The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Novelist, Not The Biographer

I have previously written of my very great affection for C.P. Snow's The Light and the Dark (1947)--the second written volume of his Strangers and Brothers series (though its action takes place such that it would be the fourth volume if read in terms of continuity). I thought enough of it to but a first edition of it from the Strand Rare Book Room, and gave my early edition to someone who had taught me something of spirituality, who I thought would value it.

To quote my own summary:
The storyline is simple; the novel focuses on Roy Calvert, an able young researcher into ancient languages trying to translate an extraordinary document, what is believed to be the only surviving written work of the Manichees, hitherto known only by the writings of their enemies, such as St. Augustine. In truth, a handful of fragments and isolated quotations exist as well, but the manuscript Calvert is working on, a psalm-book, provides the best chance of understanding the Manichaean world view as communicated amongst adherents to that faith, with its distinction of the world into--you guessed it--Light and Dark.

The Psalm-Book is real enough; it was translated by Charles Allberry, who is affirmed by Snow's brother Philip to have been the model for Roy Calvert. Like the fictional Calvert, Philip Snow asserts, Allberry suffered from terrible bouts of depression, and moments of manic elation, but was also charismatic, charming and kind, especially to those who were poor, oppressed, or unhappy.

Snow makes Calvert very real, and sympathetic; it doesn't hurt that the character is that rarity, a fictional wit whose dialogue is in fact witty. For much of the book, he tilts quixotically against those in power who have become pompous, and use learning for fame, or to keep others down. His characteristic method is to solemnly interrogate them, tripping them up in logical inconsistencies, or revealing their hypocrisies in deadpan dialectic.

These amusing interludes, as well as some society life, are punctuated by Roy's struggle against his own "oddly mechanical" affliction--depression, destructive elation, relief, alternating in phases only the length of which are unpredictable--leads him to try to lose himself--in God, in women and drink, even flirting with Fascism (the novel is set in the mid-Thirties into World War II).

This last is an interesting, and risky move. It happens quite late in the book, after we have come to like Calvert very much indeed, and is a shock. It's profoundly narratively counterintuitive to have the character drawn to fascism be sympathetic (in Powell's Dance, it's Widmerpool who is a quite unlovely, though interesting figure). Calvert's attraction to fascism causes for the first time a strain in his long friendship with narrator Lewis Eliot, law don and generally reasonable man, himself a firm anti-Fascist, as was Snow, from the get-go. Calvert, no political thinker, is drawn to it as a means of throwing himself away in hopes of escape from the crippling, debilitating depression he suffers--he is a specific instance of Erich Fromm's "Escape From Freedom." Even while he finds himself drawn to it, Calvert is revolted by its bigotry and antisemitism, as well as its disdain for the odd characters Calvert loves--he even risks his life to save a Jewish couple from the Nazi regime. It's a brilliant portrayal of cognitive dissonance.

Ultimately, Roy himself rejects the Reich as "a feeble simulacrum for his search for God", admitting to Eliot that "I was clutching at anything of course," and sadly describing it as "my last grab." (Ch. 33)

So Roy gives in, and tries to live with his affliction, while he serves in the War. First in intelligence, but then, as the depression closes in on him, he chooses to join the RAF, after enquiring of Eliot what is the most dangerous duty to be had. He becomes a bomber pilot, because he wants to die but can't quite kill himself. In his surrender, he marries, and his wife bears a daughter. And Roy becomes, ironically, free of the cycle that has driven him to choose death over life; he finds, at last a certain peace. Now that he no longer wants to die, though, he is stuck; "One can't change one's mind," Roy admits, "It[war] holds one to it." (Ch. 38)
Calvert fascinated me, enough so that when an opportunity to obtain a copy of Allberry's translation of the Psalm-Book, I took it. It is the only genuinely rare book I own.

Recently, I stumbled on an interesting piece exploring the extent to which Calvert might not be an entirely faithful picture of Allberry, but may have incorporated aspects of Larry Darrell, one of the characters in The Razor's Edge. That led me to a book compiled and in part written by Allberry's widow, Patricia Lewis, titled, Charles Allberry-A Portrait (1984). Privately printed, the book is a collection of reminiscences of Allberry, by Lewis herself, but by a series of his friends and colleagues.

As Lewis explains the genesis of the Portrait, "my son David, having re-read C.P. Snow's novel 'The Light and the Dark', the main character of which 'Roy Calvert', was partly based on my late husband, Charles Allberry, asked me 'Was my father really like that?'"; The Portrait is an effort to provide an answer. Lewis wrote her own account of her whirlwind courtship and all too brief marriage, and then "wrote to those few friends of Charles who survive and whose addresses I know for theirs." The book is a labor of love, as much meant for her son as for the memory of her late husband. It is touching in places, especially Lewis's own account, and certainly complicates the identification of Allberry with Calvert. S. Gorley Putt, whose article set me off on this literary jaunt, looked at the differences in Snow's novel and in Lewis's Portrait, noting that "They remind one of the difference between fiction and fact, however closely a fictional figure may resemble a real person in some aspects. I do this in fairness not only to Charles Allberry but also to my other friend, Charles Snow the novelist {not, remember, "the biographer")."

It is interesting, though, to examine the aspects of Snow's depiction of Calvert that clearly upset his widow. As she writes, when she heard that Snow had written a book based on Allberry:
I bought it at W.H. Smith's, and, like his parents, was distressed at what I read. To those who did not know Charles and have difficulty in differentiating between the true and fictional qualities portrayed in the book, I should like to say this: I can vouch for the fact that Charles was never sexually immoral, the reverse was true--he was a man of high moral and religious principles; that though he poked fun at people and delighted in bringing them down a peg if they became, as he thought, "inflated", he would never bait them--he was too kind for that; that at times he suffered moods of depression may well be true (what highly intellectual man or woman does not?), but that these were grossly exaggerated by the author and provided the theme for the novel, and certainly I never saw him depressed; that he was not pro-Nazi (as events later proved) though he might have admired the Nazi efficiency and orderliness--he detested their treatment of the Jews and other dissidents and the disservice they were rendering to universal scholarship. He did admire the German people, especially their industry and enthusiasm, the cleanliness of their towns, their music and poetry.
(Portrait at 6).

Now,with one significant exception, this is not really inconsistent with Snow's novel.

To deal with the most damning piece first, Calvert's pro-Nazi leanings, he is depicted as admiring the energy and efficiency of the Reich. This is repeated several times in the novel, but most notably when Calvert invites the narrator Lewis Eliot to Germany, where Calvert is pursuing his studies. As they walk through Berlin, the friends quarrel:
"It has great power. Don't you feel it has great power?" He spoke with extreme force. As he spoke, I knew for sure what I had already suspected: he had brought me to Berlin to convert me.


He had set out to convince me that the Nazis had history on their side.
The future could be in German hands. There would be great suffering on the way, they might end in a society as dreadful as the worst of this present one: but there was a chance—perhaps a better chance than any other—that in time, perhaps in our lifetime, they would create a brilliant civilisation.

'If they succeed', said Roy, 'everyone will forget the black spots. In history success is the only virtue."
(The Light and the Dark, 183). Calvert views the world (as does Eliot, as do many of the figures in the novel), as a choice between Germany and Russia, believing that the democracies of Europe had used up their moral and philosophical force. He finds Communism "sterile" and "naive"; He finds the Germans more "human." (Light and the Dark, at 184-185).

But like Allberry, Roy inveighs (at some risk to himself, as this is taking place in Nazi Germany, "at an august official dinner") against anti-semitism: "You're a wonderful people," Roy says, as a concerned English attache in Berlin tells Eliot, "You're grave. You're gifted. You might begin a new civilization. I wish you would. I'm speaking as a friend, you see. But don't you think you're slightly mad? Your treatment of the Jews--why need you do it? It's unnecessary. It gets you nowhere. It's insane. Sometimes I think, whatever else you do, it will be enough to condemn you." (Light and the Dark, at 175-176). In later novels, we read that he has helped several Jewish scholars and dissidents to escape before the outbreak of war.

Roy's flirtation with the Reich takes place in 1938; by 1939, he has rejected the Reich as his last, most desperate effort to throw himself into a purpose that could save him. He only turns to it after romantic love, and then religion fail him because he simply can't believe in God.

Roy's teasing only turns cruel on one occasion, when he revives an old academic scandal at an academic gathering honoring an old fraud. Mostly, his humor accords with Allberry's own as described by his widow.

As to the depression, Pat Lewis quotes a letter from Snow to his brother Philip that demonstrates that, whatever her experience of Allberry was, Snow believed that Allberry suffered:
His loss is harder to bear than that of any of my other friends would be. I learned from him more of the adventures and solitariness of the spirit than from anyone else; in some ways he was the most gifted and the most remarkable of all of us, and the most unhappy."
While some contributors to the volume deny any depression at all on the part of Allberry, others describe specific outbreaks of it, while noting the difficulty of the times--the Great Depression and the Second World War. Most acknowledge that Snow knew Allberry far better and longer than did they.

The one area where Snow's depiction is completely inconsistent with A Portrait? Sexual and morality and faith. Allberry converted to Roman Catholicism--not because Pat Lewis was a Catholic herself, but as he grew alienated from the Anglo-Catholicism in which he was raised. That's a fact, on which we Allberry's own words, preserved in a letter in A Portrait. Calvert struggles with faith, and fails, as I described in my recent sermon and it was Catholicism that called to him.

I'm not claiming that Snow is "right" and Pat Lewis is "wrong." I'm claiming that Snow the novelist, not the biographer (as Putt admirably phrases it) is closer to her memories than she realizes, and that his love of his friend did not stop him from recalling, if possibly heightening, his dangerous flirtation with a political philosophy the full scope of whose evil was not fully grasped by many in England at the time. Both portraits are done with love, one in charcoal, the other in brighter colors. Each enriches the other. Snow's novel does not take away Lewis's reminiscence--she depicts the surprising joy and fulfillment he found as a husband in the last years of his life (Snow depicts Calvert's war-time marriage as happy, too, and as breaking the cycle of depression if not permanently, then at least until Calvert's death). Her surety that he found religious faith at the time of his conversion--well, the Roy we see at the end is at peace.

But ultimately, only one of them was real. Charles Allberry was clearly a greatly gifted man, a complex and brave man, and one who raised the emotional temperature of a room by his presence. Nigel Havers captured that in the adaptation. CP Snow gave him the means to do it. But Lewis's Portrait reminds us that history has its claims, even over fiction.

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