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’.
“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?