Category Archives: Western Canon

Exhuming C. P. Snow : ‘Strangers and Brothers’, the series

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The Affair, sixth in the seven-novel series by C. P. Snow, spanning the period from the end of WW2 to the early ’60s.

Heading for the gate on C. P. Snow’s 1959 novel, The Affair.  It has taken me nearly two months to finish this one, but not for want of enthusiasm – in the previous four months I had the space to read the first five in this ‘Strangers and Brothers’ series.   Only tumultuous circumstances have kept me from the same spanking pace with The Affair. Never mind, you are always rewarded by slowing down with Snow.

For a writer who could create texture, density, intensity and share insights as richly as Snow, he virtually ignores metaphor.  Despite this absence of poetic license and of linguistic musicality, he still can reveal the subtleties of human behaviour, the textures of a built environment –  the weather, and beautifully, of plot.
The wealth of his vocabulary, used with so much ease and an obvious pleasure in words, seems anachronistic.  It feels to me that writers now, even if they have Snow’s grasp of language, wouldn’t dare use his words for fear of alienating readers who haven’t time for more than the gist of things.

Mea culpa.  As a writer and reader who adores Cormac McCarthy (fewer words, ever fewer; few lines, ever fewer; but stitched together into powerful elegies), still I am thrilled and sentimental about the wealth of Snow’s language.  I can’t think of a novelist writing now in English who, in just three pages, uses pudeur, ‘pertinacious’, ‘ectomorphic’ and ‘tenebrous’.
TENEBROUS
“No, the thought of Howard, … of Laura, … of seeing Brown, they were just tenebrous, as though they had added to my rage, but were looked at through smoked glass… I was just enraged because I hadn’t got my own way.”* 
Sixty years down the line, Snow offers up powerful, still-significant pictures of a cultural institution – Cambridge University – that helped shape the Western hegemony we still struggle with today.  With a careful, but never cold eye he dissects the college’s dependence on its past,  its assumption that self-referencing is sufficient when considering matters of conscience and justice. 
CORRIDORS OF POWER
Looking backwards at Snow’s opus, Strangers and Brothers, and cynical as I am now of Golden Eras, I could easily feel alienated from his chosen setting.   It is his gift for the eternal sameness of human yearning, callousness and self-preservation, that keeps me engaged with the university’s inward-looking world.  Through his affectionate sketches, subtle ridicule and careful analysis of what such an institution signifies – and what the global ‘Ivy League’ still means for and in society – Snow created a portrait of the corridors of power that is just as reprehensible now as then.

Above that, his affection and kindliness toward human frailty keeps me convinced of and attached to his characters.  He is careful and true to people’s motivations: shallow, grandiose, genteel, plastic, loyal, disingenuous, arrogant … And his careful and consistent acknowledgment of love.  Certain recurring characters – Winslow, Martin (the narrator’s brother),

Remarkably, and regardless of his critical insights, Snow – Lord Snow, as he became – seems to have alienated no-one within his establishment.  He moved smoothly forward, first as a physicist at Cambridge, then in military intelligence, then as a career political apparatchik of substantial influence (during the war he was named on the Nazi’s ‘Most Wanted’ list of political prisoners), and finally as one of the well-noted, best-selling fiction writers of his time: 1947 – mid-1960’s.

Snow’s ability to straddle his world, a leg over several horses, seems to have kept him in good odour wherever he went.  As I reach for my 1961 edition of Corridors of Power, last in this remarkable series, I am reasonably certain that Snow’s narrator ‘Lewis’, is not the author’s only mirror. I believe the recurring character Arthur Brown is Snow’s – self-satisfied and self-applauding! – portrait of himself.

* How delicious the reference to Corinthians 13:13,  so foundational to the Christocentric origins of Cambridge University, in which most of this series is set?

 


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Post-breakfast/pre-shower thoughts: Harold Bloom, Christina Stead, Jonathan Franzen … and where to start with the Western Canon

SteadManChildrenBrowsing the appendices of Harold Bloom’s Western Canon – as we do in our after-breakfast/pre-shower moments – I’ve discovered that he has included Christina Stead’s ‘The Man Who Loved Children’. It’s true he’s put it in Appendix D: The Chaotic Age: A Canonical Prophecy, but still I feel vindicated and proud to see Harold rates Stead’s great faction up there, among the Really Important literary efforts.

Jonathan Franzen’s in his generous New York Times review wrote: 

“A 1980 study of the 100 most-cited literary writers of the 20th century, based on scholarly citations fro m the late 1970s, found Margaret Atwood, Gertrude Stein and Anaïs Nin on the list, but not Christina Stead. This would be less puzzling if Stead and her best novel didn’t positively cry out for academic criticism of every stripe. Especially confounding is that “The Man Who Loved Children” has failed to become a core text in every women’s studies program in the country.”

If you take it religiously, Bloom’s list can fill you with despair.  You may foster dreams of starting at the beginning – Gilgamesh, first title, Appendix A , and dedicating what’s left of your life to every successive title … ending with Anthony Hecht’s Collected Earlier Poems: … perhaps your casual glance will settle from time to time on the sea’s travelling muscles …” *

Then you remember life really is too short, and that you don’t really want to read a translation of the Quran. You haven’t even read the regular bibles in your own tradition, why would you start fossicking around in someone else’s?  And who is Henry Roth – brother of the more infamous Philip?

Even with such pragmatic thinking, it can be disappointing to see that despite a lifetime of reading, you and Harold seem to have blended your literary saliva on so few occasions. And then to remember his list is only what is left of his deliberations – he would have bah-humbugged several thousand others.

And then, because it is Harold Bloom, you can easily become intimidated and start downgrading everything in your personal canon. But then, on consideration that is a very self-abnegating place to sit. Why should you, when Harold has not included A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six”, or Dr Seuss?

After all, Harold is only the product of a certain journey papered with certain books. And all journeys are valid, even if they began with Richard Scarry, stalled on Zane Gray and inched forward again with a chance dip in The Magus. But that’s Harold’s point, I guess; all it takes is seredipitous segue into The Magus, to place you and Harold on the same page, so to speak, as it were.

And that is what makes a canon A Canon: a map to plot a cultural journey, so that when travellers meet at various points on that map – say at The Magus or The Mill on the Floss – they tip their hats to one another in recognition. Because a Canon is code for everything we think and Bloom’s real wisdom, is not in showing us how prodigious we are in our reading … but how much time we have spent absorbing the literary signifiers for everything our culture thinks and believes.

I’m going to print out Harold’s list and pick out some titles that wink at me. But I’ll remember that Harold never takes and does not deserve the moral high ground. He has simply asked: “What shall the individual read who wants to track the journey of cultural kin to this point in history?” And he answers the question with due deference to all the other choices that exist – as you see when you read his introduction.
. . . . .
In 2011, the Meigunyah Modern Press, University of Melbourne, 2011 published the most recent edition of The Man Who Loved Children – and were able to use Franzen’s New York Times Review as the foreword (or perhaps it is the other way around – I can’t quite work it out.) But what I’m saying is it’s is worth reading Franzen’s review because it is so skilled, generous, and because of his ability to make scholarship so unthreatening. But above all because he loves TMWLC – and in my book, anyone who loves TMWLC is clearly on the same red dotted line of the cultural map as I am: one of those whimsical, wide-spaced lines that mark the roads traveled by chance.

In Franzen’s review/foreword he does not liken the novel to any other, or give us any cultural come-ons, instead he brings it all into the present by likening the morality and tone of Stead’s story with TV right now when he finds a glittering and even shocking connect between TMWLC and Everybody Loves Raymond: that violent depiction of shameless misogyny and crucible of men’s fears and weaknesses. And he manages to make the connect with a subtlety that I as a writing admirer can only stare and dribble at. How I love the flexible mind that can draw the bow and release the arrow so artfully.

But it doesn’t matter which edition of The Man Who Loved Children you can find, when you engage with Stead’s opening lines, they will always be the same: “All the June Saturday afternoon, Sam Pollit’s children were on the lookout for him …”

1. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/books/review/Franzen-t.html?_r=0
2. Excerpt: “Message from the City”, Anthony Hecht, Collected Earlier Poems. Kindle Edition. Knopf, 2012.