A terrible pun to start off – “the snows are all fled away” from Horace’s famous ode, merely to mark the end of my reading of C P Snow’s Strangers and Brothers series, eleven full length novels spanning British life and politics from just before the 1914-18 war until the 1970s. I have written about all the individual novels over the past few months – see the C P Snow tab under “categories” – and I do not propose to reprise them now.
But I did want to attempt some overall evaluation. The first point is that re-reading these novels – for perhaps the third or fourth time – was in no sense drudgery or a burden, even though there must be over 3,500 pages or so. This may have been because I spread them out over several months, always allowing a fortnight or so to elapse between novels, which gave me a chance to read something else, and to tune into a different locale and a different chronology. They were a delight, and I recommend them warmly; they can easily be read as independent novels (especially, I judge, The Masters and The New Men), but they gain immeasurably in richness by being read as a sequence.
They are warm, disconcertingly honest, and very knowledgeable and wise; they occupy a different social milieu to Powell’s Dance To The Music of Time, a more robustly workaday one, more concerned with the tasks and enterprise of power and the struggle to form and manage relationships, and less with Powell’s interest in the emotional and psychological drama of power and love. Both are acute social and personal observers, though Powell is clearly the finer writer and the more easily applicable to different periods and different personalities – though Snow has his strengths here too. Powell’s style is quite different, as well – more light and allusive, while Snow is normally a more “straightforward” writer, both in terms of plot construction and prose, though anyone who thinks this is an easy matter of “writing down what happens” has clearly not tried it!
Finally, a word about Snow’s other books. There are other novels, few of which I have read – but there are two crime novels, too, both well worth reading. Early in manner – a writing finding his feet – is Death Under Sail, an enjoyable mystery on a sailing holiday on the Norfolk Broads; it is slightly old fashioned, and has a few lively characters who perhaps veer too close to caricature. But A Coat of Varnish is much more assured, a formidable novel about a brutal murder in an affluent but declining square in west London; the violence breaks through the thin coat of varnish which is all that civilisation is, covering and hiding our animal natures. Soon, you know who the murderer is – but can the police prove it? And what does this sudden irruption of violence mean for the serenity and security of the people who live in the square? – a fine murder thriller, worthy of the top shelf.