C. P. Snow Snow, C(harles) P(ercy) (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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. 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: in Time 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...

(The entire section is 3001 words.)

Peter Fison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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,...

(The entire section is 1258 words.)

F. R. Leavis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 2764 words.)

A. S. Byatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

Harvey Curtis Webster

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.