I have never read I, Claudius. I have never read The White Goddess, my favourite writer’s* favourite book. I have also never read the tome The Greek Myths, which I’ve had a copy of ever since a too boozy, too shouty and too short trip to Athens last Summer. I’ve never read any Graves AT ALL. Except for this, his highly-regarded memoir about his young life and his time in the trenches of the First World War, Goodbye To All That.
In terms of plot, it bears a surprising resemblance to that of the last book I read, Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Both men are of a similar age, are similarly respected and canonical, both come from a wealthy background and both men had an event of huge global significance shake them out of their moneyed stupor in their late teens and into something very different. But while Nabokov saw the Russian revolution and ran away, Graves witnessed the start of the First World War and decided to join in.
The first 60/100 pages of the book, before Graves reaches France, I found insufferable. Private school gags and jokes and reminiscences, et cetera, of a type there is no need to read in 2014. I don’t seek these things out, in fact I (now) actively avoid them, but texts from this period that otherwise have their important sociological and historical benefits and reasons for popularity (like this one, see below) do often sadly have this firm stamp of ESTABLISHMENT stuck on them from the off.
Because Graves is establishment, and not quite as against-the-wall critical of it as he appears to try to project.
He joins the army and is immediately made an officer due to his background and his private education, and he and the other officers (many pages later) often talk about how the death of one of their own is far more significant, important, than the deaths of the tommies. Graves, to be fair, doesn’t directly spout this opinion in any more detail in the prose, but he does not refute it when it is said by others and, subliminally, he supports it by his death tolls always including “x privates, x officers”, as if expecting his readers too to see the death of an officer as intrinsically more tragic.
But I am looking to criticise, as I didn’t like Graves the person – his confused sexuality (oscillating between puritanical heterosexual, chaser of women and seemingly openly gay throughout the book**), his complaints about the difficulties of his affluence, his general attitude towards his wife, his colonial attitudes when a teacher in Egypt after the war… He is not very likeable, with his connections and his success and his arrogance. But where the book excels, and excels it really does, is in its description of life within the trenches. Of the (CLICHE ALERT) true horrors of war.
Graves writes with seriousness and openness about the state of life in a horrible place during a horrible time in history. And in the trenches, tbf, he does humanise most people, most of the time. It is the numbers, though, the numbers of dead which are shocking as wave after wave after wave of young men are sent to a certain death for nothing. With his friendships with Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, he is part of the trench-lit scene, and with his many connections along the line he is “in” with most battalions, most brigades. But friends, only, with the officers.
It’s bleak and it’s honest and it’s a a horrible thing that happened to an awful lot of people not that long ago. And it is, alas, important to remember.
But, as I said, Goodbye To All That alternates between the awfully bleak and the awfully posh. The squalor of war and the glamour of private schools, Oxford, foreign service in the Empire… It’s a dated book, full of (despite its clear stance against the war) many antiquated ideas and ideals, and (in my opinion) would be a far superior read if the bits either side of the war section were discarded, because they discolour Graves by making him less of an individual and far more of a man of his age and class at that point in time.
Though this is all I’ve read of him, so maybe I’d be persuaded to like him more by something else.
I found this engaging, and the war period powerful, but I’m not certain I’d recommend it. I’m up in the air on this one…
* B. S. Johnson.
** I was expecting his inevitable divorce (the patronising way he speaks about his wife made it clear she was no longer a person of significance in his life) to be because of the rearrival of his latent homosexuality. Maybe it was, but he says that he married again. His relationship with Siegfried Sassoon is styled in here, pretty much, as a romance. Though maybe I just wanted to see it as that…