Novel Readings

Reading Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That

I’m about half way through Robert Graves’s autobiography Goodbye to All That. My interest in reading it was sparked by Testament of Youth: Brittain points to Graves’s book both as an inspiration for her own memoir of the war and as a kind of counter-example to it, as she wanted her book to tell a very different story about the war, the one she thought was (to some extent inevitably) overshadowed by battlefield accounts.

So far, Goodbye to All That definitely is a very different book, as much because of Graves’s different tone and personality as because of the difference in their experiences. I’ve been trying to figure out just what makes it sound so different from Testament of Youth. One factor, I think, is that in the early parts, Graves has quite a wry and engaging sense of humor. For all that I found Brittain’s voice compelling, I don’t recall ever finding her funny, and in fact the extent to which she takes herself seriously is probably the least attractive thing about her books–though I also, perhaps paradoxically, respect her intellectual seriousness very much. Graves writes with more ease, somehow: he sounds very confident and direct, and the narrative has a lot of forward momentum. There’s not much reflection on broader contexts or issues (again, so far), which helps things move along briskly–but it’s odd to find that we are now well into the war (and deep into the trenches) and Graves really hasn’t said anything about the war as a larger event–about why it was being fought and how he felt about that, about its effect on his generation or society more generally, about any of the things Brittain (who often writes with a retrospective cast) sees as motivating her story. Testament of Youth is very much a reflective book about the effects of the war on a generation. Goodbye to All That just carries us along with Graves, who doesn’t give the impression that he himself thought deeply about the war at all before or during it, and who isn’t infusing his account of it with whatever he might have come to think about it later. As a result, the war seems doubly meaningless, both in itself and as the subject of his book, and there’s a way in which that seems appropriate given how chaotic, haphazard, and insane it seems to have been to those fighting it.

Here’s a little bit from the description of his first major action, near Bethune in 1915:

No orders could come through because the shell in the signals dugout at battalion headquarters had cut communication not only between companies and battalion, but between battalion and division. The officers in the front trench had to decide on immediate action; so two companies of the Middlesex, instead of waiting for the intense bombardment which would follow the advertised forty minutes of gas [much of which had spread back into the British lines], charged at once and got as far as the German wire – which our artillery had not yet cut. So far it had been treated only with shrapnel, which had no effect on it; the barbed-wire needed high-explosive, and plenty of it. The Germans shot the Middlesex men down. One platoon is said to have found a gap and gotten into the German trench. But there were no survivors of the platoon to confirm this. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders went over, also, on the Middlesex left; but two companies, instead of charging at once, rushed back out of the gas-filled assault trench to the support line, and attacked from there. It will be recalled that the trench system had been pushed forward nearer the enemy in preparation for the battle. These companies were therefore attacking from the old front line, but the barbed-wire entanglements protecting it had not been removed, so that the Highlanders got caught and machine-gunned between their own assault and support lines. The other two companies were equally unsuccessful.

The account of their work that night bringing in the wounded and dead is as harrowing as you’d expect. “The Germans behaved generously,” Graves remarks, not firing on them “though we kept on until it was nearly dawn.” He reports that the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders “had seven hundred casualties, including fourteen officers killed out of the sixteen who went over; the Middlesex, five hundred and fifty casualties, including eleven officers killed.” The tone is similarly matter-of-fact throughout, sometimes with a degree of detachment that is disconcerting: “I found no excitement in patrolling, no horror in the continual experience of death.” Will he eventually say something about the emotional and psychological experience of the scenes he depicts with such precision? One night he goes out on patrol in No Man’s Land; while crawling through the mud and barbed wire, he recalls, “I snatched my fingers in horror from where I had planted them on the slimy body of an old corpse.” How do you just move on from this, as he does? Literally, of course, he had to, but he’s moving through a landscape in which craters are inhabited by “the corpses of men who had been wounded and crept in there to die. Some were skeletons, picked clean by the rats.” I’m very curious to see if or how he moves from description to reflection.