Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

Robert Graves first published this autobiographical work in 1929,when he was thirty-four years old. What we generally encounter today, however, is the revised edition he published in 1957. The new edition does not extend the story of his life past 1929, except for a three page 'Epilogue'. In a 'Prologue' dated 1957 Graves indicates that he revised the original substantially, improving the writing, correcting errors, adding more anecdotes, and restoring proper names 'where their original disguise is no longer necessary'. There are some, however, who regret what they see as the partial loss of the ragged power and anger of the original version, and Graves made deletions as well as additions. Notably, Laura Rider, the American poet, who was his partner and collaborator from 1926 to 1939, has disappeared entirely from the 1957 version.

The Penguin copy I read has a painting of World War I battlefield desolation on its cover, and GTAT is best remembered for its powerful and vivid portrayal of the Western Front, to which Graves went as a teenage officer in 1915, and where he served until wounded about half way through the War. Our view today of what trench warfare was like probably owes a great deal to Graves's account, the work of a masterly prose writer who describes his experiences in for the most part remarkably objective and dispassionate terms. Graves became passionately opposed to the war, and he suffered severe depression and other traumas in the years following it, but there is a strong matter-of-fact quality to his description of the horrors. The book was hailed as a vivid account when it appeared a decade after the war's end, and it sold very well, though some 'patriots' condemned it roundly for its unheroic portrayal of the conflict. (Its descriptions of people encountered also lost Graves some of the friends he had not entirely alienated during the years before 1929, notably his fellow poet and officer, Siegfried Sassoon.)

The book is not entirely devoted to the War, however. A significant portion describes Graves's schoolboy life at one of the leading English 'public schools', Charterhouse, which he hated. A major part also describes his experiences as a young married man with a growing family and limited resources in postwar England. Name-dropping does figure rather prominently here, though as many of the names are those of major writers of the period, the section is not as dull as it might be. But it is less interesting and far less powerful than what has gone before.

Graves's background could be described as 'upper middle class', and he had aristocratic connections, particularly in Germany, which he visited several times as a child. His perspective remains that of someone from an educated middle class background, even though he rejects many of the values of that background and embraces a kind of socialism, at least for a time. He may be in part ironic when he tells us in his epilogue that during World War II he was not prepared to travel third class in a train along with people such as a common policeman, insisting on the first class to which his status as an officer on the pensioned list entitled him, but his saying 'Goodbye to all that' before leaving England to go to live in Majorca was by no means a total rejection of his background. Herein, perhaps, lies a major part of the book's success: Graves describes the upper middle class English world of the early twenty century as someone who understands it intimately, shares many of its values, but also sees many of its limitations.