Strangers and Brothers
by C. P. Snow.
Scribner’s. 374 pp. $4.50.
It will no doubt be said of C. P. Snow’s new novel, The Affair, that it attempts to repeat the formula of The Masters but does not succeed in doing so. Certainly The Affair does not have quite the claustrophobic intensity of the earlier book, its essential simplicity, its sheer narrative force, as of a superior detective story; but to look for these things in The Affair to the extent that they are present in The Masters is to misunderstand what Snow is about. The Affair can, of course, be read in isolation from the rest of Snow’s work. The central theme, concerned with a case of scientific fraud and the redressing of an act of injustice, is pursued to its conclusion, and the action is sufficiently compelling, both in its psychological complexity and its narrative excitement, to enable the book to stand firmly alone in its own right. But to be fully understood and appreciated The Affair needs to be read in the context of the whole “Strangers and Brothers” sequence, of which it is the eighth volume to have appeared so far.
Most of the action of The Affair takes place in the Cambridge college of The Masters but seventeen years later, in 1953 and 1954, and one strand of the novel seems to be leading forward to another election for the Mastership to be covered, in greater or lesser detail, in a later volume. Crawford, the successful candidate in the election described in The Masters, is nearing retirement and the college will soon have to decide on his successor. Several of the Fellows who played a part in the earlier election are dead—Despard-Smith, Chrystal, Eustace Pilbrow, Roy Calvert—and many of the others, though still alive and even active, are sadly changed. Some of the book’s most successful passages are those in which we encounter again, after the lapse of years, the characters already firmly established both in The Masters and in The Light and the Dark, Roy Calvert’s book, which also has the college as its main setting. The scenes with Paul Jago—embittered, withdrawn, his fine qualities gone to waste, his emotions centered wholly now on the wife who has caused so many of his difficulties and defeats—are among the most moving in all of Snow’s work; those with Gay, mischievous and infuriating as ever at the age of ninety-four, are among the most amusing.
The relationship of The Affair to The Masters, then, is obvious, and deliberate: indeed, the part which Jago eventually plays in the main action is directly motivated and conditioned by what had happened to him in The Masters. But there is no question of repeating a formula. The Masters, after all, is more self-contained than any other novel of the sequence, and although it was one of the earliest volumes to be written, Snow delayed its publication lest it should give a wrong impression of the thematic structure of the sequence as a whole. And it is true that a better starting point for a reader new to Snow’s work would be a novel such as Time of Hope, which is principally concerned with a sensitive evocation of the early background of Lewis Eliot, Snow’s narrator, and with the first stages of the career that is to take him through so many different layers of English society. For Lewis Eliot, who in The Masters may appear to be little more than a convenient eyewitness and reasonably neutral commentator upon the action, provides in fact the real center of the “Strangers and Brothers” sequence.
The sequence as a whole has what might be called an exterior and an interior structure corresponding to the “outer” and “inner” levels of Lewis Eliot’s experience. At the outer level the novels are a set of investigations of various aspects of English society from 1914 to the present. Strangers and Brothers (published in 1940), the novel from which the sequence takes its name, deals with the society of an English provincial town, somewhat similar to Snow’s native Leicester, in the late 20’s and early 30’s; Time of Hope (1949) extends this study backward to 1914 and also gives a remarkable impression of the world of the law; The Conscience of the Rich (1958) examines, extremely sympathetically, the intense life of a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family and incidentally illuminates the political situation of the early and middle 30’s; The Light and the Dark (1947), like The Masters (1951), deals with life in a Cambridge college but also touches upon such diverse material as the ways of living and thinking of the English aristocracy and the national and international developments of the late 30’s and early 40’s; The New Men (1954) is mainly concerned with the political and moral struggles involved in the wartime development of the atom bomb and with the immediate postwar situation; while Homecomings (1957) gives some revealing insights into the higher ranks of big business and the Civil Service and into the way in which play is conducted on “the chessboard of power.”
And now we have The Affair. In the college much remains the same, especially the traditional ceremonial and routine, but many changes have also taken place, particularly in the men themselves and in their attitudes to the life of the college and to the world outside. It is through his examination of these changes and through the introduction of new characters who are also new social types—Tom Orbell, for example, the passionate High Tory, and Lester Ince, the self-declassed but apolitical young English don who tells his students that Beowulf is “a God-awful bore”—that Snow lightly but firmly defines the temper of English life in the first half of the 1950’s. Snow, of course, is an extremely shrewd observer of men and society and The Affair, like his earlier novels, is full of comments and generalizations which appear casual but have in fact been long and deeply considered.
It is important to realize, however, that Snow himself regards the exterior aspect of his sequence as less important than the interior aspect. In the prefatory note to the 1958 edition of The Search, an early novel outside the sequence which Snow has reissued in a shortened version, he speaks of his desire “to say something about people first and foremost, and then people-in-society”: the social aspect of his work, that is to say, takes second place, and it is in the development of character that his primary interest lies. In the “Author’s Note” at the beginning of The Conscience of the Rich Snow explains 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.” Sympathetic vibrations (“resonance”) are constantly being set up between Lewis Eliot’s outer or objective experience (“what [he] sees”) and his inner or subjective experience (“what he feels”), and it is this mutual interaction of the two kinds of experience that provides the basic thematic structure of the sequence. Some of the major “emotional themes” which recur in this way are the theme of possessive love; the theme of the desire for power and, its corollary, the renunciation of power; the themes of success and failure, and of the persistent revival of hope when all else has gone.
In The Affair Lewis Eliot’s brother Martin reappears as a Fellow of the college and we are reminded at one point in the novel of the struggle between the two brothers, largely caused by Lewis’s possessive love for the younger Martin, which was finally resolved in The New Men. We also see how Martin, who in The New Men had renounced the opportunity of real power in the great world, is nevertheless impelled to seek such relatively petty power as the tiny world of the college can offer. When we find that even Arthur Brown, despite his love for the role of gray eminence, and Sir Francis Getliffe, despite his obvious success in the eyes of the world, are both moved by a desire for the Mastership, we are again reminded of a key passage in The New Men:
These men were fairer, and most of them a great deal abler, than the average: but you heard the same ripples below the words, as when any group of men chose anyone for any job. Put your ear to those meetings and you heard the intricate labyrinthine and unassuageable rapacity, even in the best of men, of the love of power. If you have heard it once—say, in electing the chairman of a tiny dramatic society, it does not matter where—you have heard it in colleges, in bishoprics, in ministries, in cabinets: men do not alter because the issues they decide are bigger scale.
Snow’s sense of the essential similarity of all men in all ranks of society is one of the principal unifying factors in the sequence; another is his tolerance. There is nothing “angry” about Snow’s attitude toward society and toward the men and women who comprise it. Men are like this, he seems to say, and must be accepted as they are. “I wasn’t unused to living with situations which were morally ambiguous,” says Lewis Eliot in The Affair, “or aspects of myself I didn’t specially like.” Our faith in the accuracy of Lewis Eliot’s observation of other people is increased by the honesty of his self-analysis, and in The Affair this self-analysis is directly related to the most fundamental of all the emotional themes, the theme of “strangers” and “brothers” on which Snow insists in his title.
Snow sees his principal characters as divided into “strangers,” those who are self-centered, separate, uninvolved in the lives of others, and “brothers,” those who give themselves unreservedly in personal relationships. Some of his most successful pieces of characterization are of people in this second category: Paul Jago, for example, Mr. March, the central figure of The Conscience of the Rich, and George Passant, the character to whom the novel Strangers and Brothers is mainly devoted. Throughout the sequence Lewis Eliot is presented as struggling between two opposing tendencies in his own nature which roughly correspond to the two poles of stranger and brother: the importance of The Affair is that we see the second tendency emerging as the stronger. Lewis has to decide whether he will commit himself to the campaign to secure justice for Howard, the man dismissed from his Fellowship for scientific fraud. All the arguments of prudence and even of good sense seem to be against participation, but there is one consideration which is in the end decisive:
I knew, and I knew it with the wreckage and guilt of part of my life behind me, that there were always good, sound, human, sensitive reasons for contracting out. There is great dignity in being a spectator: and if you do it for long enough, you are dead inside.
The strangers, those who remain spectators, who refuse to become involved, end by becoming “dead inside”; the brothers, whatever their faults, are on the side of life. This idea is central to Snow’s conception of human nature and to the design of the whole “Strangers and Brothers” sequence.
It is, we have seen, a reasonably complex design dependent upon persistent references, explicit and implicit, to and fro between the different books and upon the constant “resonance” set up between Lewis Eliot’s inner and outer experience. As the various themes appear in the individual novels, however, they are sufficiently worked out in the terms of that particular novel for no difficulties to arise. Any of the novels, in short, can be read in isolation from the rest; at the same time they do complement and illuminate each other and gain greatly from being read as a sequence.
What marks the individual Snow novel is the great simplicity and straightforwardness both of structure and of style. Snow’s main concern as a writer is with “the story.” If his writing lacks richness of texture, that is something he has sacrificed in the interests of maintaining the strength and clarity of the narrative line. The resultant plain style will not be to everyone’s taste—it is at the opposite extreme from the work of Lawrence Durrell, for example—but it is important to realize that Snow has chosen it deliberately. It is his solution to the problem of form, not in any sense an avoidance of that problem. Snow is in determined reaction against the whole tradition of the 20th-century experimental novel as represented, at its best, by Joyce and Virginia Woolf. As Snow sees it, the experimental or aesthetic novel tends always to abstract man from his environment, from society, and hence to make it more difficult to say anything important about him. Snow has preferred to be more direct in his own presentation of “people-in-society,” and in this attitude he is by no means alone among contemporary English novelists.
Such writers as Kingsley Amis, William Cooper, Doris Lessing, John Wain, John Braine, Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, and Pamela Hansford Johnson (who in private life is Mrs. Snow), though different in so many ways, have at least this much in common : they have rejected what seems to them the rarefied and artificial techniques of the experimental novel in favor of much simpler and more direct forms. And it seems to be no accident that these forms often recall those of the 19th-century social novelists: Angus Wilson, for example, has clearly been influenced by Dickens, Snow himself by Trollope.
In some part, and especially among the younger writers, this seems to be a fairly natural and almost instinctive reaction against what had come to seem a kind of modern genteel tradition, vaguely associated with the name “Bloomsbury”—an attempt to get the novel back to what might crudely be called “real life.” Such a reaction was perhaps bound to come. This particular reaction, however, takes special point from the provincial backgrounds of many of these writers (e.g., Snow, Cooper, Braine) and from their social origins, which are almost without exception lower middle class. It is thus something of an anti-mandarin, down-to-earth movement with political and social overtones. Some of the younger writers, it would seem, are beginning to speak with the voice of Snow’s “new men,” the new managerial class who are more and more taking over the running of Britain.
Snow himself, of course, has been a distinguished member of this class—he has just retired from the Civil Service work for which he was knighted a few years ago—and he has put to good use in his novels his own extensive experience of English society, especially of those areas, referred to in The Affair as “the corridors of power,” where the really important decisions are taken. We may perhaps look forward to a more intensive examination of these areas in the remaining volumes of the “Strangers and Brothers” sequence. There are to be three more volumes, it appears, which will between them range forward to about 1960 and backward to cover the brief time-gap between Home-comings, which ends in 1950, and The Affair.
When the sequence is rounded off it will unquestionably be the most comprehensive, the most informative and, all in all, the most impressive portrait of modern England that any novelist has yet given us. Lionel Trilling has spoken of the job the contemporary novelist does of “telling us the way things are”: The Affair is only the latest evidence to confirm that this is a job at which C. P. Snow excels.