Book Review: The Light and the Dark, by C.P. Snow

The Light and the Dark is a novel in the Strangers and Brothers series by C.P. Snow. The narrator throughout the series is Lewis Eliot, in part a fictional representation of the author himself. But the real antagonist of this episode in the series is Roy Calvert.

Calvert is viewed by some as a brilliant young scholar, an Orientalist whose area of expertise—the ancient Sogdian language—is about as esoteric as one can get in Middle Eastern studies. To others, especially several of the older scholars of Cambridge, Calvert represents something inappropriate in youth and potentially scandalous for the college, particularly considering the many rumors that have spread about concerning his affairs with various women.

Is there any truth to these rumors? Most certainly. Which is not presented by Snow as damning evidence of what is wrong with Roy Calvert. Rather, Calvert’s youthful enthusiasm and irrepressible individuality appeal to many, even members of the crusty upper class. Calvert touches people, inspiring in them perhaps a desire to embrace that which he seems to represent—a brilliant life.

Yet the narrator knows him better than this, knows Calvert better than any, and understands that Calvert’s life is far from blissful. And at the core of The Light and the Dark is not only this vibrant figure, Roy Calvert, but the deep, enduring compassion that he has engendered in Lewis Eliot. Many periods pass during which they are separated from one another, and even then, we read nearly nothing of what is happening in Eliot’s life, including his desperate relationship with his unstable, suicidal wife (which is at the center of another of the Strangers and Brothers novels).

Instead, through every development of the novel, whether ponderous, even pretentious in the world of Cambridge academia, or startling and sinister, particularly as World War II approaches and Calvert seems drawn to the Nazi movement, Eliot’s thoughts return ever and again to Roy Calvert. His hopes are for Calvert, and his sorrow seems ever near the surface whenever Calvert faces the depression that plagues him in his darkest hours.

In all, what often appeared to me to be a fairly mechanical view of the goings-on of a major institution of learning and its faculty and staff proved only barely to conceal a surprisingly passionate story. There is, in often condensed and even repressed form, a great deal of emotion in this tale. And all centered on a man whose star seems destined to rise, if only because Calvert appears so capable of unintentionally winning the hearts of others. Yet he is a man who in the end is much more drawn to a tragic fall, incapable as he is of finding what he truly needs—not the love that so many others are eager to grant him, but an enduring truth or faith or belief that he can embrace.

Roy Calvert is a man who is loved more than he wishes to be, promoted by those he endures if not detests, desired by women who mean nothing to him or, in the case of one woman, whom he suffers the guilt of having harmed—people, in other words, who are more than willing to commit themselves to him, even while he fails to find anything eternal to commit himself to. His life fluctuates between passion, pleasure, and pain, a pain that Lewis Eliot understands better than any, but a pain from which Eliot is unable to save his dear friend. Snow’s The Light and the Dark is, then, a fairly compelling story of friendship and love, desire and loss.