Friday, November 16, 2012

Goodbye to All That

Goodbye to All That, by Robert Graves

The War Between the Generations WWI Challenge has put a lot of books on my wishlist this year, and here is one of them.  Robert Graves, a fairly well-known author and poet (I, Claudius, The Greek Myths, and The White Goddess are the most famous), served as an officer in World War I.  This is a memoir of his life from childhood until about age 30: "...my bitter leave-taking of England where I had recently broken a good many conventions; quarrelled with, or been disowned by, most of my friends; been grilled by the police on a suspicion of attempted murder; and ceased to care what anyone thought of me."  This is partly a reference to the events and subsequent scandal that led to the breakup of his marriage.  He left England for Majorca and stayed there for most of the rest of his life. 

It turns out that the 1957 edition I read was an edited version, with all the scandal bits and a good deal of the venom taken out.  The 1929 edition was much more raw (but made more sense).   No one mentioned this until too late, but on the other hand I don't really want to know all the sordid details, so I guess I'll live.  But now you know better and can choose!  I've included the cover image of the new annotated edition, which has more explanation, so you know which one to look for if you want the whole thing.

Graves is indeed bitter, and has a lot to say about the institutions and society of England, starting with the public schools.  He hated his public school about as much as George Orwell hated his.  Graves was dreading Oxford, but World War I intervened and so instead he joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers instead.  His war experience is the majority of the book, but there are several chapters at the end about his marriage, children, and attempts to acclimatize to English life and get a living through writing.  And there's a year in Egypt too.

One interesting element of the memoir is Graves' descriptions or friendships with other authors and poets.  Even as a small child he met several (you will not be surprised to find Swinburne described as "a public menace"), and during the war he knew most of the other war poets you've heard of.  There is a nice description of an afternoon with Thomas Hardy, who no longer wrote novels by then, and some about T. E. Lawrence "of Arabia."

I don't think he must have been a very easy person to live with.  The book is thickly scattered with mentions of the ends of various friendships, and he doesn't seem to have been a very forgiving or tolerant person.  Spending years in the trenches would embitter anyone, so I guess it's not surprising, but I kept being surprised that he was so angry and upset over how other people coped with life's difficulties. 

4 comments:

Cat said...

It doesn't sound very cheerful reading! I've been immersed in this era lately and added Good-bye To All That to my TBR after reading Testament of Youth.
Thanks for mentioning the different editions - I'll watch out for that.

Jean said...

Yeah, definitely not cheery. In fact I seem to be under a pile of tragic books this week--I just finished one about prison camps in North Korea. I need a nice happy book now!

whimsicaldesperation said...

It's not cheery, but there are some wonderfully colorful (and even amusing) passages! (Of course, I'm biased because Graves is a favorite of mine.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found the parts set in England (before, during, and after the War) more enjoyable, though the descriptions of fighting in France are certainly powerful and important. His reflections on the way that the War dislocated society are telling. I was struck by his discussion of Siefried Sassoon's threatened court martial -- I didn't know that story -- and the anecdote about the way that the Oxford hierarchy went topsy turvy. ("“The social system at Oxford had been dislocated. Mr. J. V. Powell, the St John’s don destined to be my moral tutor when I came up, now wore the grey uniform of a corporal in the General Reserve, drilled in the parks, and saluted me whenever we met. A college scout held a commission, and was instructing in the other cadet-battalion.”)

It's an interesting point that he wouldn't have been easy to live with -- his relationships with women had their tumultuous turns, to be certain.

Jean said...

Oh yes, there are some great passages. I enjoyed reading the book--maybe that didn't come out well. By the end, though, I was noticing the bitterness a lot. It was interesting how he talked like a competent officer (which he was) but also hated everything.