The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, May 11, 2014

C.P. Snow and Anthony Powell: Friendly Enemies?

According to the Dance to the Music of Time list of character models of the Anthony Powell Society, the character of J.G. Quiggin is
"A conflation of Powell's two enemies, CP Snow, author of Corridors of Power, and FR Leavis, the implacably influential literary critic and don".
[AN Wilson, London Evening Standard, 24 Sept 1997]
There are some remarkable similarities also to AP's nephew-in-law, Harold Pinter, the gloomy left-wing dramatist, although AP has denied that he is the main source.
I read this, and was rather puzzled. There are a fair amount of differences between Snow and Quiggin that are quite striking; most importantly, where Snow was a prolific author (his own novel sequence Strangers and Brothers falls only one volume short of the 12 volume Dance, and was started earlier). Quiggin--well, let Professor Sillery speak for me:
JG's abandoned the pen, I hear, perhaps wisely. A literary caesarian was all but required for that infant of long gestation Unburnt Boats, which I often feared might come to birth prematurely as a puling little magazine article. Now JG's going to promote literary works, rather than write them himself. In brief, he's to become a publisher.
(Books Do Furnish A Room (1971))

More to the point, while Snow leaned left in his politics, he was quite comfortable with many moderate conservatives, of the type Powell strikes one as--Snow dedicated The Light and the Dark to Sydney Grose, the model for the avuncular, conservative Arthur Brown, political fixer extraordinaire in the unnamed Cambridge College where narrator Lewis Eliot is a fellow, and other sympathetic conservatives are to be found throughout the series. Snow was, as his Francis Getliffe might say, "a man of the Left," but hardly as hard-left as Quiggin.

Now, F.R. Leavis, was much more of a Quiggin-style provocateur; his bust-up with Snow, whom he gratuitously attacked in terms that even those who agreed with his critique found offensive, led Snow to the attack). Indeed, as Timothy Sandefur points out, Snow turned Leavis's argument turtle by using Lawrence against him:
The dispute over modernity that gave rise to “The Two Cultures” began, of course, in the Industrial Revolution itself, when Romantic writers like Matthew Arnold, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Edgar Allen Poe led a reaction against the rational and systematic philosophy—as well as the technological progress—of the Enlightenment. That reaction had been carried forward into the literary culture in the works of D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, and others. In one especially effective passage, Snow illustrated the brutal reality beneath romanticism by drawing from Lawrence, Leavis’ favorite writer. In a commentary on Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast, Lawrence defended the flogging of a seaman which Dana, firmly rooted in Enlightenment rationality, recalled with indignation. For Lawrence, Dana’s disgust revealed a failure to appreciate the spiritual value of the master-servant relationship, which, “like love,” is “essentially a polarized flow…a circuit of vitalism which flows between master and man and forms a very precious nourishment to each, and keeps both in a state of subtle, quivering, vital equilibrium.” But for Snow, Lawrence’s attitude was a disgusting indulgence by a comfortable onlooker who did not feel the wrong end of the whip. “That illusion is open only to those who have climbed one step up and are hanging on by their fingernails.” Lawrence’s, and Leavis’, lyrical view of a social hierarchy based on force and servitude was the ultimate expression of anti-rationalism, the same anti-rationalism that looked upon poverty as charming and which retarded the progress of both material and spiritual growth.
While Snow is out of fashion these days, I will say that I have read his works with great enjoyment, and, in his own way, I consider him to be among the "first rate second-raters" I deeply love--the novelists who, without the flash and dazzling style of some, excel in patient, detailed excavation of character. Think Trollope as opposed to Dickens; Powell as opposed to Proust. I don't mean to suggest that they are not great writers--Trollope, Snow, and Powell are among my very favorites. But they are not showy, or headline grabbing in the way Leavis's beloved D.H Lawrence is. But I digress.

While Leavis was dyspeptic, left-wing, and disagreeable, Powell appeared to have a pretty decent rapport with Snow. In "Anthony Powell and C.P. Snow," (Anthony Powell Newsletter, No. 46 at 7-11 (2012)), Keith Marshall summarizes the evidence of their dealings. They seemed to get on well enough when traveling together to Sofia, Bulgaria, discussing books together, Powell quotes Snow as denying that he was a Dickensian, but admitting "if required to nominate the writer in English next to Shakespeare in stature, he would find difficulty in thinking of any other than Dickens." Powell comments "That struck me as a sound appreciation; one that defined my own feelings."

When Snow was made a life peer, Powell wrote him a teasing note suggesting the heraldic possibilities of the Supporters for his arms--"Do not rule out a stranger or a brother, which would tax the artist's invention, and have enigmatic charm as that part of the achievement." Snow wrote back in a similar tone, opening his letter with "It was like you to write so generously."

Of course, as Nicholas Birns points out, Quiggin isn't portrayed as an enemy of Powell's narrator, Nick Jenkins; "Quiggin is represented as an individual--one with the wrong politics, with a reverse-snobbish personal myth that in many ways masks conventional snobbery, but still an individual Jenkins likes, whose presence in Jenkins's lfe is, despite all, to the good.) (Birns, Understanding Anthony Powell at 128) Indeed, Quiggin's "rare and unpredictable grace catalyzes the moment in which Jenkins is able to achieve personal grace" by clicking with Isobel Tolland, who becomes his wife. (Id. at 129-130) So, the identification of Snow with Quiggin, leaving out the suggestion of enmity between Powell and Snow, may have some heft to it after all. It's just that--well, as a reader of both authors, Snow just doesn't feel Quiggin-like to me.


John Quiggin said...

An interesting find from a self-Googling exercise - I'm sure JGQ would have been prone to this. I'm also a CP Snow (and Powell) fan.

Anglocat said...

Welcome, John--imagine Widmerpool and Pamela in the Age of Google….not to mention George Passant!