Every so often I reread one of CP Snow’s novels. I don’t know why exactly. Perhaps because in the first place he is such a keen observer of how people live together: the political — in the widest possible sense — struggle to prevail. The way societies organise themselves, the way they meet new problems and threats. Although he explains how his characters feel and why they act as they do, they do not really come to life. The ideas, though, do.
The New Men is one of his novels I do not often reread. Perhaps because it begins with some romantic problems of Martin, Lewis Eliot’s younger brother and protégé. And romanticism is not Snow’s strongest point.
But the main theme of the novel is very interesting. The new men of the title are physicists, engineers and scientists working in World War II on the atomic bomb. Several themes are explored: the eagerness of scientists to find new techniques and knowledge and the impossibility to stop investigating even if it becomes clear that what they are producing (a devastating kind of bomb) should never be used by men. Many of the scientists involved in the program are distrustful of the military and of politicians.
The fear that Nazi Germany might get the bomb first spurs them on. At the same time there is resentment at the necessary secrecy. Scientific research and openness were always bywords, now this sharing of information is prohibited by the war. Not even the Soviet Union, although an ally, may profit by their findings. Some of them do not think this just, or even safe for the new kind of world that is in the make, and become spies.
The Americans make the bomb before the British scientist can finish their program and when the bomb is actually used twice, the resentment and anger under scientists runs high.
CP Snow knows how to develop all these conflicting feelings into a fine novel.
To my surprise, chapter xviii begins with an idea that I have found very interesting and which I have minded very often in my life. Only, I did not remember in which of his books he shared this wisdom:
As soon as I woke, the night’s fiasco clinched itself out of the morning light. It was mid-day, not many hours since I left Martin outside his house.
Unable to keep myself away, hurrying to the laboratories to hear remarks that I did not want to hear, I found Luke and Martin already there. They might have been following old Bevill’s first rule for any kind of politics: if there is a crisis, if anyone can do you harm or good, he used to say, looking simple, never mind your dignity, never mind your nerves, but always be present in the flesh.