C. P. Snow Snow, C(harles) P(ercy) (Vol. 19) - Essay

Jerome Thale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Snow's very success in dealing with the moral and political experience of our time has diverted attention from his artistic achievement. Even his admirers have helped to crystallize the view of Snow as an intelligent and thoughtful commentator, and examinations of his fiction have tended to dwell upon his large attitudes and his sense of character. The recurring comparisons to Trollope reinforce the image of a plain novelist with unusual gifts of psychological penetration, discrimination, and tolerance, but with only mediocre gifts as an artist.

Except in the most general terms, not much has been said, for example, about the remarkable formal economy of Homecoming, or about the Proustian devices of repetition of place and of involuntary memory, or about the complex structure of the "Strangers and Brothers" sequence as a whole. A good deal has been said about Snow's bridging the gap between public and private, but not much about how he does so.

Snow's own view of his art is a useful starting place. It is, like the view of any writer who feels himself in revolt against established conventions, somewhat polemical and at times extreme. He has been emphatic in asserting that the kind of fiction we have been calling modern is exhausted, and he sees himself as a spokesman for "a new tide of realistic and humanistic writing." Whether or not there is such a tide, Snow's statements have been used against him to prove that he is a graceless or resourceless writer, lamely perpetuating the Trollope or Galsworthy tradition. (pp. 85-6)

The view that Snow has not "contributed anything to the novel," that is, made any distinctive technical innovations, is irrelevant except in terms of some dubious evolutionary view of art. The relevant question is whether the means he has chosen are suited to what he has to say and whether he says it well with those means.

According to Snow's own statement, he has turned away from the material and methods which are associated with the remarkable development of fiction in the first three decades of this century: the intensive exploration of individual sensibility, particularly through stream of consciousness; the extensive use of symbolism and irony, and the heavy emphasis on the verbal texture of fiction; and in general the development of the techniques of obliquity and indirection. (pp. 86-7)

What Snow has not made completely clear in his statements is that his objection is not to the concern with personal relations but to the minute examination of sensibility in isolation and to the divorce of personal relations from morality and public affairs…. [Therefore, in his own fiction, Snow presents] character but not sensibility, character analysis but not stream of consciousness. There are no shimmering and elusive moments of consciousness, but rather a more traditional humanistic view of character and motive. Snow tends to the lucid and direct, qualities in large part provided by the use of a narrator, who can be thought of as representing not experience but the understanding of experience. Snow's sense of character is large enough to accommodate complexity and unconscious motivation, but he is not interested in presenting consciousness as direct experience.

Snow explores character in his own way—by relating it directly to plot, by making use of a reflective narrator, by dealing with the psyche as it manifests itself in external action, by relating it to public concerns, in short by a more social, objective, and public approach to character. And in doing this Snow has bound together the public and the private, social fact and character. (pp. 88-9)

In his concern for understanding the world about him, Snow has many affinities with the older English novelists—Fielding, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope. Theirs is a vision that is central, equable, wide-ranging, concerned with seeing things free of eccentric perspective or extravagance. Typically they employ realism, a plain style, generally a fair-sized cast of characters, and often overlapping and multiple presentations of the same matter. Theirs is, in short, a horizontal view of reality. They are surer about particulars than about general truths and like to let larger truths emerge from the examination of many cases: even then they are reluctant to state these truths in propositions. Their aim is understanding rather than prophecy or the poetry of consciousness.

As with the other novelists in this tradition, plot is more than a necessary evil for Snow in the "Strangers and Brothers" sequence. Theme and character are explicitly manifested in action: a marriage, a divorce, the rejection of a job, a plan, a piece of business, the choice of a career. This kind of external action not only provides a strong focus for character and theme but also enables Snow to deal with a wide range of public matters…. (p. 91)

Ordinarily, in novels so much concerned with character and so strong on analysis, even the most intelligent comment (as in Proust) begins to bog down and to make for dull or at best slow reading…. Snow's solution, evolved after the troubles of Strangers and Brothers, has been a strong what-happens-next plot…. (pp. 91-2)

[In] Snow's novels—certainly after The Light and the Dark—the suspense is created by character and gives rise to further questions about character. (p. 92)

Even more than plot, style is characteristic of Snow's way of looking at the world. It is also one of the most common grounds of complaint about Snow. His style is said to be flat, alkaline, prosy. It is true that Snow is not what is commonly recognized as a stylist—that is, his style has no marked or unusual characteristics. Most of the comments about flatness, however, are based on a failure to recognize the function of style and on the assumption that all writing ought to have certain qualities of imaginativeness, vividness, brightness.

Snow has chosen a direct style because it is essential to the way he looks at things. His art is one of the declarative sentence. He is unusually sparing of metaphor. He has little interest in the standard description of what people wore, of what color the curtains were. He is concerned with character and the interaction of characters; when there is description it is subordinated to this. (p. 93)

Some of Snow's characteristic stylistic...

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William Cooper

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When Snow expresses his view on what is happening nowadays in the world in general, two main theses are discernible. The first arises from his concern over the widening, in the Western world, of the gap between science and literature: his thesis is that this widening is in any case intellectually and socially undesirable; and that in the case of a country in the particular situation that ours is in, it could in a short time be catastrophic. He argues that the splintering of a culture into an increasing number of fragments, between which communication becomes less and less possible, inevitably leads to attrition and decay. (pp. 44-5)

The second thesis is that the widening of the gap between science and literature in the Western world obscures the existence of the major gap in the whole world today, namely that between the countries which are technologically advanced and the rest—major because it is a more deep-seated cause of possible world conflict than any other. The prime social task of the advanced countries, for the sake of their own continued peaceful existence if no one else's, is to reduce the gap. This can only be done by helping the less advanced countries to industrialize themselves as rapidly as possible. (p. 45)

The split in Western culture between the scientific and the non-scientific parts has its root superficially in the incapacity of the non-scientific part to comprehend the scientific; but more...

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Roy Fuller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Coat of Varnish] is a 'crime novel', but substantial in the telling…. [The] book is surely one of Lord Snow's best in any genre….

[This] whodunnit seems to me more successful in arguing artistically the issues of the day than a more orthodox roman à clef like In Their Wisdom (1974) or one of the Strangers and Brothers sequence like The Sleep of Reason….

Apart from the policemen, the characters by and large come from SW1. They are depicted with less awe and more scientific detachment than Lord Snow often brings to the well-off, eminent or well-born….

[The] realism pays a high dividend: for a great part of the book's length we are kept in doubt about the murderer's identity, even as to whether the murderer is an intruder or an 'insider', yet the suspects are far from being presented as an Agathaian line-up. Any such simplistic schema is masked by the massive scale of the police operation, though we are agreeably conscious of the puzzle element….

[The] narrative viewpoint occasionally strays from Colonel Leigh's consciousness. The shifts are well-contrived but the purist may be faintly troubled. A few other objections are more bothersome, accentuated by the author's very conscientiousness over detail. They are mainly to do with the murder motivation machinery…. Maybe the author could allay such unease, but to my mind he fails to do so in his book, though it does contain some attempted disarming in these areas.

To return to the major investigation and interrogation already mentioned, these, like the ample prelude, if not innovatory in the crime novel surely go to a rewarding extreme. The interrogation, far from a conventional cat-and-mouse affair, acts like a coda to a musical work, twisting and turning with surprise effects even though no new motifs are introduced. It is an excellent substitute for the double kick-in-the-pants so desirable in the crime novel, but now apt to be mechanical.

Roy Fuller, "Murder in Belgravia" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1979; reprinted by permission of Roy Fuller), in The Listener, Vol. 102, No. 2628, September 13, 1979, p. 351.

Nicholas Shrimpton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Coat of Varnish is a whodunit of] both marvellous assurance and considerable sophistication of intent….

[The investigation is handled] as you would expect, with conspicuous skill. Whether we are dining out with an ambitious Labour MP, or discussing anatomy in the Metropolitan Police morgue, Snow knows the ground as few of our contemporary novelists could do and his expertise gives the narrative a wonderful solidity. But this isn't just a whodunit with an unusual depth of background. The novel ends without a solution, betraying at the last minute the central convention of the genre to which it belongs.

The omission is as effective as it is infuriating. It emphasises the intractability of real criminal investigation, insists that evidence is never pure and rarely simple. It also makes sense of a title which had previously seemed perilously slight…. [One of the characters suggests that] only a coat of varnish … separates society from 'the horrors underneath'…. Snow is returning to the distress which prompted The Sleep of Reason. Why do intelligent and affluent human beings commit brutal crimes? In what way, if any, do they differ from people like ourselves?

In the earlier novel the question had been bound up with the topic of 'freedom'. Had the dissolution of coercive moral codes encouraged cruelty? Here the enquiry is rather different. Throughout his work Snow has been concerned with worldly success and failure, and he has on occasion been much criticised for it. Yet here it is just such an obsession which provides the likely motives for the crime. The two chief suspects are impelled, respectively, by a fear of failure and by failure itself. The moral drama casts an intriguing light upon almost all of Snow's previous fiction.

Nicholas Shrimpton, "Killing Time," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, No. 2530, September 14, 1979, p. 385.∗

Carolyn G. Heilbrun

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Can I be altogether alone in finding [A Coat of Varnish] a cheat, a crime if you like? It uses all the devices of the detective novel only to abandon the reader in the end to uncertainty and a damp sense of inconclusiveness that resembles nothing as much as bad sex.

Snow's narrative skills are intact. The story line pulls us forward, wanting to know the answer, the reason for all the explanations, all the biographies, wanting, above all, a solution. And that, of course, is what the detective novel of whatever kind must provide. Closure may have vanished from the higher modern literature. The sense of an ending, as Frank Kermode suggests, may be in abeyance. But not in the detective story….

But what if Snow's whole point is that, civilization being but a coat of varnish, order and justice cannot be restored, the answer cannot be found, or if found, proved?…

Snow is guilty … of a particularly youthful sin: presumption. Like a demented spider with a web in which no fly is caught, Snow spins more and more plot lines as though to catch, if not a solution, at least an insight…. All of these aspects of life in Belgravia are supposed, somehow, to have been epitomized by a particularly horrible murder of an old aristocratic woman. But this murder bears (it is my chief complaint about the book) no meaningful connection to the lives of those characters unrelated to her, not even, as it happens, to the man who is supposed to have done it.

One is so annoyed and petulant, of course, because there is much that is good here…. [The] hero has all the charms of a superannuated Lewis Eliot (the protagonist of Snow's Strangers and Brothers series of novels), and his story might well have been told without the murder, and the ponderous insistence upon society's imminent demise.

Carolyn G. Heilbrun, "Death on Belgrave Square," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), November 18, 1979, p. 7.

Julian Moynahan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[One] might say that [C. P. Snow] is a better novelist than he reads. While his prose is usually turgid and occasionally slipshod to the point of unintelligibility ("She was the opposite of hypochondria"), and while his outlook on men and their affairs seldom rises above a cynical shrewdness, he does try to deal with subjects that have engaged many of the better novelists during the past century and a half.

These include the drive for power by the unscrupulously ambitious and what it costs the rest of us; the clever games of status-seeking in a modern British society that remains obsessed with caste and class and protective of hereditary privilege even as it professes allegiance to democracy and the merit principle; the toll taken of the private self in a social climate where there is little relief from perpetual role-playing, little opportunity for people to "level" with one another in the unguarded, would-be innocent American manner. (p. 14)

[Lord Snow] shows an informed interest, rare in a novelist, in how a bureaucracy—in this case the London police—sets about organizing its work. The detectives' planning sessions in what is called the Murder Room and the long sessions of interrogation of the chief suspect are the best things in [A Coat of Varnish]. Much less good are the several conversations—between Humphrey and Briers, and between Humphrey and Alec—in which it is insisted that there is a close connection between Lady Ashbrook's violent demise and the general collapse of civilization….

Most American readers will be impressed with the security, comfort and amenity of the urban milieu the book depicts. (p. 55)

Julian Moynahan, "Lady Ashbrook Bloodily Murdered," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 2, 1979, pp. 14, 55.

Russell Davies

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If honors, age, and output added up to reputation, Lord Snow ought by now to be the Grand Old Man of the British novel. But he is not—not in Britain anyway. The old "Two Cultures" feud with F. R. Leavis [see CLC, Vol. 13]—over Snow's proposition that the gulf between scientists and non-scientists threatened to be unbridgeable—seemed to do Snow little professional harm at first, but it has had some destructive effects in later years. For one thing, Leavis was abominably rude to Snow, who accepted this with a kind of stolid disgust ("A few, a very few, of the criticisms have been loaded with personal abuse to an abnormal extent …"); and the result has been that ever since, many British critics and...

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