(This book was read and post written in August 2014.)
I did a quick run-through of my posts on Academic Novels before trying to write/blog about this book, but I see that the category is a mess, like everything thing else on this site. A tiny bit of semi-research (wikipedia) helps to clarify the basic outlines of the topic, and I can see a path towards a modest amount of coherence. It would entail, however, reading two more books that have been sitting on shelf for the last five years, alongside this one. I don’t want to jinx my extremely fragile start here with any large ambitions and I’ll leave them aside and try to begin with a few basic notes and thoughts about this novel.
Nobody needs to read this book, but somehow I managed it, and I’m trying to figure out how and why . The writing is solid enough, proper and clear and precise, and one waits for and enjoys the sporadic moments of keen insight into human motivation and decision-making. I should mention that I tried to read this book four or five times in the past and failed (just as I have failed with so many others, so I don’t really hold that against it). The subject matter and characters are especially esoteric, a small collection of British dons responding to the impending death of their Master and the intricate politics of choosing his successor. It’s very hard to grab hold, at least it was for me and I would imagine it would be for most people, but once I managed it and sorted out the characters there was enough conflict, intrigue and Cambridge local color to keep going. Perhaps reading Snow’s long series, Strangers and Brothers, in which this is Book 5, but the second one he wrote (1951), would make things easier, but that would be a lengthy, albeit easy-going, slog. The narrator Lewis Eliot is a blank slate of sorts, and one assumes that the preceding books effectively introduce him and make his perspective on events a bit more personal and interesting. The Masters is, however, known as one of the better books in the series, I think, which doesn’t bode well for its general appeal. Snow was an acclaimed popular novelist through the 50s and into the 60s, and a leading public intellectual, and nobody talks about him now I don’t think. As a successor to Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy during a period when readers and scholars were just beginning to take the measure of Joyce and Woolf and Modernist innovation, Snow has faded into a similar corner of obscurity and neglect as his predecessors. Perhaps it’s largely a matter of riding the losing Realist horse during his own epoch rather than a failure to be especially interesting. But what do I know.
The Masters is intriguing because writing about the internal politics of an ancient Cambridge college at a critical pre-WW2 juncture was a significant innovation. It hits upon the idea that the Academy and higher education is a world unto itself and a rich, fat subject for storytelling and character. Part of what’s interesting about this book is that it’s serious and not a satire–it was a remarkably short interval before Kingsley Amis turned the brand new sub-genre on its head and wrote a classic outsider novel, Lucky Jim (1954), within its stately confines. The fact that the genre was so perfectly suited to satire, and continues to be so to this day, is compelling–the depths of our ambivalence about intellectualism and the Academy are boundless–, and at this late date it seems strange and almost impossible to approach the topic with the perfect and total seriousness we see here.
Another benefit is that this novel captures political posturing, calculation and machinations at an extreme level in a sophisticated, odd, detached and secluded setting during a time when global politics were at their most incendiary. That must be a big part of Snow’s point, and his book might even be deeply satirical at its core, while never cracking a smile or making a wink. Like Edwardian novels and stories that portray blithe ignorance of an era coming to an end, this story shows how intricate small, human scale politics were playing out even as revolutionary political events were in motion around the globe. Snow had his own larger literary saga project to serve, but he was also writing after the war about the late 30’s, and he was studying the way that politics and men as political animals function in a cloister that was something like a vacuum.
Snow is also working his personal public intellectual hobby horse here. As a literary-minded chemist he spent the late 50’s and early 60’s lamenting the ignorance about basic science of highly trained and intelligent academics and intellectuals. The dons in the Masters aren’t specifically divided into scientific/literary groups, but the reader gets a clear sense that the college is made up of distinct personalities that break down along those lines. Snow’s narrator/main character Lewis Eliot backs the anxious but humane, old-fashioned conservative from the beginning, preferring his individual sympathy as a trump (!) to his right-leaning politics, but the liberal scientist opponent, more in step with world events, battles him to the very end. Thus Snow seems to be writing out an elaborate metaphor for his own sympathies, along with the inexorable necessities of the future.