After the reality of the Second World War, and the struggle of nuclear weapons, as well as the more personal tragedies of Roy Calvert and Lewis Eliot’s first wife, Sheila, it’s perhaps hard to imagine that there are darker moods to come in Eliot’s journey through life. But C P Snow’s penultimate Strangers and Brothers novel, The Sleep of Reason, is dark indeed: dark in fact – he is threatened with blindness – and dark in metaphor – as he is drawn into a horrific child killing. But, as always, one of the great messages is that life goes on, creating warmth and joy with the same indiscriminate abandon as the horror, and often at the same time. (The title of the book comes from the Goya etching, "The Sleep of reason Produces Monsters").
Eliot is retired and happy (“call no man happy until he is dead”), but embroiled in the myriad complexities of a full life – worrying over how will his children manage as they move from school to university, the death of his saint-like father, and dealing with his ill and acerbic father in law, observing the emotional affairs of the generation (or two) behind him, and trying to steer a reactionary colleague away from some disciplinary stupidities at the university in his home town in the Midlands. There are many, many strands to this book, as to all the others, but two stand out.
First, he wakes one morning to find a dark curtain over one of his eyes, a physical threat and an clear allegory for the difficulties in understanding the motivations of others. He has an operation for detached retina, and is confined to the dark while he recovers – a physical stillness and a sensory deprivation which he finds frightening, intolerable, and which proves useless, as the operation fails. He is fortunate, and gets some valuable sight back, but the threat of being cut off, and the warning of old age and death is upon him. But the real darkness is one of understanding – he has the reputation, and the pride, of being able to see further through a millstone than most – and he is then precipitated into a ghastly story.
Two women, lesbians clearly, and one of them his teenage friend George Passant’s niece Cora, are suspected of carefully plotting to abduct, torture and then kill a young schoolboy. This is a modern theme, perhaps, but the novel was published in 1968 and was set in 1963 – and Hindley committed her crimes in 1963-65 (though her lover, also guilty of complicity in her crimes, was a man). (As with Powell, the gap between setting and writing has necessarily to diminish as each seeks a complete chronicle of his times). He can do nothing, he has no role in the events, but he agrees to meet Cora before and after the trial, and to attend the trial itself to accompany and support Passant. In the end, Passant cannot take it, and absents himself, and Lewis bears the burden almost alone, although various family members and friends ensure he is never completely by himself.
In spite of the horror, the horror, the book contrives to move with an easy and assured grace, and finds ways of going on and going forward even in the darkest moments. Throughout, the teasing and sceptical love of his wife and son Charles keep open another vision of the world – a world which is seriously flawed, and in which one must play a remedial and possibly radical role – but also a world in which no one man has to shoulder the burdens of all mankind. Reason sleeps, but will wake again.