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.


Faye said...

Thank you for this review John - I am enjoying reading the Graves autobiography very much. At first i fouind it a little hard going but not dull. However when I reached the description of the war in the Trenches I found it compelling . It is , as you comment, a straightforwad type of style for such tragic, graphic events and situations but it so effectively captures it for the reader.

I note your comment on Graves upper-middle class background which, i agree, he cannot really escape from - however that very fact illuminates both the personal and the historical detail in a fascinating way.

I found this book brought home to me that I like fine autobiography almost as much as good fiction - I think they have more in common re style and purpose than say autobiography and good biography have. I suppose it is the personal imagination at work on the facts as remembered which is the key as to why this could be so.

i havent yet finished it and I am pleased to be reading it - i may have some further comments a bit later, Again thanks for the review.

John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Faye. I'm struck by your point that autobiography and fiction may have more in common than autobiography and good biography. I think you may be right about the imaginative element. I suppose good modern biography tends to almost a genre of history writing, whereas the author of an autobiography is consciously placing a personal stamp on events. In addition, quite a bit of fiction purports to be autobiography, whereas it rarely purports to be scholarly biography - even when, as in the case of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which I have just finished, it is in fact based on extensive historical research.

I vaguely recall having read years ago that Graves in Goodbye to All That did not always let the strict facts stand in the way of a good story, and that he sometimes presented as personal experiences things that did happen but to other people. I cannot recall the examples cited as evidence now, but of course he did make his living as a masterly storyteller.

John Kennedy said...

I have just obtained on intercampus loan a copy of 'Robert Graves. Good-by to all that and other Great War writings', edited by Steven Trout (Manchester: Carcanet, 2007). It provides the original 1929 text of 'Good-bye to all that', an introduction by Trout, and a 'Postscript to Good-bye to all that' published by Graves in 1930.

I have not compared the 1929 and 1957 editions in great detail, but they seem basically the same book. The 'Postscript' is quite entertaining, and probably not to be taken entirely seriously. Graves suggests he cynically wrote what he felt would sell. He provides amusing accounts of adverse criticism of the book, which often seems to be utterly contradictory: he was condemned, for example, as being pro- and anti-Catholic, pro-and anti-Protestant. He makes the interesing point that his alleged inaccuracies are largely the result of his attempting to describe accurately what he experienced and heard at the time -that in a sense they make the book more not less accurate. According to Trout there was a strong feeling at the end of the 1920s that war writing had to be accurate in the way a scrupulous historian tries to be accurate, with little consideration of the psychological complexities of the soldier's reactions, or the effect on him of shell-shock, etc.

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