John Bayley

  • End of a Journey: An Autobiographical Journal 1979-1981 by Philip Toynbee
    Bloomsbury, 422 pp, £25.00, February 1988, ISBN 0 7475 0132 7

A critic has a good nose for a natural writer, but he usually pays for it by not being able to write naturally himself. It seems likely that Philip Toynbee would have given anything to be a real novelist and a real poet, but in his ‘experimental’ novels – Tea with Mrs Goodman and The Garden to the Sea – and in the gargantuan poem Pantaloon which occupied him for so many years, the words seem always to be getting in the way, too keen to be doing their work, like dogs jumping up all over the reader and distracting him. No doubt he was too intelligent not to be aware of this, and it increased his troubles, for he certainly carried most of the stigmata of the artistic life: reliance on booze, bad temper, the compulsion to exploit, to be both rackety and self-preoccupied. This he doubtless knew too, and there is something more than touching in this comment from his journal:

Ida finds subtle and deep reasons for admiring The Fountain. I quickly suppressed my almost Pavlovian sneer at Charles Morgan, and realised that what she found in the book is the thing that matters. (Not that this alters my opinion about Charles Morgan, but it made me dubious about the whole business of literary criticism. I remember my own fondness for two novels by Pierre-Jean Jouve, and how this disgusted Michel almost to the point of nausea.)

Apart from the always disconcerting question of why novelists may be utterly despised by their fellow-countrymen and revered by foreigners, this generous lack of belief in the business of literary criticism is very revealing. How right he is that what she found in the book is ultimately what matters, and how rare it is for a critic to admit this. Ida, incidentally, I took at first to be a friend of the family, but she turned out to be a devout Catholic German – Ida Frederike Görres – whose diaries and letters of the Fifties, Broken Lights, were published by Burns and Oates. Toynbee disliked her inbred Catholicism but admired her book. The mixing up of friends and authors is engagingly typical. We hear that Lucie-Smith’s treatment of Joan was preposterous, but this does not refer to another domestic drama: merely to a Freudian study and analysis of Joan of Arc by the author concerned. Toynbee’s prose makes us realise how cunning is a real novelist’s sense of communication, and how the reader adjusts and responds to it. Reading Toynbee, by contrast, can at first be like that not unfamiliar social occasion when animated converse is going on, and intimacy seems established and taken for granted: but who are they all talking about?

The paradox is that this is not only a perfect journal style, but one particularly well suited to religious speculation and discussion. Obviously in that context we can know nothing, nor does anyone else, and in consequence the tone is right. In his diary, as in his reviewing, Toynbee found his true vocation, in a sense a religious one. Nothing is more tedious than the theologian, mystic or saint whose tone is of having got it all worked out, of giving us the sum of his wisdom. Philip Toynbee revered that extremely articulate Trappist, Thomas Merton, but soon got fed up with his nimble sentences in praise of Love, presenting it, placing it, and saying all it can do. Can it? Toynbee says he prefers to try not to use the word at all. He has many facetious moments, though the facetiousness does not mask a true inner desperation. ‘Beer is indeed the greatest help. Perhaps my whole journey has been to find a God who will be an adequate beer substitute.’ His speculations have a kind of zany freedom, too unself-conscious to be irritating: the unabashed self-absorption that got in the way of his being a creative writer made him an excellent diarist, whereas Merton seems trapped inside the religious persona which he had created, and which he had found so successful. Toynbee’s vanity is much simpler.

He was one of those writers who can only communicate in direct and fragmentary bursts, and cannot do it through the medium of art. Further up the Wye Valley from where Toynbee was living at St Briavel’s, and about a hundred years before, Francis Kilvert was writing his diary. Was Kilvert a good artist? Unquestionably and perhaps partly because he seems to have been without the tension and self-absorption which drove the pen of his confrère down the river at a later date. Kilvert adored writing about his own feelings – mostly sex feelings – for people, places, girls glimpsed on trains or trees beside a stream. His impressions and sensations were part of his ‘subject’, as with a painter before a landscape: so that his personality is not really there, or only as a sort of delightful ghost, like the clouds over the Welsh hills – and in the comedy of homely event. Toynbee really is present in every sentence he writes, so that a complete person – so tormented but so close, and in a sense so congenial, springs from the page. After a few pages his life and habits seem as familiar as if one had always known him. This involuntary projection of the personality, and the absolute need to do it on paper, make Toynbee one of the real diarists – not the practitioner of an invisible and personal art form, but one of those who need to confess and to manifest themselves in this way. He is what he quotes from Simone Weil. ‘What I am does not satisfy me and has become me without my consent: what I am I endure.’ His obsession with writing it down is closely related to his obsession with belief itself, and this produces worries of the most literal kind.

Is there weeping in heaven for the poor victims of the Italian earthquake? Surely there must be: and yet Heaven is supposed to be a PLACE OF JOY! Really there are times when all this kind of thing seems so puzzling and contradictory that I wonder whether it mightn’t be better to think no more about it. (As if I could!)

The comic element is of course recognised. Toynbee was delighted to hear a lady interviewed on TV say: ‘You’ve got to believe in something. And I believe in the non-animal fat diet.’

Insatiably religious persons who have caught the virus late in life have something in common, but may differ strongly in personality. C.S. Lewis, whom Toynbee respects but obviously does not much care for, has, like Malcolm Muggeridge, a touch of the sacred monster about him. He was a performer, and a journal by him is hardly imaginable: as with other such monsters, one is fascinated by him in an objective way, as if watching a powerful beast at its work. Toynbee, not a bit like that, has the knack of involving the reader’s consciousness with his own. His literalness helps in this, as does habituation to trivial or unedifying routine, and the sense – shared by everyone no doubt – of consciousness itself as a perpetual source of irritation, but also of rare pleasures. In this atmosphere Toynbee’s literalness has a curious force.

The first article of my faith is this: ‘There is more than we can know.’ The second article is this. ‘What we cannot know is better than anything we can know’.

A variant on this, a month or so later, is ‘Humanism: This is all there is. Faith: There must be more than this.’ Perhaps Toynbee imagined himself talking with his old friend A.J. Ayer, whose good-humoured scorn for these non-propositions, and especially for the idea that anything we cannot know is ‘better’ than anything we can, would be boundless. Yet the bosoms of the restless, the dissatisfied and the miserable would return an echo of relief and response to the way in which Toynbee mixes his ‘attempt to record a journey in the mind and hearts, perhaps, though I still find the words alarming, part of the soul’s unending journey in search of God’, with entries about his taste for honey sandwiches at midnight, or his gleeful anticipation of small presents to himself by mail-order. Although, being a man, his style and approach are far more emphatic than those of Barbara Pym, there is here something of her own journal’s assumption of faith through triviality.

Toynbee was well aware that his own ploy of self-ridicule was an extension of vanity, but it was a very natural extension. He had always seen himself as a clown involved in causes, from the Spanish war on, and these provided some sort of escape from himself, particularly the admirable DA – Depressives Anonymous – for which he and his wife worked in the Seventies. Over and above self-mockery he could certainly be infinitely tiresome, as well as an egregious ass, but that does not affect the remarkable involuntary innerness of his two journal volumes (Part of a Journey was the previous one). His dislike of the way Kierkegaard shows off, so different from the way he does it himself, is as engaging as his tirade against cigarette manufacturers as mass murderers. It seems not to have occurred to him that there is a simple but crucial difference between the killing which we are all, literally involved in, and the many contemporary murders which are committed as an act of the will. Yet why should that particular point have occurred to him when so much else does? What gives such life to his diaries is what makes them so difficult to write about – new thoughts and puzzlements keep occurring. His relations with his wife are a perpetual fascination, and as he once says darkly: ‘It wasn’t only my mother who thought me an impossible monster.’ He totally escapes the dullness of Bohemia, and yet once in a way he becomes incapably drunk in a friend’s house, through secretly nipping at the bottles in the kitchen, and has to be put to bed there. He daydreams about ‘Martyrs for Tolerance’ and a ‘community of fools’. He passionately wishes to win the Arvon Poetry Prize, with an anonymous offering from Pantaloon, and feels a little boy’s chagrin when the judges take no notice. He remembers ‘great fishing moments’; is deeply disappointed with The Pilgrim’s Progress; loses his false teeth again – ‘the intolerable conundrum of where they could possibly be’ – reads in Harry Williams’s The True Wilderness that ‘all fanaticism is a strategy to prevent doubt becoming conscious’; resolves ‘to make a real effort at continual prayer’, so ‘why not buy an alarm watch and set it to go off as a reminder, say every half-hour? Any excuse for a new toy!’ He looks at Arnold Toynbee’s photograph and thinks of his father: ‘Either you know now, or you are in a blank of eternal ignorance. At least you no longer share our nagging uncertainty.’ Is he a lovable man, or a great bore?

In a sense both: in a sense it hardly matters. All those commitments and causes, from the Spanish war to CND and the Church of England (he never considered becoming a Catholic), have in the diary a proper but subordinate position to the feel of life itself: the kind of life that goes with the nature of this diurnal form of words, on their way to death. Death is the right end for a diary, and the sense of it part of the form’s purpose. It greatly improves even a rather indifferent specimen of the genre, like W.N.P. Barbellion’s Diary of a Disappointed Man; and Kilvert’s daily record will cease just before his marriage, and the death that soon followed it. One of the young Henry James’s best and most haunting stories is the diary of a young man who, as we learn at the beginning, died when he ceased to keep it.

Coming to respect very strongly Toynbee’s obsession about his faith and belief, if one has oneself no inclination at all that way, may be the most remarkable consequence of reading this terminal record. He is not in the least uncharitable about the Christian books he devours, but he finds equally irrelevant the ‘atheists who wear dog-collars’, and the robust believers like C.S. Lewis who ‘domesticate the supernatural’. His own Christianity seems in some sense as necessary and logical for life – his life – as does his acceptance of the coming of death. The last quarter of the diary, after his recognition of cancer, is moving not because he knows and we know that he is going to die, but because he needs death as he needed belief in his life. The consciousness that needs belief is the one most thankful to abandon it. It is not God’s death that matters to man, as Nietzsche supposed, but his own: and it is man without God who finds death insupportable. To accept it without question is itself to believe. Philip Toynbee wrote to the end, and kept up a lively interest in dying. ‘I must try to guard against being a bore about it.’