Thursday, 10 November 2011

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

After the rather wonderful Edward Thomas biography by Matthew Hollis I wanted to read ‘Into the Silence’, the book about mountaineer George Mallory that has had such rave reviews. I took a look at the price and decided against (I have subsequently ordered it from Amazon at less than half the price). Instead I picked up ‘Goodbye to All That’ by Robert Graves, a book I remember my father urging on me when I was about 17 (he and Graves got on very well during a Monitor). And it turns out that George Mallory was Graves’s Best Man (Graves could not imagine Mallory not reaching the summit of Everest).

Well, it is book of the year so far (I discount Great Expectations on the grounds that I have read it before): astounding book. It is written with a dispassionate artlessness that fails entirely to disguise the fact that Graves cannot help himself simply telling stories. Stories of school, stories of war, and stories of peace. It is, nominally, an autobiography, but a less reflective autobiography it is impossible to imagine. Instead we have a sort of Homeric approach which is all about what happens. What we make of what happens is pretty much up to us. Either the author took for granted what we would make of things or he is uninterested in weighing up or analysing. For example, it is not until the later stages of the book that his objection to the war becomes explicit (it was Graves who made sure that Sassoon was delivered to Rivers at Craiglockhart rather than court-martialled).

Graves wass proud of his regiment (Royal Welch Fusiliers), in particular the first battalion, walked whenever he could on the hills behind Harlech in north Wales, once ran a grocery shop in Islip, was a professor of English in Cairo (where he taught Nasser), was given up for dead three times, saw ghosts, was a virgin until he married, visited Thomas Hardy and knew Lawrence of Arabia.

The number of characters - people – who die may explain the dispassion. Had Graves lingered on each one we would have a had a very long book indeed. Horrifying. Getting children to read this rather than study history from dry text books would give an altogether truer picture of the Great War. A very good book indeed.

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