Goodbye to Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That

I finished Robert Graves’s autobiography Goodbye to All That tonight. When I wrote about it on the weekend, I was wondering if he would shift gears and begin reflecting on the experiences he recounts. The short answer to that is no. There are dribs and drabs of commentary that, if extended, would have added the kind of layered response I was looking for. For instance, Graves is asked at one point by a local Rector to speak at a War Memorial service:

He suggested that I should read war-poems. But instead of Rupert Brooke on the glorious dead, I read some of the more painful poems by Sassoon and Wilfred Owen about men dying from gas-poisoning, and about buttocks of corpses bulging from the mud. I also suggested that the men who died…were not particularly virtuous or particularly wicked, but just average soldiers, and that the survivors should thank God they were alive, and do their best to avoid wars in the future.

That’s very nearly it, as far as addressing the significance of the war or what he personally carried away from it. Perhaps he has written more about it somewhere else. He wrote poems about it: perhaps he felt that, in them, he had said what he wanted. The thing is, I finished Goodbye to All That with no desire to find out or read more. I just came away from the book not liking him very much–and what that should have to do with anything, I don’t altogether know, but even acknowledging that any autobiography involves the creation of a persona that should not be naively identified with the subject etc. etc., still, this is what he wrote to represent himself, and to me, he comes across as a bit of a jerk. Here’s his example of taking “a stern line,” for example (from the Epilogue, technically, so written later than the rest of the book, but still…). During WWII, while serving as an Air Raid Warden, he is called for a medical examination,

and the policeman brought me a third-class railway-warrant together with an order to appear before a medical board at Exeter. As an officer on the pensioned list, I refused to travel except first class, a privilege to which my rank entitled me. He and I might find ourselves in the same compartment, and it would never do for us two to mix socially.

Now, I wonder if he’s being ironic at his own expense here, but questions of rank actually come up quite often in the book, right from the early part when he notes that having “paid so heavily for the fourteen years of my gentleman’s education” he felt “entitled, now and then, to get some sort of return.” In any case, taking a stern line on traveling first class compares badly to the kinds of things Vera Brittain takes a stern line on following her own war experiences. I didn’t much like his discussions of his time teaching in Egypt either, for the same reason: his attitude about both the job and his students is arrogant and dismissive. He quotes, apparently in full, three “diploma essays” from students at the Higher Training College in Cairo where he served as an examiner. It’s true they are mostly ludicrous (on The Character of Lady Macbeth: “The impression on the reader becomes very great and feels with anger”) but the writers are laboring in a second or even third language, after all. Graves’s dry conclusion: “I decided to resign.” He would. Of his assignment to teach literature at Cairo University, he remarks, that the students “professed themselves anxious to master Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Byron in that time. I had no desire to teach Wordsworth and Byron to anyone, and wished to protect Shakespeare from them.” But then he disdains them for considering it “beneath their dignity to admit the existence of ballads in Egypt” because of their class prejudice against the fellaheen.

I commented on the matter-of-fact tone and the unthinking forward movement of the narrative in my previous post, and in the comments, Mike quoted this passage from Graves’s essay “P. S. to Goodbye to  All That“:

I have more or less deliberately mixed in all the ingredients that I know are mixed into popular books. For instance, while I was writing, I reminded myself that people like reading about food and drink, so I searched my memory for the meals that had significance in my life and put them down. And they like reading about murders, so I was careful not to leave out any of the six or seven that I could tell about. Ghosts, of course. There must, in every book of this sort, be at least one ghost story with a possible explanation, and one without any explanation, except that it was a ghost…But the best bet of all is battles, and I had been in two quite good ones–the first conveniently enough a failure, though set off by extreme heroism, the second a success, though a little clouded by irresolution.

I replied that this sounded discouragingly cynical, but once we got out of the war sections, it seemed more and more accurate to me. Graves’s stories of life in the trenches are intrinsically compelling just for being so far from ordinary life, and the bluntness of his style preserves them from any sentimentality and himself from any pretense of heroism. But after that the book is just a chronicle of what happens and who he meets, with particular care taken to drop names and anecdotes: a few pages on visiting with Hardy, notes on his relationship with Sassoon (which had the effect of making me want to reread Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy rather than anything more directly by or about Graves), stories about meeting T. E. Lawrence  (yes, of Arabia). He gets married, and his wife Nancy actually sounds pretty interesting (she’s a committed feminist who refuses to take his surname, just for instance), but we don’t get to know much about her or about why their marriage came apart. They have children but he spends little time with them. They putter around Oxford, open a shop, go out of business, go to Egypt–and the book stops.

The most thought-provoking thing in the book, ultimately, may be this little bit about genre not far from the end:

I made several attempts during these years to rid myself of the poison of war memories by finishing my novel, but had to abandon it – ashamed at having distorted my material with a plot, and yet not sure enough of myself to turn it back into undisguised history, as here.

Brittain too first tried to write about the war in fiction. Both clearly concluded that their way forward was not exactly through “undisguised history” but through memoir, letting themselves into the story and telling it as they experienced it personally. Only Graves doesn’t really bring himself into it: what he thought and felt about it, how it affected him, what he thinks it meant–none of that is in this book. For me, that made it a real disappointment, a much lesser book than it could have been. Is it unfair to think that’s a reflection on Graves? As always, I’m prepared to believe it might reflect on me, bringing the wrong expectations or models to the book he decided to write.

10 thoughts on “Goodbye to Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That

  1. Mike January 11, 2012 / 4:54 am

    I hate to start with an ad hominem, but I have no doubt that Graves was a jerk and probably not an exemplary teacher (or scholar). One thing that is clear from Fussell’s analysis of Graves’ whole ouvre, is that he is nothing if not a liar and a joker, which I think is why Fussell likes him so much. He, Fussell, writes : “His enemies are always the same: solemnity, certainty, complacency, pomposity, cruelty. And it was the Great War that brought them to his attention.” And on the next page he writes, “If it really were a documentary transcription of the actual, it would be worth very little.” (206 and 207) Don’t read it as a factual memoir, it isn’t, read it as a novel of sorts, claims Fussell.

    It’s been a while since I’ve read “Goodbye” (and I read it because of Fussell, so I’m sure that tinted my perspective) and I agree with you that in the later chapters he is a fairly cold and off-putting figure. But what I took away from it was that the war had made him so. Those early chapters, with their lovely pastoral themes (the German vacations, the walks in the hills, the family reading Shakespeare–not pastoral, but lovely nonetheless) is not turned upside-down by the war, but instead sullied by it (and the horror of the public school, but he got over that more easily, it seems). I think if you read it as a protest, a anti-sentimental protest, you (might) appreciate it more.

    That first quotation, I think, is key. It’s an angry book, and it’s angry because a whole society wants him to be one thing (poor Rupert Brooke is far too easy an example of this, but he works…if you treat him simplistically) and he adamantly refuses. He is being asked to play a part he refuses to play. Instead he seems to create his own play with “Goodbye.”

    The novel has always made me think of a punk spitting in an officer’s face. It’s brash, rude, I wouldn’t do it, but the anger behind it is real and important. Of course, Graves would have that punk sent to prison, but that’s a different point.


  2. Mike January 11, 2012 / 4:58 am

    Also, since I didn’t respond to your last comment, I wanted to give you a link to the Graves quotation I posted before, so you can see what I omitted (I can’t find the actual essay, but I will admit to not looking very hard):

    One last question, is this part of a First World War project you’re working on?
    And now I should go back to graduate school applications.


  3. Rohan January 11, 2012 / 5:25 pm


    Thanks for this very thought-provoking proposal about how to read GTAT. If it is an implicit protest against sentimentality, against being expected to play a certain “war hero” role, or against glorification of war, it does succeed. I didn’t pick up any cues, reading along, that showed it to me in quite the way you describe it, that is, the turning upside down of the early life by the war. Of course I can see that this is what happens, in the immediate sense that off he goes, and the other life is left behind and then not the same after. I don’t know the context of its writing: was he pressured or urged into it? Or is the pressure that makes him angry more generalized, an expectation about how returning soldiers should feel and talk? Again, I can see reading it as angry, but it’s interesting that not knowing the context you have now brought to my reading, I didn’t get any overt signals about that from the book itself.

    It’s not a WWI project exactly. I’m filling in context for the reading I’ve been doing in work by Vera Brittain (starting with her Testament of Youth) and the ‘Somerville novelists.’ She cites Graves right off as writing the kind of book she isn’t going to write, so I thought I should clarify what that might mean. It’s also part of my larger project of continuing my education. The more I read, the more I realize I haven’t read that I want to.

    Happily, I am not reading applications this year. Good luck with that: it’s a difficult time for all involved in that process.


  4. Sam Clark January 12, 2012 / 11:53 am

    Thanks for this, which has provoked me to think again about a book I like a lot more than you do.

    I think what you’re identifying as GTAT’s weakness, it’s lack of reflection and self-consciousness, is actually its main strength. Rather than thinking out loud about what the war did to him, Graves dramatises what it did to him. The war broke Graves, as it broke many others: it left him spiritually homeless, because unfitted for the gentleman’s role he’d been brought up to fill. It dulled his ability to care for others. It left him permanently in the soldier’s world in which everything – including the class ideals he satirises – is a tool to be used and despised. His emotionally blank, unreflective, cynical and manipulative style seems to me to be a brilliant way to solve the challenge of performing rather than just describing the effects of the war. Not the only way, of course – Brittain found a very different way to perform its different effects on her.

    I’m not sure how deliberate this is on Graves’s part: he could be telling the truth in that letter, that the whole thing was just a way of getting money to fund his escape from an England he’d come to loathe. Maybe what I’m seeing is accidental self-revelation rather than writerly technique. For whatever it’s worth, Graves’s other potboilers – the sequence that starts with I, Claudius – are just as unself-conscious: characters do things and have things done to them, at a great rate, and hardly engage in reflection at all. But whether that’s evidence for or against the theory that the blankness of GTAT is deliberate, I don’t know.


  5. Sam Clark January 12, 2012 / 12:15 pm

    Oh dear: ‘it’s lack of reflection’ should of course be ‘its lack of reflection’.


  6. Rohan January 12, 2012 / 5:58 pm

    “Rather than thinking out loud about what the war did to him, Graves dramatises what it did to him.”

    This is a great way to put the case, for sure. As my response shows, it’s not obvious from Goodbye to All That itself that this is what is going on, which starts to raise some interesting questions about how we ought to read it, or what we ought to bring to it. If he cared that we know that about it, he might have signalled it! But your comment together with Mike’s suggests he didn’t much care what we thought.

    I did notice a similar quality in I, Claudius, and in that case a commenter suggested he was imitating contemporary chroniclers like Tacitus and Suetonius. A plausible enough suggestion–and then I suppose we might wonder if that particular approach appealed because it enabled the affectless style he had adopted.

    My education is ongoing! And yet I’m still not feeling inspired to read more Graves. Whatever his reasons for writing as he does, it doesn’t warm me to him (or is it the other way around?). Maybe it’s my Victorianism coming out! I picked up Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier for my next excursion into related territory. We’ll see how I do with that.


  7. Petey January 13, 2012 / 12:14 am

    It seems I only surface here to comment on Robert Graves-related topics (I read other things too, I swear), but I’d venture a further theory: perhaps Graves’ primary occupation as a poet also influenced the content of the work here. The poetic tendency of communicating emotional truths through a minimum of words, and through telling imagery rather than overt reflection, could be said to dictate the style and content of Graves’ memoir. It’s the same trait I find in Hemingway’s writing, actually, and in the works of that writer (especially the later books) it can lead to the same infuriating absence of authorial self-awareness.


  8. Rohan January 13, 2012 / 12:56 pm

    Interesting suggestion, Petey (and thanks, too, for reading!). Again I find myself wondering how much we should need to bring with us to a book in order to read it well (never mind read it ‘right’). It may not be true of all books, but there are many books that really do read better (that you can appreciate better) if you have some ideas about them and some context for before you begin. I’m used to taking that approach in my own classes, certainly. But I also often suggest that books teach us how to read them–if we only know where to look for the cues. What did I miss, then? The clue that might be doing some of that work in this case is the title: it is dismissive, isn’t it? So if much of the book is about “all that,” what he wants or needs to leave behind, what he’s done with, that does set a tone that is quietly hostile.


  9. Petey January 15, 2012 / 8:40 pm

    I think the biggest context clue here is the presence of the War itself: the traumatic experience of combat left Graves in such a profound state of numbness that the memoir itself is incapable of emotionally penetrating its author. It’s a case of a book’s narrative style reflecting and informing its thematic content.

    Was this a deliberate decision on Graves’ part? I have no idea. But considering the surprising self-awareness in his earlier war poetry, I suspect we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt.


  10. Rohan January 16, 2012 / 3:51 pm

    “the biggest context clue here is the presence of the War itself”

    OK, good point–though the war is present in other texts that do not share the same flat affect as this one, so on its own that clue might not get us to the general idea that the style reflects the war’s impact. I haven’t read his war poems, but it does seem that this is a case in which further context strongly affects the reading experience of the individual text–whereas, by contrast, Brittain’s memoir is much more self-explanatory. I don’t have any problem in principle with the idea that you can’t understand what’s going on in one text without reading other ones, but it’s interesting how sometimes that need is more pressing, or the initial (mis)reading more problematic. And there’s always the problem of when to stop!

    I said I didn’t want to read more Graves, but at this point I do want to read more of his poetry, particularly the war poetry. Thanks to all of you for prompting me to think more and think better about this book.


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