Masterful

C.P.Snow. The Masters. 1951. (London: Penguin Books, 1956) 312pp.

Sixty years old, this – well, the only word is masterful – book on psychology and power relations has still to be bettered. It looks and smells all of its sixty years, the atmosphere and trappings seeming to savour of ambered wines and musty times past, the Cambridge college in which it is set cocooned in the opening’s deadening snow – and my paperback copy has long loosened its hold on itself – but its taste is crisp, clear, contemporary. In fact it describes a time of change, new money beginning to shift the college on its axis and anticipating future developments by remembering its past evolution. More than this, it describes so well things that do not change, the thoughts of men, their pride, ambitions, their subtleties, manoeuvrings, and self-deceptions, and in its swift sentences layering tension and suspicion contains more hard clear gems of human insight than barrowloads of contemporary psychological fiction. I say men – the focus is on men, the dying Master of a college, and his thirteen colleagues who must gather to elect a new leader. If this sounds dull, nothing could be less so. They are observed absorbed in action, in feeling and testing and using their influence, in trying their power, their strength, their allegiances, facing their own vanities and humiliations, in defeat, death, and annihilation. Women are actors too, it must be said, although as wives and loves far from alone centre stage, and they like all the people here are glimpsed in movement or helpless stasis as the clock ticks towards the election’s resolution. In short, this is politics writ naked, but instrumentally, cunningly, beautifully dissected. C.P.Snow himself was a molecular physicist, but had a good war: he became involved in the Civil Service selecting of scientific personnel, and his judgements of personality were tested in white heat. His narrator thus exacts an expert scrutiny on men judging and being judged, and finds unpredictability in the dullest, predictability in the most imaginative. The book should not therefore only be read by disillusioned university lecturers, though it describes better than almost anywhere I’ve seen the thirst for knowledge and the drying of its streams, and better than anywhere the politics of university living, the mutual suspicion of the arts and sciences, the pressure of both under dwindling resources. Its level dryness can make brief quotation from it seem, summary, spare, even unconvincing; yet in so squarely building its effects one detail or sentence can drop us with sickening suddenness through a hole in the human heart. The compassion, grief, and vulnerabilities glimpsed beneath the surface means the novel by no means lacks an emotional centre. It opens to view all the things, in other words, that matter to people in the world. Within its small canvas it is one of the wisest and most moving novels imaginable, and like the best realist fiction a living, dying world in miniature.

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~ by thebicyclops on June 15, 2011.

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