Magazine article The Spectator

Not Quite One of the Masters

Magazine article The Spectator

Not Quite One of the Masters

Article excerpt

Flying to Athens on one of his last visits to Greece, Simon Gray started reading a novel by C. P. Snow, one of those old orange Penguins. After 50 pages he 'still had no idea what the story was about'. It seemed foggy, 'but an odd sort of fog, everything described so clearly, and yet everything obscured ... he describes his world without seeing it, almost as if he thinks adjectives are in themselves full of detail and content.' As for the narrator, Lewis Eliot ('I suppose he's a front for old C. P. himself' -- which he undoubtedly was), Simon remarked on his 'trick of having himself complimented' by other characters. This is certainly irritating.

The curious thing is that Simon wrote about this novel as if he had never read Snow previously. Yet surely he must have. Few under the age of, say, 40 may have read him, but back in the Fifties and Sixties I would be surprised if undergraduates who read novels had missed out on him. He was a considerable figure who got, for instance, a whole chapter to himself in A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel by Frederick R. Karl. An Associate Professor at the City University of New York, Karl describes Snow as 'a major literary figure', who 'returns the novel to a direct representation of moral, social and political issues'.

Well, I hadn't read anything by him for years, but the other day I too picked up an old Penguin: The Sleep of Reason, whose title is taken from one of Goya's etchings, 'The Sleep of Reason brings forth monsters'. It's the second last novel in the Strangers and Brothers sequence which, back then, seemed to vie with Anthony Powell's Dance as one of the most ambitious fictional ventures of the time.

'That afternoon I had been walking with my son in what for me were familiar streets, the streets of the town where I was born'. Quite a nice inviting opening. The hero, Eliot, has of course moved up in the world and away from this midland town (Leicester). But he returns occasionally because his father is still alive and because he has been elected a member of the University Court. The novel is set in the Sixties, and the first part deals principally with the case of four students (two couples) discovered having sex in the sitting-room of one of the women's hostels. It's all rather slow and laboured, and the full point becomes apparent only later. …

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