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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