Venturing the Real: The Significance of C.P. Snow

By Heptonstall, Geoffrey | Contemporary Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Venturing the Real: The Significance of C.P. Snow


Heptonstall, Geoffrey, Contemporary Review


IN Their Wisdom, a late novel, is not a title to quicken the spirit. The first paperback edition, in the 1970s, showed a group of elderly men, silver haired, dark-suited, grave and judicious. These elder statesmen, however wise, did not connect with the concern of the age. Partly it was a question of style. In attitude always they would advise caution. They were not among the company of the young. The fiction of C.P. Snow is the territory of reason in an age of excess. It speaks for decency in a culture of outrage. The landscape is peopled by the eminent in academe or law or public service. All else is observed with tolerance, but it is viewed as something other, something beyond the gates. This is how it may read at first sight.

If that were the limit of Snow's imagination his literary efforts would be simply the work of a worthy dullard. Among his more severe critics that is his reputation. Elsewhere the critical plaudits have matched awards. His novels retain a loyal readership. But he remains controversial from the continuing interest in his social criticism which aroused such wide and enduring debate. The dispute on the nature of culture has made it unusually difficult to discuss the fiction in its own terms. Mention of Snow often centres on his disdain for traditional literary culture. This was so central that his fiction may seem no more than footnotes to a point of view.

The problem seems to arise from the nature of Snow's artistic intentions. Most of his writing life was dedicated to a long narrative sequence. Strangers and Brothers (eleven volumes published between 1940 and 1970). Its themes are the major contemporary concerns and their relation to private and public moralities. The conflict between personal desire and social conscience appears in many variants. In The New Men nuclear physicists must balance their drive for knowledge with its probable and problematic consequences. In The Conscience of the Rich a man of means sacrifices wealth and family loyalty to the study of medicine. In The Sleep of Reason perversely sensational urges ruinously overwhelm a group of educated, privileged young. The connecting presence in all these is the narrator, Lewis Eliot, who always acts as direct witness. He may be considered not as the voice of the author, but of the presiding, unconcealed interpreting intelligence' which Snow identifies as a formal necessity in the novel.

Connecting the inner voice of conscience to the outer cacophony of demands has been the central task of fiction certainly since Defoe. It has never been a simple matter of 'big men and little men', but of the enriching exchanges in a community of persons. Snow is a writer of a kind who has contributed to the things he has chronicled, like Vaclav Havel or Pablo Neruda.Such writers in their lifetime face the problem of partisan feelings. Time shows how such allegiances take on subtler and more complex patterns. The reviewer who called Snow a 'worldly romantic' may have helped bridge the void between the public reputation and the fiction in the book.

The life of Charles Percy Snow (1905-1970) typifies both a defiance and an acceptance of the nature of English society. Raised in a mezzanine between industrial poverty and suburban comfort, his development depended on effort as well as ability, and on luck as much as opportunity. When Lewis Eliot speculates on how his life might have been neither so fortunate nor so elevated we may hear Snow himself speaking. Like his creator, Eliot found that education meant a gradual absorption into a mandarin caste in speech, manner and attitude. Rising yet further, Eliot's ideals are not abandoned, but they are modified. He accepts compromise and inconsistency as necessary in the world of tasks. A persistent theme in the fiction is the conflict between personal ambition and the subordination of self for the sake of social harmony.

Lewis Eliot is a conventional figure, in contrast to his creator. …

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