C P Snow’s Strangers and Brothers series reaches an early climax of intensity in this, the fourth novel in the series. The Light and the Dark has at its centre a number of personal dramas – Lewis Eliot’s unhappiness, for example, or the long and painful illness and death of the Master of a Cambridge college, but the dominant theme is the unhappiness and despair of the talented Roy Calvert. Eliot and Calvert, who knew each other in early manhood, are both junior fellows of a small Cambridge college, and close friends. Eliot is unhappily married, but is otherwise a straightforward, solid, sensible citizen, and an anchor for the brilliant but depressive – indeed, occasionally maniacal – Calvert. (The illustration is Paul Hogarth's cover for the Penguin edition of the late 1970s).
Roy Calvert is an attractive character, exceptionally gifted (his particular interest is in deciphering early manuscripts in unknown Middle Eastern languages), and a magnet for women. But he is broodingly unhappy and occasionally utterly depressed and suicidal, and prone to fits of extreme insomnia, violent and uncontrollable outbursts. For all his talent, his teasing and lightness of character – he clearly takes full advantage of his relations with women – means he is not popular with the older, crustier members of college, though he can show exceptional and sustained kindness to a colleague in distress – Eliot, the dying Master’s wife, a remote and difficult colleague whose son disappoints him.
The novel runs from the difficult years of pre-war, when left and right were perhaps more bitterly and fundamentally estranged than at any point in recent political history, through to the years of the Battle of Britain. Roy tries to deal with his unhappiness in several different ways: with love affairs, with friends, with a fruitless search for religious faith. None works. Two women in particular love him, but although he eventually marries one of them, you are left in no doubt that the peculiar circumstances of the marriage are dictated not by his love but his compassion. His search for faith – as perhaps all conscious searches of the sort are – was doomed to failure, and while his friends love him and depend on him, they cannot support and sustain him in the darkest days.
Eventually, his work takes him to Nazi Germany. This is entirely natural, as Berlin is a great centre for his area of study, but it leads to an attraction to fascism and an immense strain with his left-leaning friends in England. He tries to convert Eliot, too, in one of the unhappiest passages between them, but fails, although the reader gets an unusual insight into the formidable power of pre-war fascism to attract and subvert a certain class of Englishman. This leads to a bizarre and dangerous episode later, during the war, when an attempt is apparently made to involve him in spying for Germany, involving a long and complex and dangerous trip into the heart of Europe in the middle of war (in neutral territory only), a wondrous window for Eliot and Calvert on normal, civilised life, with food, lights and theatres. Once war has broken out, however, Calvert sees that fascism is as false a god as any other, and he serves with distinction in intelligence, later insisting on transferring to the RAF, where he has realised his chances of survival are lowest. The end is inevitable, tragic, and empty.
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark ...