|(Paris not Cambridge) Copyright A. Barake 2014|
I know that the English call public schools that way because traditionally they were being contrasted with private home schooling, and that the apparent contradiction with our North American "private / public school" meaning is an accident of history. But it must be pointed out that despite the forgotten use, the naming is not likely to change, tradition is akin to snobbery, it is the listener that must remember to internally translate the convoluted meaning, the idiom will remain. But on to my rant about other such peculiarly English things.
This theme comes from my current interest in the novels and life of Baron Snow of Leicester, a.k.a. Sir Charles, a.k.a. C.P. Snow, novelist, civil servant, self-promoter, polemicist, and self-appointed sage on science versus the arts.
I must begin by saying that I have not thrown out his novels from my bookshelf despite 25 years of wanting to. In fact I keep re-reading them, especially The Masters and The Affair, both Cambridge-based lessons in closed door-politics. I remember thinking when I first read them that it must very tiring to live in such a society since for every word spoken, there seems to be ten or twenty unsaid. This is not to say that there is no dialog in the books, there is, and it can be entertaining, but there is far more "telling" and judging, from the point of view of the author's alter-ego Lewis Eliot.
Why do I continue to be fascinated and drawn back to these grey amorality plays?
It is not because of the writing. It is stilted and repetitive, and as F.R. Leavis, a fellow member of this Cambridge coterie pointedly and accurately said in his famous vicious public and published attack on Snow, the chapters seems to be put together by a computer called Charlie.
I think it is because the work walks the line between apologizing for the hypocrisy and self-seeking selfishness of men of affairs and exposing them for the petty small-minded and fallible beings they can be. It is the same reason I like to read Kingsley Amis' semi-autobiographical comic novels. His apparent self-loathing is always couched in some sort of expiation, whether through laughter, ridicule of everyone and everything, clever point of view and great dialog (as opposed to Charlie's).
Snow's life has been studied and is undergoing further study today by Cambridge historians of science and government, because he was in the center of such things during the middle of the 20th century. He saw things first-hand in his corridors of power, and was proud that he did. He could not help bragging about his presence and his rise from what he perceived as humiliating poverty in the provinces to being a clubbable member of the upper crust. He took the cheek further by "kissing and telling" through his fiction, a form of revenge on his early humiliations, a quiet and subtle revenge, not vicious enough to get him expelled from the back-rooms and clubs, in fact quite the opposite, he continued to gather honours until his death, so much so that some have accused him of being a "gong chaser".
So he had his pie and ate it too. Leavis' attack in the 1960's was apparently unexpected, and surprisingly effective, despite all of Snow's phlegmatic discipline, he continued to allude to it many years after, in fact it was reported that he attributed his lack of Nobel prize (in literature I would guess) to it!
The fascinating thing about Snow, (and Amis as well) is that despite the apparent literary self-awareness, running through tens of novels, there is never a doubt that he is completely comfortable with his choices to prevaricate, to bend the rules, to serve himself first, to wallow in the luxury and privilege and to do things first in the back room and then to pretend to do them in public once all has been decided. That is the way the world works. He is right. He was as successful as he wanted to be.
Leavis was not nearly as honoured or respected. One reviewer of his attack called him "a beetle". No one to my knowledge called Snow anything like that.
He had many powerful friends and part of the difficulty of writing a good biography is that these friends continued to be loyal and respectful of his privacy throughout his and their lives. For example, it is not clear if the first failed marriage of Lewis Eliot, his protagonist in the 11 novel series Strangers and Brothers has a counterpart in Snow's life, like the second one does (almost exactly). It is not entirely clear why Snow left a substantial endowment to his secretary in his will and why she held so much of his papers. And we only have his word regarding his proclaimed destiny, choice and inevitability of career as a novelist, despite his early efforts in physical chemistry at Christ's, where he published and had to retract a paper that was thought to be a breakthrough (regarding synthesis of vitamin A). Despite that, he rode his fellowship and connections to a high posting as a civil servant during the war, assigned to choosing and vetting scientific staff for the effort. The word "servant" is part of that strange vocabulary that one must tolerate in English, one that says the opposite of what it means. He only serves his masters and himself, maybe not in that order, and the civil side is just a convenient pretense and facade.
As Proustian documentary, the novels are valuable. As entertainment, they are passable, as psychology they are bedeviling, one cannot make heads or tails of Snow's ethical or moral stance. I am not sure that he could either, maybe it was what drove him to write, other that the boasting and settling of scores. In that sense the work continues to be interesting, but if artistry means controlling and projecting intention accurately, it is only fair that today they are mostly seen as dated artifacts of an era, and not valuable contributions to the art of fiction.