A Coat of Varnish
by C.P. Snow
Scribner’s, 328 pp., $10.95
If honors, age, and output added up to reputation, Lord Snow ought by now to be the Grand Old Man of the British novel. But he is not—not in Britain anyway. The old “Two Cultures” feud with F.R. Leavis—over Snow’s proposition that the gulf between scientists and nonscientists threatened to be unbridgeable—seemed to do Snow little professional harm at first, but it has had some destructive effects in later years. For one thing, Leavis was abominably rude to Snow, who accepted this with a kind of stolid disgust (“A few, a very few, of the criticisms have been loaded with personal abuse to an abnormal extent…”); and the result has been that ever since, many British critics and less-than-critics have been able to disparage Snow freely, happy in the knowledge that he has suffered worse. (“He is,” said Leavis, “intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be.”)
Then again, Snow did appear to be proposing himself as one surviving link by which Science and Non-Science were being, and might continue to be, held together. “There have been plenty of days,” he confided in 1959, somewhat fatuously, in his original Rede Lecture, “when I have spent the working hours with scientists and then gone off at night with some literary colleagues. I mean that literally.” It was taken literally. And not very kindly, either, by the mono-cultural literati, quick to resent any suggestion that the books which were meat and drink to them were no more than nightcaps to Sir Charles, as he then was.
The part of Leavis’s message that stuck in their minds, therefore, in spite of its unpleasantly gleeful formulation, was the assertion that Snow was not really a literary figure at all: “…as a novelist he doesn’t exist; he doesn’t begin to exist. He can’t be said to know what a novel is.”
If rehabilitation from this charge has lately been attempted, I must have missed it, but the line a pro-Snow faction might take can be imagined, viz: Charles Percy Snow, born a poor boy in Leicester, 1905, worked his way up to be Baron Snow of Leicester. The route this career took was not especially devious, but on the other hand it was longer and steeper than such ascents are likely to be again, now that society is no longer surprised to discover brains among the poor. Snow has therefore been an invaluable inside witness to the creation, and later the administration, of what has come to be called the Meritocracy. One generation of meritocrats, almost by definition, appoints the next, and nobody sifts the character references of a generation with more diligence than Snow. His literary godfather is Balzac. It was Balzac’s mockmodest claim that society was doing the storytelling, and that his own function was merely “secretarial.”
Now C.P. Snow might justly offer himself, within his own society, as that very “secretary” which Balzac pronounced himself to be (and knew very …