Lord Snow, a friend

C. P. Snow, the English novelist, essayist, civil servant, and physicist, is one of my best friends. Not that I actually met Lord Snow, who passed on in 1980 . But I know him, even so.

Flipping through a book catalog a few years ago, I came across an omnibus edition of Snow's 11-novel series called ''Strangers and Brothers.'' The work was unfamiliar, and I would have brushed past if my attention had not snagged on the title of one of the novels, ''Corridors of Power.'' I liked the phrase, which neatly evokes the vaguely sinister chancelleries where affairs of state are conducted behind closed doors. Whether Snow coined the phrase or merely adopted it, we had taken a common fancy. I sent for the books.

As I began to read my new acquisitions, an unexpected thing happened. What had begun as mere curiosity ripened into interest, and interest into affection. The outlook and concerns of this faraway Englishman struck responsive chords in my own thinking and emotions. To my surprise and delight, in these lifeless amalgams of cloth and paper and printer's ink I found a kindred spirit.

Since that introduction I have read nearly all of Snow's novels and much of a sizable body of nonfiction dealing principally with his twin interests, literature and science (which he termed in a famous lecture ''The Two Cultures''). I have also canvassed the writings of literary scholars, and I read with interest a recently published reminiscence by Snow's younger brother, Philip. The pleasures of this comradeship-through-words have not abated. Familiarity has bred not contempt, but greater empathy and insight.

''Strangers and Brothers,'' Snow's masterwork, is the story, told by himself, of Lewis Eliot. The series is divided between novels of experience, in which Eliot is a principal actor, and novels of observation, in which Eliot steps back and more or less performs the role of a traditional narrator (although his distinctive personality is always present).

The novels take Eliot from his boyhood in a provincial English city to his autumn years in London in the 1960s. He successively becomes a junior barrister, a Cambridge don, and, beginning during World War II, a rising government official and writer; he also marries twice and has a son. The novels of observation depict the tragic career of a brilliant but troubled young scholar, the rift between an idealistic Jewish doctor and his disappointed father, the desperate efforts of English physicists to win the race to the atomic bomb during the dark days of World War II, the rise and fall of an ambitious cabinet minister.

Several themes recur. One, often ignored in literature, is the working world of the managers, scientists, academicians, and other professionals who run modern societies; tracing the careers of his characters, Snow reflects on the vicissitudes of success and failure. Other important themes include the maneuvering for power that goes on in human organizations (''The Masters,'' a novel about a bitter election for the mastership of a Cambridge college, is considered by some to be Snow's finest work); the possibility, despite formidable obstacles, for mature, enduring relationships between men and women; and the bittersweet, sometimes heartbreaking love between fathers and sons.

There are, not surprisingly, many autobiographical elements in the novels (Philip Snow identifies some of the models for his brother's fictional characters). As with every true artist, however, Snow molds and shapes the raw material of his experience until it transcends itself and the fiction takes on a breathing life of its own.

In an admiring biography of Anthony Trollope, Snow identified the 19 th-century English novelist's special gift as ''percipience,'' an uncommon ability to step inside the skins of his characters and illuminate their inner beings. Snow had this power as well. For each of his characters one feels a natural sympathy that comes from their having been honestly and sensitively portrayed. As Tolstoy wrote of Dickens, Snow treats his characters with love. Some we may dislike, but we cannot deny them their humanity.

In contrast with the alienation and despair that blow sullenly through much of the 20th-century literature, a moral accountability underlies Snow's fiction, giving rise to a cautious hopefulness about mankind's future. Though subject to life's unexpected blows, Snow's men and women are never mere victims. The novels are informed by a conviction that, whether or not people can determine their ultimate destinies, they can command their daily actions and thereby live with integrity and dignity.

Becoming familiar with the entire work of such a writer has been rewarding. As isolated events and images blend into patterns, the writing, like a fugue, takes on greater resonance and richer harmonies. Meanwhile, from behind a disembodied voice and literary mannerisms there begins to emerge - a friend.

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