Robert Graves was a fascinating man. A poet and novelist of some note, he was also a respected classical scholar and translator. Like many of his generation, he served in the British Army (Royal Welch Fusilliers, to be exact) during World War I. In that war, he was severely wounded and taken for dead. His war experiences exacerbated lung problems he had all his life; despite these problems Graves lived for ninety years.
Part of his breathing problems came from a battered nose, which he got while at Charterhouse, a British prep school by “playing rugger with soccer players.” Boxing in the army worsened the condition of his nose. When he returned to England to recuperate from the war, he was operated on by an army surgeon; he was glad to have the free service, but had no choice in the surgeon, and the one who operated on him botched the job somewhat, so that throughout the remainder of his life, he had trouble breathing through one nostril. As he put it, that experience left him with a nose that “no longer serve[d] as a vertical line of demarcation” between the two sides of his face.
To many readers, Graves is best known as the author of I, Claudius and Claudius the God, two historical novels written in the guise of newly unearthed memoirs of the 4th Roman Emperor, Claudius, and "translated" by Graves into English (Graves actually did pen several exemplary translations of Greek and Roman works for Penguin.) Those two novels are witty, well-written, and meticulously researched — Graves got his facts right.
In the 1920s, though, Graves was primarily a poet, one of many poets who served Britain during WWI, surviving like his compatriot, Siegfried Sassoon, to be a strong critic of the war, and of war itself; though the British didn’t invent the term FUBAR, ineptitude and poor communication led to all sorts of disasters in the war.
In 1929, he published Goodbye to All That, a memoir of that war and his part in it, but also a witness to the changes that war had wrought. Many young men entered the war full of patriotism tinged with a faith in God and the rightness of their cause, but left that war, shaken in their patriotism, many now atheists, and skeptical of any emotional call from any ideology. By the time this book came out, Graves himself had settled in Majorca, and the title of the book was suggestive of Graves’ desire to give up all of his past and start anew.
The book covers Graves’ life and the world in which he lived up until the mid 1920s. So he speaks of his early years, and of his years at Charterhouse, where he confesses to a romantic devotion to a fellow student. Despite his fond memories of his school crush, it does not keep Graves from turning an ironic eye on the foibles of British Public Schools just as he later does on the foibles of the British army.
The book was a success, and the profits from the sales of the book left Graves financially secure. Graves seems to admit that any autobiography, though based on the events of one’s own life, remains somewhat fictional. There are ways of going about telling one’s story. In the book’s opening paragraphs, he notes that he will follow the conventions and speak of the first memory he has – that of being hoisted on his father’s shoulders to see a parade going through Wimbledon (where Graves lived as a young boy) in honor of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Graves was two at the time. It is not that Graves has such an early memory that I find noteworthy, but that he feels compelled to set the scene within the frame of conventional tropes of the autobiography.
Graves is a master stylist, and a good storyteller, but his clear focus on the tropes of his medium does suggest some remove from his subject. And this may be the reason both for the book’s popularity — it reads like one of Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels but with greater pathos — but also why others in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, such as Siegfried Sassoon, another poet officer, and perhaps the greatest of the English poets who fought in, and survived the war, and J.C. Dunn, who had been medical officer with the Fusiliers, both of whom wrote their own accounts of their lives and war service, had issues with the book.
Graves and Sassoon had been friends, and came to know each other better during convalescence, but when Sassoon chose to publicly repudiate the war in 1917 and call for the government to work to some peace with Germany, an offense which was against the code of military conduct, and could result in a court martial, Graves along with a psychiatrist, W.H.R. Rivers, worked to have Sassoon declared “impaired due to shell shock” (in this effort, they were successful). Sassoon did not thank them. Graves presents the incident in such a way that he comes out the hero, saving Sassoon from being summarily dismissed from the army and sent to a military prison. What Graves does not report, though, is Sassoon was opposed to Graves’ intervention, nor does Graves report that he, too, suffered from shell shock. In writing of poetry written during the war, Graves indiscreetly used a poem of Sassoon’s not meant for publication, but shared privately with Graves, as an example of one of Sassoon’s lesser efforts. Sassoon saw such publication a betrayal.
Dunn too took Graves to task for his memoir. Dunn, though, was much more regular army than either Graves or Sassoon and may have been more upset by liberties he perceived that Graves took with the truth.
This autobiography may not be a model of veracity in the genre, but its eloquence and humor make it a worthy read and a fine farewell to our year of looking at World War I through literature.