of contrivance. Paradoxically, it suffers from a similar fault to The Light and the Dark in that though Jago, the favoured candidate for the Mastership of Eliot and his party, is frequently described as a man of admirable and unusual personal gifts, these are in no way made real to the reader. Yet in The Masters this is not a major fault, since the real interest is not centred in Jago but in the cross-currents of intrigue and bargaining that surround him in the small, jealous world of the senior common room. We are not concerned with exploring a single personality in depth, but in the interrelations between a group of characters, none of whom need be so fully realized. The peculiar structure of The Masters means that Snow's weaknesses are less apparent than usual, while at the same time his strength can be fully displayed. Thus, since Eliot is one of the dons most actively concerned in the election, he has an integral part in all the conversations that take place and which he reports: here he is in no sense an eavesdropper. Again, the subject of sexual love, which Snow usually has trouble with, is largely absent from the novel…. Most of the time we are in a wholly masculine society, given over to intrigue and a particular struggle for power. And it is in writing of intrigue and power-struggles that Snow excels. The other novels are most alive when dealing with similar subjects: as for instance in the trial of George Passant in Strangers and Brothers, the intrigues concerning the Communist news-letter in The Conscience of the Rich, and in the unmasking of the atomic spy Sawbridge in The New Men. Here, too, Snow has most scope for his special abilities in characterization. Usually unsuccessful in depicting attractive young men or women he can draw effective portraits of middle-aged or elderly men, especially those with eccentric tendencies. In The Masters there are the two elderly dons, Despard-Smith and Gay: elsewhere in the sequence one can think of Mr March, Martineau, Bevill, Austin Davidson, and above all, the shady but amiable barrister, Herbert Getliffe, perhaps Snow's most vividly realized single character.

Another element of interest in The Masters is Snow's constant use of certain motifs which occur elsewhere in the sequence and which are, on an imaginative level, the only genuine linking elements in it. These can be resolved to two basic images: the snug, enclosed room, usually with a bright fire burning in the grate and the curtains drawn; and the complementary image of lighted windows seen from outside…. It is significant that Snow should have associated Eliot with [the first of these images] when he first presented him to the reader, in the opening sentences of Strangers and Brothers: 'The fire in our habitual public-house spurted and fell. It was a comfortable fire of early autumn, and I basked beside it, not caring how long I waited.' This motif comes quite naturally in The Masters, since so many of the discussions inevitably take place in front of bright fires in curtained college rooms: at the same time, its recurrence gives an additional imaginative unity to the book.

The opposed image of the lighted window occurs more often in the other novels. It was first evident in Time of Hope, when the young Eliot spent long painful hours looking up at the lights of Sheila's house…. In fact, it is not difficult to associate these recurrent images with the personality of Eliot: the 'lighted windows' motif can be taken as standing for his sense of himself as an outsider, looking aspiringly at the symbols of power, riches, and sexual success. (pp. 221-23)

On the other hand the image of the snug, enclosed room can easily stand for Lewis's complementary sense of having 'arrived,' of now being a part of the world of high-powered discussions and well-conducted love-affairs. Yet there seems to be more to it than this: one does not have to be a very committed Freudian to catch the insistent suggestions of a womb-symbol in the recurring image of the warm, curtained room…. Not for nothing do we remember how Eliot's relationship with his mother had dominated the early chapters of Time of Hope. It is, I think, in these two motifs that we have the clue to the personality of Lewis Eliot, which is revealed as considerably more regressive than Snow would have us believe. Eliot, for all his ability and worldly success, has never really escaped from the obsessions of his early childhood and adolescence.

Beyond this, we really know very little about Eliot. 'You're not as nice as people think,' says Sheila to the young Lewis in Time of Hope. One is inclined to comment that one doesn't know how nice or how nasty Eliot in fact is. On the one hand he seems to have great charm, since so many people like him, and to be trustworthy, since so many of them confide in him. But on the other hand he is obsessed with power—'I had kept an interest in success and power which was, to many of my friends, forbiddingly intense' …—and he can act with extreme rughlessness…. All these characteristics could exist together in the same individual, admittedly, but he would be, to say the least of it, a morally complex personality who would need very careful realization to seem convincing. And this Snow is not capable of giving. Eliot remains a fragmentary collection of attributes.

There is an additional reason for this fragmentation, inherent in the form of the novel itself. 'Strangers and Brothers' proceeds by a method of simultaneous progression rather than a successive one. 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…. Were Eliot really plausible these separate strands of experience would be co-existing in his consciousness and sensibility, modifying each other, and together forming new patterns. Instead of which they are separated into water-tight compartments. In each case, Eliot is less than the events he is describing, and there is no unifying principle to be detected.

Although Snow has claimed that the central interest of 'Strangers and Brothers' lies in 'a resonance between what Lewis Eliot sees and what he feels', this is scarcely possible: there is such a radical lack of balance between the two that one cannot conceive of a genuine 'resonance'…. If I have dealt somewhat exhaustively with flaws in characterization, it is because in the Trollopian mode that Snow favours solidity of character-drawing is of greater importance than it would be in a more formalized approach to fiction. I have deliberately said nothing about the moral assumptions underlying 'Strangers and Brothers', since they would require extended treatment of another sort. But they seem to me distinctly shallow: the book's underlying morality doesn't transcend the code of the good-chap-cum-man-of-the-world. Eliot, in fact, is too close to his world: he can describe it in fascinated detail, but he is not able to interpret it meaningfully. (pp. 223-25)

Bernard Bergonzi, "The World of Lewis Eliot," in The Twentieth Century (© The Twentieth Century, 1960), March, 1960, pp. 214-25.

Peter Fison

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1258

[To] blame Snow's style for lacking virtues which are not only irrelevant but would be completely out of place in the character of his work is … inadequate. Lawrence Durrell can patch his pretentious productions with prose poetry to hide the joints, but for Snow the style is the work and his sparse prose has an organic function in the structure of the novels. He does not force his significances on us but lets them emerge naturally from the surrounding circumstances. The style is intentionally flat, recording every detail as the story proceeds through a level series of short chapters, each preoccupied with a single incident, some significant, others not. There is no emphasis on one more than another. As in real life, climaxes occur almost unrecognized in the steady procession of existence, and Snow never raises his voice. Each occasion is recorded in isolation so that casual relationship speaks for itself and emerges only when it is necessary for the story. (p. 568)

There is no reason to deny that certain books in the ['Strangers and Brothers' series] are weak. Homecomings for instance, is basically a brilliant novella, a study in inevitable schizophrenic despair; and the rest of the novel, tagged on after Sheila's suicide, is a let-down and acceptable only because of its structural importance in the progress of the series. None the less, one cannot help feeling it could have been done differently and much better. Strangers and Brothers too, is insufficiently taut: there is a tentativeness of approach about it, that its successors have overcome. But to ascribe this weakness to the characterization of George Passant seems perverse.

'One isn't at all sure,' Mr Bergonzi complains [see excerpt above], 'what it is in George Passant's character that made him such a commanding person', when the whole point of the book is spiritual poverty of the provinces in the 'twenties, where even a man like Passant, specious and full of the clichés of the metropolitan radical atmosphere, can because of his emotional warmth have a catalytic effect far beyond his spiritual calibre.

To find Snow's greatest success, as Mr Bergonzi does, in the earlier parts of A Time of Hope, is to impose the wrong criteria. Certainly Eliot's development among the lower middle classes of the Midland town, particularly his relationship with his mother, is well done; but this is all part of the Balzacian meticula that build the story, not the principal theme. To praise or condemn Snow's success in depicting such a relationship is equally incompetent. What contributes to Snow's purpose is not what he has in common with the inter-war novelists who recaptured their childhood for a reading public for whom this is exotic, nor even those (Lawrence springs to mind) who, much more profoundly than Snow, found their inspiration in these roots. This might lead to the sort of Bildungsroman more familiar to critics and therefore easier to judge, but it is irrelevant to Snow's intention, where the earlier development is a function of the society which, as a complex, is Snow's theme…. Mr Bergonzi himself has drawn attention to the persistence of certain images in Snow's work and their structural importance: it seems strange that he would ignore the symbolic value of the continually changing social setting. This is significant, not because of its variety but for the unity which can be found within this variety. For whatever world it reflects, the high politics of the Bevills, the professional world of the bar, the worlds of scholarship and research of literature or of human relationships, its preoccupation is the same: Power; and its manifestation in different circumstances is the theme of the whole series, a theme upon which unity is imposed by this variegated society itself, rather than by Lewis Eliot. (pp. 569-70)

Snow alone amongst post-war English novelists has come to terms with Hiroshima, has accepted that our whole civilization must bear its implications, as the whole German people must bear those of Auschwitz and Lidice. (p. 570)

The theme of The New Men is really a question. How is it, the scientists ask, that we have reached the abyss? Who is responsible? and this, by implication, is the subject of Snow's whole series. For 'Who is responsible' is merely another way of asking 'Where does power lie?'

It is a Stendhalian question, but the answer is very English: 'Usually it builds itself from a thousand small arrangements: ideas, compromises, bits of give and take'. The jockeying for position and prestige which takes up so much of official life is suddenly seen to be of vital importance: for only the right men in the right place could have stopped the unnecessary bomb, and this the scientists fail to achieve. It is committee politics, however petty, that determine momentous results and in face of them the individual is helpless. One committee is very much like another, whether the local committee that opens Strangers and Brothers (a much more pervasive image this than the snug room, almost indeed a key signature) or the deliberations of the cabinet. That intricate study of personal politics, The Masters, is the essential clue to the events of The New Men. Through Eliot, the temporary civil servant's eyes, we see the final powerlessness even of the minister, even of the permanent head of a department like Hector Rose. Beginning, it would seem, from almost the same premises as the existentialists, Snow differs completely in his conclusions. In the end it would seem that not the Napoleonic figures, nor the oligarchies can be accepted as the genuine wielders of power; its true symbol is rather Arthur Brown, the comfortable, tenacious, conservative intriguer with a knowledge both of the limits of the possible and those minor human quirks whose myriad interactions underlie great events.

Here, surely, lies the explanation of Snow's attitude to human relations. Jago, Mr Bergonzi explains, is never made sympathetic enough to justify Eliot's insistence on his likeability. But the book is not an introspective study of Jago's character, but rather a dissection of its effects. Eliot's dryness is deliberate, for even in their private lives,… Snow's characters seem perennially in committee; and life is made up of the apparently minute shifts of such relationships. Each novel is a study of some particular individual in what might be called his political capacity, his power-relationship to other people. For Snow all relationship is one of balance between individuals, of compromise and the maintenance of integrity. For Snow, but not necessarily for Eliot who is fallible and who, though frequently the witness and confidant in situations where he is not directly involved (a position incidentally that does not seem to me as contrived as it does to Mr. Bergonzi; one has after all known people who, not implicated themselves, seem always to be present in "inside" circumstances) is himself ineffective when his own life comes into play.

Public and private life interfuse, affecting each other only too sincerely; in Eliot's surroundings Snow finds a microcosm of the world. It is in the implications to Eliot of these surroundings, the resonance (if that unfortunate word must be used) between this and Eliot's own involvements, that is the purpose of Snow's series, and whether successful or not it is an attempt on a different scale from the cosy little introspective novel Mr Bergonzi seems to expect when he dismisses Eliot as 'a fragmentary collection of attributes'. (pp. 570-71)

Peter Fison, "A Reply to Bernard Bergonzi's 'World of Lewis Eliot'," in The Twentieth Century (© The Twentieth Century, 1960), June, 1960, pp. 568-71.

F. R. Leavis

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2764

[Not] only is [Sir Charles Snow] not a genius; he is intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be. If that were all, and Snow were merely negligible, there would be no need to say so in any insistent public way, and one wouldn't choose to do it…. Snow is a portent. He is a portent in that, being in himself negligible, he has become for a vast public on both sides of the Atlantic a master-mind and a sage. His significance is that he has been accepted—or perhaps the point is better made by saying 'created': he has been created an authoritative intellect by the cultural conditions manifested in his acceptance. Really distinguished minds, are themselves, of course, of their age; they are responsive at the deepest level to its peculiar strains and challenges: that is why they are able to be truly illuminating and prophetic and to influence the world positively and creatively. Snow's relation to the age is of a different kind; it is characterised not by insight and spiritual energy, but by blindness, unconsciousness and automatism. He doesn't know what he means, and doesn't know he doesn't know. That is what his intoxicating sense of a message and a public function, his inspiration, amounts to. It is not any challenge he thinks of himself as uttering, but the challenge he is, that demands our attention. (p. 297)

The Two Cultures exhibits an utter lack of intellectual distinction and an embarrassing vulgarity of style. The lecture, in fact, with its show of giving us the easily controlled spontaneity of the great man's talk, exemplifies kinds of bad writing in such richness and so significant a way that there would, I grant, be some point in the schoolmaster's using it as a text for elementary criticism: criticism of the style, here, becomes, as it follows down into analysis, criticism of the thought, the essence, the pretensions.

The intellectual nullity is what constitutes any difficulty there may be in dealing with Snow's panoptic pseudo-cogencies, his parade of a thesis: a mind to be argued with—that is not there; what we have is something other. Take that crucial term 'culture,' without which and the work he relies on it to do for him Snow would be deprived of his seer's profoundity and his show of a message. His use of it focuses for us (if I may be permitted what seems to me an apt paradox) the intellectual nullity; it confronts us unmistakably with the absence of the thought that is capable of posing problems (let alone answering them). The general nature of his position and his claim to authority are well known: there are the two uncommunicating and mutually indifferent cultures, there is the need to bring them together, and there is C. P. Snow, whose place in history is that he has them both, so that we have in him the paradigm of the desired and necessary union.

Snow is, of course, a—no, I can't say that; he isn't: Snow thinks of himself as a novelist. I don't want to discuss that aspect of him, but I can't avoid saying something. The widespread belief that he is a distinguished novelist (and that it should be widespread is significant of the conditions that produced him) has certainly its part in the success with which he has got himself accepted as a mind. The seriousness with which he takes himself as a novelist is complete—if seriousness can be so ineffably blank, so unaware…. [As] a novelist he doesn't exist; he doesn't begin to exist. He can't be said to know what a novel is. The nonentity is apparent on every page of his fictions—consistently manifested, whatever aspect of a novel one looks for. I am trying to remember where I heard (can I have dreamed it?) that they are composed for him by an electronic brain called Charlie, into which the instructions are fed in the form of the chapter-headings. However that may be, he—or the brain (if that's the explanation)—can't do any of the things the power to do which makes a novelist. He tells you what you are to take him as doing, but he can give you no more than the telling. When the characters are supposed to fall in love you are told they do, but he can't show it happening. Abundant dialogue assures you that this is the novelistic art, but never was dialogue more inept; to imagine it spoken is impossible. And Snow is helpless to suggest character in speech. He announces in his chapter-headings the themes and developments in which we are to see the significance of what follows, but what follows adds nothing to the effect of the announcement, and there is no more significance in the completed book than there is drama—or life. It is not merely that Snow can't make his characters live for us—that he lacks that creative power; the characters as he thinks of them are so impoverished in the interests they are supposed to have and to represent that even if they had been made to live, one would have asked of them, individually and in the lump: 'What of life is there here, and what significiance capable of engaging an educated mind could be conveyed through such representatives of humanity?' (pp. 297, 299)

Among the most current novels of Snow's are those which offer to depict from the inside the senior academic world of Cambridge, and they suggest as characteristic of that world lives and dominant interests of such unrelieved and culture-less banality that, if one could credit Snow's art with any power of imaginative impact, one would say that he had done his university much harm…. Even when he makes a suspect piece of research central to his plot, as in that feeble exercise, The Affair, he does no more than a very incompetent manufacturer of whodunnits could do: no corresponding intellectual interest comes into the novel; science is a mere word, the vocation merely postulated. It didn't take a brilliant research scientist to deal with the alleged piece of research as Snow deals with it—or a scientist of any kind….

What the novelist really believes in, the experience he identifies his profoundest ego with because it makes him feel himself a distinguished man and a lord of life, is given us in Lewis Eliot. Eliot has inhabited the Corridors of Power; that is what really matters; that is what qualifies him to look down upon these dons, the scientists as well as the literary intellectuals, with a genially 'placing' wisdom from above; there we have the actual Snow, who, I repeat, is a portent of our civilisation; there we have the explanation of his confident sense of importance, which, in an extraordinary way, becomes where his writing is concerned a conviction of genius; he has known from inside the Corridors of Power. That he has really been a scientist, that science as such has ever, in any important inward way, existed for him, there is no evidence in his fiction….

[In] The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution there is no evidence, either. The only presence science has is a matter of external reference, entailed in a show of knowledgeableness. Of qualities that one might set to the credit of a scientific training there are none. As far as the internal evidence goes, the lecture was conceived and written by someone who had not had the advantage of an intellectual discipline of any kind…. By way of enforcing his testimony that the scientists 'have their own culture,' he tells us: 'This culture contains a great deal of argument, usually much more rigorous, and almost always at a higher conceptual level, than literary persons' argument.' But the argument of Snow's Rede Lecture is at an immensely lower conceptual level, and incomparably more loose and inconsequent, than any I myself, a literary person, should permit in a group discussion I was conducting, let alone a pupil's essay….

Snow's argument proceeds with so extreme a naïveté of unconsciousness and irresponsibility that to call it a movement of thought is to flatter it….

He identifies 'the Literary Culture' with, to use his own phrase, the 'literary intellectual'—by which he means the modish literary world; his 'intellectual' is the intellectual of the New Statesman circle and the reviewing in the Sunday papers. Snow accepts this 'culture' implicitly as the haute culture of our time; he takes it as representing the age's finer consciousness so far as a culture ignorant of science can. He, we are to understand, has it, and at the same time the scientific culture; he unites the two. I can't help remarking that this suggested equivalence (equivalence at any rate in reality) must constitute for me, a literary person, the gravest suspicion regarding the scientific one of Snow's two cultures. For his 'literary culture' is something that those genuinely interested in literature can only regard with contempt and resolute hostility. Snow's 'literary intellectual' is the enemy of art and life.

Note with what sublime, comic and frightening ease (for this sage is after all a Cambridge man) Snow, without any sense of there having been a shift, slips from his 'literary culture' into 'the traditional culture.' The feat of innocent unawareness is striking and significant enough when he is talking of the contemporary scene. But when, with the same ease, he carries the matter-of-fact identification into the past—'the traditional culture,' he tells us, with reference to the Industrial Revolution, 'didn't notice: or when it did notice, didn't like what it saw'—the significance becomes so portentous as to be hardly credible. But Snow, we must remind ourselves, is frightening in his capacity of representative phenomenon. He knows nothing of history. He pronounces about it with as complete confidence as he pronounces about literature (French, Russian and American as well as English), but he is equally ignorant of both. He has no notion of the changes in civilisation that have produced his 'literary culture' and made it possible for C. P. Snow to enjoy a status of distinguished intellectual…. (p. 299)

Thinking is a difficult art and requires training and practice in any given field. It is a pathetic and comic—and menacing—illusion on Snow's part that he is capable of thoughts on the problems he offers to advise us on. If his lecture has any value for use in schools—or universities—it is as a document for the study of cliché….

Snow not only hasn't in him the beginnings of a novelist; he is utterly without a glimmer of what creative literature is, or why it matters. That significant truth comes home to us, amusingly but finally, when, near his opening, he makes a point of impressing on us that, as himself a creative writer, he is humanly (shall I say?) supremely well qualified—that he emphatically has a soul. 'The individual condition of each of us,' he tells us, 'is tragic,' and, by way of explaining that statement, he adds, 'we die alone.' Once he says 'we live alone,' but in general—for he makes his point redundantly—he prefers to stress dying; it's more solemn. He is enforcing a superiority to be recognised in the scientists: they, he says, 'see no reason why, just because the individual condition is tragic, so must the social condition be.' For himself, with tragic stoicism, he says, 'we die alone: all right,' but—which is his message, the sum of his wisdom—'there is social hope.'

He is repetitious, but he develops no explanation further than this. It doesn't occur to him that there is any need…. What is the 'social condition' that has nothing to do with the 'individual condition'? What is the 'social hope' that transcends, cancels or makes indifferent the inescapable tragic condition of each individual? Where, if not in individuals, is what is hoped for—a non-tragic condition, one supposes—to be located? Or are we to find the reality of life in hoping for other people a kind of felicity about which as proposed for ourselves ('jam,' Snow calls it later—we die alone, but there's jam to be had first) we have no illusions. Snow's pompous phrases give us the central and supreme instance of what I have called 'basic cliché.' He takes over inertly—takes over as a self-evident simple clarity—the characteristic and disastrous confusion of the civilisation he is offering to instruct. (p. 300)

[What] primarily calls for emphasis is the poverty of Snow's own ostensible range of satisfactions—which is a poverty of his own canons, and of his sense of significance; a poverty in considering which one finds oneself considering the inadequacy of his sense of human nature and human need.

The significance of his blankness in the face of literature is immense. It is a significance the more damning (in relation to his pretensions) because of the conviction with which he offers himself as an authority on the literature of the present and the past. I didn't exaggerate when I said that he doesn't know what literature is. Every pronouncement he makes about it—and he makes a great many—enforces that truth….

It is characteristic of Snow that 'believe' for him should be a very simple word. 'Statistically,' he says, 'I suppose slightly more scientists are in religious terms unbelievers, compared with the rest of the intellectual world…. Snow goes on at once: 'Statistically, I suppose slightly more scientists are on the Left in open politics.' The naïveté is complete; it is a naïveté indistinguishable from portentous ignorance. The ignorance is that which appears as historical ignorance in his account of the Industrial Revolution, and its consequences, in the nineteenth century. It manifests itself as a terrifying confidence of simplification—terrifying because of the distortions and falsifications it entails, and the part it plays in that spirit of practical wisdom about the human future of which Snow's Rede Lecture might be called a classic…. If one points out that the actual history has been, with significance for one's apprehension of the full human problem, incomparably and poignantly more complex than that, Snow dismisses one as a 'natural Luddite.'…

[Here] we have the gap—the gap that is the emptiness beneath Snow's ignorance—between Snow and not only Ruskin, but the great creative writers of the century before Snow; they don't exist for him; nor does civilisation….

[His] is the world in which the vital inspiration, the creative drive, is 'Jam tomorrow' (if you haven't any today) or (if you have it today) 'More jam tomorrow.' It is the world in which, even at the level of the intellectual weeklies, 'standard of living' is an ultimate criterion, its raising an ultimate aim, a matter of wages and salaries and what you can buy with them, reduced hours of work, and the technological resources that make your increasing leisure worth having; so that productivity—the supremely important thing—must be kept on the rise, at whatever cost to protecting conservative habit….

I am not preaching that we should defy, or try to reverse, the accelerating movement of external civilisation (the phrase sufficiently explains itself, I hope) that is determined by advancing technology). Nor am I suggesting that Snow, in so far as he is advocating improvements in scientific education, is wrong (I suspect he isn't very original). What I am saying is that such a concern is not enough—disastrously not enough. Snow himself is proof of that, product as he is of the initial cultural consequences of the kind of rapid change he wants to see accelerated to the utmost and assimilating all the world, bringing (he is convinced), provided we are foresighted enough to perceive that no one now will long consent to be without abundant jam, salvation and lasting felicity to all mankind. (p. 302)

F. R. Leavis, "The Significance of C. P. Snow," in The Spectator (© 1962 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), March 9, 1962, pp. 297-303.

["The Realists" is] wholly engaging: Lord Snow is a shrewd critic, alive to the imperfections of the masterpieces he discusses, as well as to the infirmities of character of their creators, and he never lets us forget that he is dealing with extraordinary human beings, all of whom, in one way or another, prevailed over circumstantial adversities. (p. 234)

The New Yorker (© 1978 by the New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 20, 1978.

A. S. Byatt

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

[The Realists] is not a book about the nature, workings, values or preoccupations of realistic fiction. This is a pity, since, as critics like Rubin Rubinowitz have shown, C. P. Snow, as a reviewer in the early Fifties, wrote a series of attacks on 'experimental' writing and praise of socially responsible, 'neo-realist' novels which helped to influence both the writing and reading of fiction at that time. If his novels were then over-valued, I believe they are underrated now, because the realistic virtues they display have again become unfashionable. The careful analysis of public behaviour, domestic affections and affiliations, ambition, movements of money, and organisations like the Law or the scientific hierarchy, are not what we are thought to want to read about, unless we are offered them with a touch of irreal nightmare mockery. Snow may, we suspect, not tell us exactly what we want to know about these things, and he may often be wrong, but very few novelists are telling us anything at all. There is room for a study of bureaucracy, or jobs, or heritage that is not presented only as a grotesque phantasmagoria.

So it would have been very interesting if Lord Snow, in treating of his eight chosen realists, had offered us an analysis of how they chose their subject-matter, how they found or created people, places, institutions, and where their techniques are better described by other critical words besides 'realist'. He does not really attempt any of this: his chapters are mannerly little biographical essays, containing judicial summings-up of plots and values of certain great works…. I found the essays interesting in proportion as I knew less about the writer concerned—which is to say that I only really enjoyed the chapter on Galdos, of whose work I was ignorant, and whom I now want to read. (p. 586)

His final conclusion is that his eight novelists have little in common except being nearly all short and fat and uncommonly bad at mathematics. Having studied their sexual force or timidity he does not … go on to wonder about Wordworth's definition of the Poet as a man 'possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, who has also thought long and deeply'. He concludes that realism flourishes in untidy, energetic, societies with small, appreciative reading publics and 'hope'—'both social and individual'. He feels that we possess the first two, but not the last—and indeed, absence of 'hope' is one possible explanation of nightmare mockery and wild humour as prevalent forms. At the end of his book I did feel some envy of his eight for their sense of hope, energy and possibility—but whether that was theirs, or that of their time and place, it is hard to tell. (p. 587)

A. S. Byatt, "Worldly Wise," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 30, 1978, pp. 586-87.

Harvey Curtis Webster

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 44

Snow's great merit as a critic is to make us think and feel and not compliment ourselves on how clever and complicated we are…. (p. 30)

Harvey Curtis Webster, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), December 16, 1978.


Snow, C(harles) P(ercy) (Vol. 1)


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