In Man with a Blue Scarf Martin Gayford reports Lucian Freud saying about Thomas Hardy: “I like him so much I even read his boring novels, because they seem boring in the way real life is boring.”
I have much the same feeling regarding CP Snow. Lately I have been rereading In their Wisdom, The Sleep of Reason, Last Things and The Affair.
In their Wisdom is such a ‘boring’ book. It stands on its own: it is not part of the Strangers and Brothers series. Snow always takes his time to build up a tension. In this book, all kinds of people are attracted to a ’cause’ — in this case a disputed testament with a lot of money involved — and start behaving politically. As a writer, this was Snow’s strength: describing the interactions and motivations in a struggle for power.
Once you have read the first introductory chapters you are captured and can’t put the book away.
The other books I read are all part of the Strangers and Brothers series. Eleven novels following the life of Lewis Eliot who, coming from a modest background, manages to become a fellow of a Cambridge college, becomes a high-ranking civil servant and a writer. Through him we get a kind of portrait of English politics and society in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. Sometimes he is an active protagonist of events, sometimes he is merely an onlooker. This is the case in The Sleep of Reason, that is mainly a courtroom drama about the horrible murder of a young child. Harrowing.
Last Things will only be of interest for those that have read the complete sequence. In a way this is a boring novel, only to be appreciated when you have become acquainted with the characters of the previous novels.
The Affair is different. It is reminiscent of his first succesful campus novel, The Masters. The same college dismissed a Fellow for scientific fraud, but the decision is fiercely contested in what looks like a new Dreyfus Affair. Again superb writing about politics in a closed community.