Posts Tagged 'jake’s thing'

A sympathetic reaction: C.P. Snow’s The Light and the Dark.

In a subplot of Kingsley Amis’s 1978 novel Jake’s Thing, an Oxford college debates whether to surrender to the Zeitgeist and admit female students. It’s mentioned that a strange alliance is forming between the more reactionary of the men’s colleges – attached to the status quo for the reasons you’d expect – and the women’s colleges, who fear losing their student base to the more prestigious, traditionally all-male institutions.

“It’s like something out of C.P. Snow,” someone observes.

For C.P. Snow’s novels are famously About Politics. I capitalize the words to emphasize that this is not the same as being Political, as the word is usually meant: when we attend an evening of Political comedy, we don’t expect a bunch of gags about coalition building, or how to swing a recalcitrant committee member to your side; we expect to be lectured about how awful the Republicans are, with (if we’re lucky) a few jokes thrown in.

I would be hard-pressed to name a book more About Politics than 1951’s The Masters, which concerns the manoeuvres leading up to a vote by the dozen or so fellows of a Cambridge college to elect a new Master from among themselves. It’s a topic that would lend itself to black humour; but however low-stakes their dissensions appear, however petty their motives, Snow never treats his characters cynically. As he wrote elsewhere, in what could serve as a thesis statement for all his fiction:

Put your ear to those meetings and you heard the intricate labyrinthine and unassuageable rapacity, even in the best of men, of the love of power. If you have heard it once – say, in electing the chairman of a tiny dramatic society, it does not matter where – you have heard it in colleges, in bishoprics, in ministries, in cabinets: men do not alter because the issues they decide are bigger scale.

That passage comes from 1954’s The New Men, which is about British physicists working to develop the atom bomb during World War II, and subsequent efforts by the idealists among them to prevent the bomb from actually being used. It belongs, along with the better-known The Masters, to the Strangers and Brothers series: eleven novels written over a span of thirty years, collectively depicting a life and career arc roughly paralleling the author’s own. I’ve read three others:

The Affair (1960), set twenty years after The Masters and at the same Cambridge college, concerns an apparent case of academic fraud by a stridently left-wing scientist that divides the administration.

The Sleep of Reason (1968), set in a grimy corner of England during the 1960s sexual revolution, examines both sides of a sexually sadistic murder trial where the sanity of the defendants is in doubt. (It was Peter Hitchens’s review of The Sleep of Reason a few years back that inspired me to start collecting Snow’s books.)

The Light and the Dark (1947) I’ll be discussing below.

Our narrator and authorial stand-in Lewis Elliott takes an active part in the conflicts animating these stories. He’s usually aligned with the “radical” side, meaning he supports the modern progressive agenda, more or less, albeit with more central economic planning and less freaky sex stuff. But Elliott, like his creator, is a level-headed, good-humoured chap who keeps up friendships even with political foes.

But it’s not only the author’s fair-mindedness that keeps the novels from feeling propagandistic – Political in the typical sense. It’s that Snow isn’t much interested in rehashing topics that at the time would have seemed wearisomely familiar from op-eds and dinner party debates. Perhaps because he sees political beliefs as being formed by personality and social pressures rather than by reasoned-out arguments, or perhaps simply because he finds political debate dull as a subject for fiction, the content of those debates is usually skimmed over. His characters let fall acid remarks at parties, unburden their souls while strolling by the Cam, reveal too much under the influence of alcohol, but their words are always slightly askew of the main point. On occasion a key revelation will be so artfully, annoyingly lacking in specifics that you wonder if you’ve skipped a page.

c.p. snow the light and the dark

The Light and the Dark, though less About Politics than the other books mentioned above, is somewhat more Political. It’s about Lewis Elliott’s friendship with a dashing, brilliant, emotionally troubled linguist named Roy Calvert, whose specialty is the early writings of Manichaeism, the extinct faith whose name has become shorthand for black-white thinking.

The setting is Cambridge and London in the 1930s. Calvert’s researches take him frequently to Berlin, where in his naturally gregarious way he makes friends in both low and high society: among the Bohemian fringe as well as in the ruling Nazi elite.

Back home he is reproached by some of his fellow academics for his apparent Nazi sympathies, but such sentiments are not uncommon at a time when many moderate Englishmen are still eager to believe that war can be avoided. Calvert is protected by his reputation for frivolity. At the faculty dining table he amuses himself by teasing the more hawkish fellows; with a straight face he suggests that the college’s Jewish scholars be reclassified as “Welsh by statute” to remove a potential source of friction with the Germans. And yet he’s personally unprejudiced, twits his Nazi friends openly about their “mad” Jewish policy, and at some personal risk and expense helps a family of German Jews resettle in England.

Inviting the narrator to visit him in Berlin, Calvert opens up about his hopes for the regime:

The future [said Calvert] would 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 life time, they would create a brilliant civilisation.

“If they succeed,” said Roy, “everyone will forget the black spots. In history success is the only virtue.”

To us this sounds callous and nuts, but Calvert knows that it will be difficult for Elliott to refute without being hypocritical; it so closely parallels the arguments of their pro-Soviet friends. [1]

(As a real-life example, here’s Snow’s contemporary, the poet Stephen Spender, remembering in The God That Failed what he believed as a young Communist in 1930s England:

One ceases to be inhibited by pity for the victims of revolution. … These lives have become abstractions in an argument in which the present is the struggle, and the future is Communism – a world where everyone will, eventually, be free. … It is “humanitarian” weakness to think too much about the victims. The point is to fix one’s eyes on the goal, and then one is freed from the horror and anxiety – quite useless in any case – which inhibit the energies of the liberal mind.)

Calvert, though himself intellectually subtle and temperamentally moderate, is attracted to simple and radical solutions. He is fond of a paradox (apparently a paraphrase of a famous line of the Cambridge clergyman Charles Simeon) that “the truth lies at both extremes. But never in the middle.” We see that his attraction to Nazism is connected to his religious yearnings – an atheist despite himself, he is terrified by the implications of free will, and suspects that he and others would be happier with their choices constrained. He perceives a germ of good sense at the core of the Nazi’s authoritarian philosophy which allows him to forgive their excesses.

It’s fascinating to hear such a likable character propound a tolerant view of Nazism, a view which must have been widespread in pre-war England but which now is so utterly abominated that it’s given voice only by cranks. As I’ve written before, despite its current reputation as a cesspool of drooling halfwits, had Nazism lasted longer as a governing philosophy it would inevitably, like Soviet Communism, have accumulated a vast library of subtle encomiums by anti-bourgeois intellectuals. People are capable of believing any implausible thing, and clever people are both better than the rest of us at coming up with good arguments for implausible beliefs, and more likely to be attracted to beliefs that give them the scope to demonstrate their cleverness. (The question, in this as in any other age, is whether our prevailing belief system is likely to stand up to the judgement of history, or whether we too will be revealed to have been taken in by a lot of fine-sounding razzmatazz.)

Calvert never exactly renounces his sympathies; when war breaks out he falls patriotically back into line. He tries retrospectively to explain to his friend his mixed feelings:

Roy said that he had never quite been able to accept the Reich. It was a feeble simulacrum of his search for God. Yet he knew what it was like to believe in such a cause. “If they had been just a little different, they would have been the last hope.” I said that was unrealistic: by the nature of things, they could not have been different. But he turned on me:

“It’s as realistic as what you hope for. Even if [the Germans] lose, the future isn’t going the way you think. Lewis, this is where your imagination doesn’t seem to work. But you’ll live to see it. It will be dreadful.”

As usual, Snow doesn’t spell out what Calvert means. I’d guess that in his disdain for the comfortable middle way Calvert dreads the triumph of Nietzsche’s Last Man, that stunted mediocrity incapable of higher aspirations than securing the safety of his own supple and well-moisturized hide:

One no longer becomes poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wants to rule? Who still wants to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wants the same; everyone is the same: he who feels differently goes voluntarily into the madhouse.

“Formerly all the world was insane,” – say the subtlest of them, and they blink.

They are clever and know all that has happened: so there is no end to their derision. People still quarrel, but are soon reconciled – otherwise it upsets their stomachs.

They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

“We have discovered happiness,” – say the Last Men, and they blink.

–from Thus Spake Zarathustra

Nearly eighty years later we’re much further along the road to Last Manhood, and it’s a good bet that if Calvert had lived to see it he would have despised our culture of trigger warnings, social media mobs, and corporate thought policing. Whether the progressive Lewis Elliott would have adapted better to present-day pieties is unclear. In his broad-minded way he would no doubt have found much to praise about them; but I suspect he would have felt a twinge of compunction when he saw some so-called Nazi being harried from his career for threatening the highly-evolved sensibilities of the modern Left.

M.

1. Update, Feb. 20, 2019. In Corridors of Power, a later entry in the Strangers and Brothers series set at the height of the Cold War, the narrator unconsciously echoes his old friend’s words. By this time, Lewis Elliott is a high-ranking civil servant in the defense bureaucracy whose anti-nuclear leanings attract suspicion from his own side’s spooks. Grilled about his youthful friendship with avowed Communists, he replies:

“I’m not emotional about the operations of politics. But about the hopes behind them, I’m deeply so. I thought it was obvious that the Revolution in Russia was going to run into some major horrors of power. I wasn’t popular with [my Communist friends] for telling them so. But that isn’t all. I always believed that the power was working two ways. They were doing good things with it, as well as bad. When once they got some insight into the horrors, then they might create a wonderful society. I now believe that, more confidently than I ever did. How it will compare with the American society, I don’t know. But as long as they both survive, I should have thought that many of the best human hopes stand an excellent chance.”

Update, July 28, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

Last year I voiced my revulsion at all the trendy talk about Nazi-punching, and more recently I expressed some sympathy for racist idiots. Nietzsche’s Last Man has been on my mind quite a bit over the last few years; witness this 2016 post about time travel, immigration, and the End of History which, I’ve come to realize, pretty much sums up everything I currently believe, making all my subsequent commentary redundant.

Stanley and the Women, and why Martin Amis didn’t like it.

I read Kingsley Amis’s Stanley and the Women with curiosity. All I knew of it was what Martin Amis had said in his 2000 memoir Experience, that it was “a mean little novel in every sense, sour, spare, and viciously well-organized”, that with its “programmatic gynophobia” his father had effectively announced the “cancellation of his own artistic androgyny”.

kingsley amis stanley and the women

Although Martin suggests these failings are evident from page one, for me it wasn’t until the end of the book that Kingsley’s agenda became apparent. True, the chief villain is a woman, a psychologist who lectures Stanley, whose schizophrenic son she’s treating, on the defects of his generation’s childrearing methods:

“Of course with changing social conditions the elitist role of education is passing too.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

“Nowadays there’s much more emphasis on the social function, training the kids to relate to each other and preparing them to take their places in the adult world.”

“At my school we got that thrown in, just by being there. We didn’t attend classes in it.”

“No, and we can see the results, can’t we?”

I thought about it. “Can we?” She probably meant sexism and censorship and things like that.

And true, other female characters are characterized as undependable, irrational, vindictive, and self-deluding. The men, meanwhile, even the minor characters, routinely take Stanley aside to share their unflattering take on gender relations. A police superintendent, after an encounter with the security chief of a Middle Eastern embassy:

“You know, Mr Duke, from a personal point of view, speaking just for myself you understand, the Major Fuads of this world have got one thing to be said not for them at all, just about them. They do seem to have got the women problem sorted out nice and neat. Whether you like it or not.”

An Irishman Stanley finds standing in the rain, kicking and punching a wall:

“The wife’s being a little bit provoking … you know, feminine. Now whenever that happens I don’t say a word, I come straight outside wherever I may be and I do what I just been doing for two minutes, and then I go back in the full joy of spring. When I got married I told myself I could be happy or I could be right, and I’ve been happy now for twenty-two years.”

In his memoir Martin mentions a recurring theme of Kingsley’s around the time he was writing Stanley:

It made my head drop, during this time, when my father, elaborately and not entirely unmordantly, started to liken women to the USSR (department of propaganda): when they do it they say this; when you do it they say that; and so on.

A variant of this made it into the novel. Here’s Stanley on the challenge of maintaining cordial relations with his self-absorbed ex-wife:

I remembered Cliff Wainwright saying once that women were like the Russians – if you did exactly what they wanted all the time you were being realistic and constructive and promoting the cause of peace, and if you ever stood up to them you were resorting to cold-war tactics and pursuing imperialistic designs and interfering in their internal affairs. And by the way of course peace was more peaceful, but if you went on promoting its cause long enough you ended up Finlandized at best.

The hero is unshocked by opinions like his friend Cliff’s, but he generously continues to make allowances for the females around him. If most of those females are “fucky nuck cases” (to quote a barroom interlocutor), at least Stanley’s wife is a paragon of good humour and well-adjustedness. I suppose it should have been more obvious to me as I read that finally she too would go off the rails, and so she does, precipitating Stanley’s acquiescence, at novel’s end, to Cliff’s resentful maunderings:

“According to some bloke on the telly the other night,” he said, “twenty-five per cent of violent crime in England and Wales is husbands assaulting wives. Amazing figure that, don’t you think? You’d expect it to be more like eighty per cent. Just goes to show what an easy-going lot English husbands are, only one in four of them bashing his wife. No, it doesn’t mean that, does it? But it’s funny about wife-battering. Nobody ever even asks what the wife had been doing or saying. She’s never anything but an ordinary God-fearing woman who happens to have a battering husband. Same as race prejudice. Here are a lot of fellows who belong to a race minding their own business and being as good as gold and not letting butter melt in their mouths, and bugger me if a gang of prejudiced chaps don’t rush up and start discriminating against them. Frightfully unfair.”

So I see what Martin Amis means when he talks about the novel’s “programmatic gynophobia”. I can also see how, with just the perfect tilt of one’s irony antennae, one might detect in Stanley a subtle satire of discombobulated manhood. Martin floated this possibility by his father:

– And by the way. There’s a huge piece in the London Review by Marilyn Butler saying that Stanley is pro-women after all. That’s balls, isn’t it.

– Oh, absolutely.

Martin’s verdict on Stanley and its similarly-themed predecessor Jake’s Thing:

The critique of womankind that seeps its way through Jake and Stanley is certainly not without interest or pertinence (both novels are sinisterly vigorous). … My objection to these novels is simpler than that: I can feel Dad’s thumb on the scales.

Of course, the author’s thumb is always on the scales, that’s how fiction happens. Books don’t write themselves, characters don’t dictate their own actions, however much it sometimes feels that way to an author in thrall to inspiration. Ultimately it’s you making your characters do and say particular things to achieve some intended effect, whether it’s to advance the plot or to make some didactic point, like Kingsley’s point that women are fucky nuck cases.

It’s no good to say that didacticism is itself a failing – Martin has himself written didactic fiction about the Holocaust, nuclear weapons (both of these things bad, let’s agree), and, over and over again, the delusions and dislocations of modern English manhood (also pretty bad). Nor is it a question of having to agree with the lesson the author is imparting. One can read Dickens or Jane Austen and be entirely unconvinced by the supposed moral conundrums faced by their characters – what are one’s obligations to a daughter who has dishonoured herself? what should be one’s attitude to a friend who marries a person of lower social station? – yet still respond to the books as literature.

Dickens and Austen are undoubtedly didactic authors – great ones. The problem with bad didactic authors like Ayn Rand or Upton Sinclair, say, is they’re clumsily didactic. Their characters say unbelievable things because their authors don’t have the skill to render any voice besides their own.

I guess that’s sort of Martin’s complaint about Stanley. It’s not the presence of his father’s thumb, it’s that he can feel it, Kingsley’s stubby digit, poking his characters in the ribs, reminding them to stick to the script. I don’t doubt that Martin Amis has subtler sensitivities than me. But I never noticed it, Kingsley’s thumb. It’s as well-hidden to me as it is in all his other novels, in every one of which, in just as ruthless a fashion, he prods his men and women along a preordained path toward a destiny he’s decided for them.

Stanley‘s women are wicked, as women sometimes are. Their creator is only showing a partial picture, of course, but that’s what a novel always by necessity is.

M.

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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