It is said that there is one book in every man—the book about himself and his experiences. To judge by the state of the book market, this saying appears to be true. Everyone now writes his autobiography, from retired politicians and generals to barkeepers and more or less reformed criminals. The book is there all right. Whether it satisfies any need except our curiosity to peer into the house next door is a different matter. The politicians are a dreary lot, and strangely enough, literary men are often as bad. Contrary to a widely received opinion, writing is not something which can be picked up late in life. Nor is it a general accomplishment which can be switched from one branch to another. Autobiography and reminiscence are specific arts which demand special qualities and usually a single-minded devotion. The autobiographer has both to believe himself interesting and to be justified in his belief. The rememberer on the other hand must have a genuine conviction that the people whom he meets are more interesting than he is. He does not need to suppress his own personality. It is indeed an essential part of the story, but it must be used to illuminate others, not himself.
THERE ARE exceptions to every rule. Boswell for example was intensely interested in both himself and others. As a result, he produced two different books from the same material: one published during his lifetime, the other trickling out now in installments. But usually it has to be one or the other. There is no one really interesting in Rousseau’s Confessions except Rousseau himself, despite the mention of many great names. Contrariwise, Greville, G.W.R. Russell, and Dean Burgon (author of that Victorian classic, Twelve Good Men) leave the shadowiest impression. Who for instance would guess the connection between Greville and Lady Hamilton? No really successful or distinguished man can write good memoirs. That is why the memoirs of prime ministers are so boring. Again there was an exception in Winston Churchill. But he was an experienced writer of memoirs before he became prime minister. In fact one occasionally has a suspicion that he became prime minister in order to write more memoirs.
Two writers, both highly successful in their different fields, have recently ventured into this difficult operation of writing memoirs. Both are a little embarrassed about it and make modest gestures of self-withdrawal. Toynbee must have realized that his memoirs were rather dull. For he explains that he could have written more maliciously about others had he not been restrained by pietas—a wish not to wound persons whom he loved or revered. Snow disclaims any autobiographical intention. He has only put himself in, he says, enough to make the stories intelligible. Evidently it is more difficult to keep yourself out of a book than Snow realizes.
The two writers have had different intellectual disciplines. Toynbee is a historian, or to be more precise, he has made generalizations dressed up as history. Snow is a novelist, again with a special twist: his characters oscillate between science and politics, as Snow has done himself. Both writers have one quality in common. They are more highly thought of by readers and by themselves than they are by their colleagues in the literary trade. No living writer on historical matters—perhaps no writer living or dead—has met with such universal condemnation from professional historians as Toynbee has done. Literary critics seem to be agreed that Snow is an imitation novelist, rather like the near-beer peddled during Prohibition, another Charles Morgan or John Galsworthy. To borrow a memorable phrase from Edmund Burke: He has all the nodosities of the oak without its strength. He has all the contortions of the Sibyl without the inspiration.
However the criticism or slighting judgment of others has not worried our two writers. After all, they draw ten or a hundred times more royalties than any of their critics, and that is justification enough of their merit. Toynbee is revered as a prophet in the United States, or so it is reported. Snow is regarded as an authority on the cooperation between science and government, so much so that he was given an appointment in the British Labour government in order to bring this cooperation about. It is sad to report that his ministerial activities were not a success. For that matter, there is no very clear moral lesson to be learned from Toynbee’s vaticinations, and those who hoped to be told what they should do to be saved have now moved on to other blind leaders of the blind. It was time therefore that our two slightly discredited pundits should reassert themselves, and how better than by displaying the interesting people they have known. There is a still more skillful operation involved. They will analyze the characters of these remarkable men and thus show their own profound understanding of human nature. There is one disadvantage which our two authors have overlooked. When you set out on an intellectual journey, you arrive at the end with your own intellectual baggage and nobody else’s. The qualities of great or unusual men somehow do not rub off on those who write memoirs about them.
WHEN A REVIEWER dislikes a book, his only honest course is to describe what is in the book and thus leave the potential reader in a position to decide for himself whether he wishes to read it. Toynbee’s stock-in-trade is civilizations. If he did not invent the conception, he made it run for eleven, or possibly eleven hundred, volumes. At any rate, civilizations earned their keep so far as Toynbee was concerned. He now transfers this same conception to the individuals he has known or been interested in. They are included less as individuals, than as representatives of some cultural strand, and if their cultures are mixed, so much the better. Here, for instance, is Sir Lewis Namier, historian of British politics in the eighteenth century: son of a Polish landowner, nurtured in Viennese culture, a Zionist, and finally an admirer of the British aristocracy. Many have found this combination fascinating, and one writer provides a happy comparison with Toynbee. Sir Isaiah Berlin has also written about Namier, and his essay truly depicts that extraordinary personality. Berlin mentions himself, rather more than Toynbee does, but always as a “feed.” He brings Namier out. Toynbee establishes the point that he was more tolerant and sensible than his subject.
The people whom Toynbee writes about were mostly academics of one sort or another, though usually of a slightly unorthodox kind. None of them except Tawney stuck quietly to a university career, and Tawney was far from being an ordinary professor. Now here is an interesting problem. Was there something wrong with English university life, or perhaps with all university life, which went against the grain with such historians as Zimmern or the Hammonds? Did their withdrawal provoke, according to Toynbee’s famous system, the response of making them better historians? Toynbee does not discuss this problem. He takes the restlessness of good academics with academic life for granted, and perhaps it is. One case of withdrawal is so remarkable that Toynbee cannot overlook it. This is the way in which T. E. Lawrence sought anonymous obscurity. Toynbee can only provide the commonplace explanation that Lawrence was ashamed because he had betrayed the Arabs. Indeed Toynbee often produces a platitude as though it were philosophic wisdom. Thus he tells us that understanding German, or any other language, is easier than speaking it. This is hardly a startling discovery.
Toynbee has been well-coached in the past by editors. He knows that every essay should begin with a good anecdote, and his opening anecdotes are always good. But nothing much follows them. As in his larger books, he wanders away from the theme into irrelevant topics, and the impact of the personalities is lost. Again, in his usual way, he is pedantically exact with accents and apostrophes. Presumably these are correctly distributed in exotic place-names such as Arabic. The show of learning is less impressive when Toynbee gives an acute accent to Sedan—a mistake made by few schoolboys. He has, too, a disturbing habit of repetition. Here is a passage about Charles R. Crane:
Charles R. was said to have asked his brother how large a share of the family fortune the brother would be prepared to concede to Charles R. if Charles R. would consent to waive his legal right to be an active partner…. This transaction had sufficed to set up Charles R. Crane for life as a millionaire at large. Charles R. Crane’s brother’s motive for buying Charles R. out at this high cost had not been any doubt of Charles R.’s ability; what his brother had doubted was how Charles R. would have dealt with the family business if he [a pronoun at last] had had a free hand to play with it.
Toynbee has certainly taken to heart the warning against elegant variation.
Snow, being a novelist, is more experienced in writing about individuals. They are presented as human beings, not as specimens of civilizations. But somehow they slip into place as characters in one of Snow’s novels, however much he may disclaim any idea of using the great men he has known for fictional purposes. Each essay opens as though a novel were to grow out of it. Thus:”It was a perfectly ordinary night at Christ’s high table, except that Hardy was dining as a guest.” The ending often has the same snap. Thus, of Rutherford:
Someone put his head round the door and said: “The Professor’s dead.” I don’t think anyone said much more. We were stupefied rather than miserable. It did not seem in the nature of things.
Perhaps it is true that things happen to a novelist as though he were living in a novel. Wells really greeted Snow with the question: “You’re married, aren’t you, Snow?” Lloyd George really summoned him over to his dinner table “because I thought you had an interesting head.” A friend of Snow’s listening with him to one of Churchill’s broadcast addresses early in the war, really said: “We must never deny our gratitude. Don’t forget. We must never deny our gratitude.” Novelists have more luck than ordinary men.
Snow’s best portraits are of scientists: Rutherford, Hardy the mathematician, Einstein. He seeks to convey that they were great men. But he does this by hammering away at their greatness rather than by describing it. The effect, at any rate to a non-scientist, is that scientists seem a rum lot. Snow suggests, no doubt correctly, that there is more serious talk in Cambridge colleges than there is at Oxford. Perhaps the greater predominance of scientists, or maybe earlier of mathematicians, has something to do with it. There is an alternative and more likely explanation, that things happen in a dramatic way only when Snow is there to record them. The people whom he writes about really existed, but they took on literary form when Snow arrived, and they end up more like Snow than like themselves.
Snow also ventures into the great world of politics—much further into it than Toynbee, who has to make do with the preposterous figure of Lionel Curtis. Snow’s great men are really great, and very suitable for treatment by a novelist. Lloyd George manufactured a fresh character to suit each person he met, and for once Snow does not need his novelist’s art—Lloyd George does it for him. Winston Churchill is a different matter. He obstinately fails to come alive under Snow’s hands. The strangest of these essays is on Stalin, the one man among his subjects whom Snow never met. There is a remarkable and unexpected idea in this piece. Stalin is presented as better-read than all other contemporary statesmen. He persecuted writers, it seems, because he took them seriously. Then we slide off into the paranoia of his later years, a banal idea which misses the significance of Stalin’s career.
Both these books have the fascination which always comes from people. It would not be agreeable to meet any of the characters as they are described by Toynbee. They are bores, prigs, or pedants, which is no doubt unfair to some of them in real life. Their only purpose is to illustrate a historical preconception about civilizations. Snow’s people have more reality, even if it is a reality bestowed by his imagination. They, too, are all rather alike, perhaps because Snow can only write in one way or perhaps because he chose people of similar type. It will do no harm if he produces further biographical sketches, though it will also not do much good. Snow has added slightly to the stock of human pleasure, not at all to the stock of human understanding. Both books point a final moral: The book that is in every man had better stay there.
August 3, 1967