Whitaker put up the challenge here recently (comment 7):
Hands up those of you that have allowed a deeply held and cherished viewpoint to be changed by someone whose views are opposed to your own. Hands up those of you who have publicly contradicted someone whose political views closely align to your own on most occasions and did not end up paying a price for that. Ultimately, the majority of us are tribal.
It could scarcely have been more apposite to find myself at the time reading my first CP Snow The Affair which deals in a small closed world with just this situation. A scientist disliked by all in his Cambridge college is accused of and found guilty of fraud by the internal mechanisms of the college. Next, one of the very people who had first investigated the claims comes upon a piece of evidence that indicates there must be serious doubts as to the guilty verdict. To make it worse, not only would the College Seniors have to accept that they had been wrong, but overturning the verdict would by implication incriminate a now deceased scientist of impeccable credentials.
The book describes in minute detail the machinations that ensured, the motivations of the various players, the belief structures, both religious and political that inevitably have some sway, not to mention the notion of tradition and even what one thinks of so and so’s wife.
It is sort of like Twelve Angry Men but whereas that was a jury, and a diverse collection of individuals all strangers to one another, The Affair is a situation where everybody goes way back and the differences between people are much smaller, though they loom large in the story.
Both have at their heart data which looks one way to begin with, but which can be interpreted in quite another as the stories transpire. Both look at the efforts by some to change the minds of others. Some of those ‘others’ are good people who do see that they must change their minds, others are not. I went to see Twelve Angry Men last year and as we went into the theatre we were each given a number, that of one of the jurors. The idea was simply that you followed the play from that person’s point of view. Got under his skin. I enthusiastically took on that challenge, only to become increasingly uneasy as I discovered Ed, Juror 10, was a straightforward bigot. It wasn’t an altogether untimely exercise, as he seemed to be the sort of character we at least stereotype as the one who got Trump in.
There was no way Ed was going to change who I am. But – no, not even any buts. He just didn’t. Somebody, however, got under his skin. He hung out til almost the end, but despite his abhorrent, aggressively held opinions, he ungraciously conceded at some point.
The story is pretty much the same in The Affair but instead of a dowdy jurors’ room with no aircon on a sweaty sort of a day, here the scene is the fusty elegance of a Cambridge college, no matter that it is a made-up place, it is entirely to the point. No doubt that makes for some of the attraction of Snow’s novel. You know that every bit of it is true, the way the characters think and act, the importance of ritual and status. In the best scientific tradition, one of those who originally was certain of the culprit’s guilt, discovers new evidence and has no question at any point but that the original decision must be overturned. Not for one moment does his personal distaste for that man affect his conviction, nor the impact it will have on his relationships, already tenuous, with his colleagues. Others are not so high-minded. The consequence is a fascinating refined argy bargy with an ending leaving nobody happy.
It’s my first Snow, acquired by chance, and likely to be followed by more should I happen upon them. I’m curious to know if his use of French expressions reflects upon him as a writer – or his social class of writer, as I imagine he is part of one – or whether it is part of the makeup of his characters. It seemed to me to be old-fashioned, but then again, I picked up a Julian Barnes, as it happened, shortly thereafter and he is similarly afflicted. I would love opinions about this!