Sunday 19 December 2021

Book of the Year

When I arrived in the college, I had already moved about a good deal among the layers of society; and I had not come to the end of my journey yet. I had the luck to live intimately among half a dozen different vocations. Of all those I had the chance to see, the college was the place where men lived the least anxious, the most comforting, the freest lives.
This very nearly became a book of a few days. I'd never read C. P. Snow before, assuming him a bargain-basement Anthony Powell. The novel sequence Strangers and Brothers was always going to be compared with A Dance to the Music of Time. Snow's roman fleuve is less literary, flatter in tone, less continuous. One can dive in at any point, rather as with Trollope. The Trollope analogue is apposite: politics, in several arenas - here, those of a Cambridge college - are the novel's themes. More, Snow said he wanted to write as it were a nineteenth-century novel about the twentieth.

But I was not immediately won over. The fellows of the college are engaged in electing a new Master. All are white men - it's 1937 - and there are a lot of them. I found myself irritably flicking back and forth to remind myself who was who. Snow, again like Trollope, specialises in character, and the reader perhaps shouldn't hope to keep up with all the details.

Gradually, though, I became involved. Who would win the vote? Who was up, who down? The atmosphere of the novel seduces too. That atmosphere is hermetic: not a single scene takes place outside the college. In something of a further iteration of the classical unities, a year passes, winter to winter; this is a wintry novel, right from the start.

It is probably also a novel for one's later years. Snow is interested in middle and old age, which he expertly dissects:

Just as a mature man dismisses calf love with a smile, because he can no longer feel it (though it may once have caused him the sharpest pain), so Pilbrow, that vigorous old man, smiled indifferently at the triumphs and sufferings of the middle-aged. Suddenly one encountered blankness at a point where one expected sympathy and response. He looked just as he had looked ten years before; he could still feel passionately about his deepest concerns; but those concerns were narrowing, and one knew at last that he was growing old.

'Half a dozen different vocations': I have since treated myself to two further Snows. Corridors of Power is said to be Yes Minister minus the jokes; and The Conscience of the Rich is about an Anglo-Jewish family in what we - or I, at least - would now call Brooknerian London.

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