Wednesday, 14 January 2004

C. P. Snow: The Light and the Dark (1947)

Edition: House of Stratus, 2000 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1211

Though the Strangers and Brothers sequence as a whole is basically a semi-autobiographical narrative describing one man's life in England in the middle third or so of the twentieth century, here the focus of attention is not narrator Lewis Eliot himself but a younger friend. The Light and the Dark is set during about a decade starting in the early thirties, just after Lewis Eliot has been elected a Fellow of a minor Cambridge college. There, he befriends Roy Calvert, a brilliant linguist but a manic depressive. The story of their enduring friendship is set first against the background of academic politics and then administrative work in London during the Second World War. The title doesn't just refer to Calvert's moods, of course, but to the gathering clouds of the coming war; the novel contains a fair amount of the intellectual conversation about Fascism and Communism recorded more centrally in Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point. (Many of the chapter headings also reflect the title, being full of references to light or to times of day.) Eliot spends the novel worrying about Calvert - what he might do to himself when down, how he could alienate others when up.

Like all of Snow's novels, The Light and the Dark is concerned mainly with relationships between men, particularly the small scale politics of the (still single sex) Oxbridge college. There are female characters in the novel, mainly there to provide some love interest for Calvert (Eliot is married, but his wife plays no part in the novel except for the occasional passing reference). Within its limits, though, the writing is superb. You get the feeling that Snow hits his stride once he can begin writing about the human interactions behind committee meetings, and even to someone like myself who hates them, he makes them fascinating.

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