Novel Readings

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.