I mentioned Robert Graves earlier, as I was starting to write about WWI Lit, and I don’t want to go over the same ground. I jammed through this book weeks ago, picking it up with great focus right after reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. This was a great sequence, as Barker’s books were rather profound and layered, while Graves’ book is bracing and funny and sad and irreverent and so many things really. It was a wonderful, captivating read, and it’s a great book, an extraordinary, important, and highly readable autobiography.
I talked about how I happened to have a copy of this familiar little gray and orange paperback in my library. This book had great initial popularity, a hit that gave Graves the independence to say goodbye quite literally and move to Mallorca and write a few dozen more books. Graves built a varied and solid career and body of work, and my own view has been that he fell into a very successful slot alongside Joseph Campbell in the 50s and 60s transmission and interpretation of the classics and mythology. And he hit another major spike not just writing I Claudius and its sequel, Claudius the God, but with the famous hit TV adaptation. This came at the end of Graves’ sprawling life, and I had a general awareness of him as an important 20th century writer and popular classicist, a figure one might encounter in all sorts of different ways. Still, I don’t remember any specifics and don’t know why I would have paid a dollar or two for a copy of this book thirty years ago.
But the great fun of reading it, and thinking about it now a few weeks later, is that it tells you exactly who Graves is, in exquisite detail. And it turns out that he’s much more significant and important than one might have guessed. Graves not only wrote a great book that defined and cut him off from the life he led up until he was 30: that life was truly extraordinary and memorable. Graves writes from a great distance and detachment from his strong, inherited 19th century roots, intellectualism, and privilege, as well as he astonishing war effort and survival and the effort to build a life and society in the postwar era. In the end it just doesn’t work, it’s all over, and Graves has memorialized it superbly and he walks away just as he’s turning 30. Graves being Graves, of course, he goes on to have a subsequent career that becomes more than 2 or 3 standard literary lifetimes.
Graves begins with a self-conscious and rather flattering view of his 19th century roots in the professional and academic classes, along with his Anglo-German roots. There’s also the previously mentioned Zelig-like quality where Graves seems to stumble into and befriend virtually everybody, while somehow being something of a misfit and curmudgeon all the while. He goes rock climbing in Wales with George Mallory and G.W. Young both, before the war, and rides around on motorcycles with Lawrence of Arabia after it. He’s chagrined about what his army service and going to war is doing to his intellect, though he’s not priggish about it, and then he bumps into another young officer with a book, Siegfried Sassoon. They go on to become famous War Poets together, along with Wilfred Owen. Graves fights with calm, detached bravery, perfectly aware that his survival is continued dumb luck, but his account is unsparing and sad and painful, with the same emotional immediacy of life, such as it is, in the trenches that is found in All Quiet on the Western Front.
Graves suffers his wound, almost dies (and is reported dead), and goes though the difficult process of trying to figure out what the war means. This quandary is compounded when the war finally ends and a new version of society forms. Graves has an uncanny knack for doing everything right and finding himself dislocated and marginalized at the same time. He marries a feminist and tries to carve out a simple life in the environs of Oxford as a poet and scholar (and even a green grocer for awhile). In Graves, writing at the end of the 20s, like Brittain writing 5 years later, you get a strong and personal survivor’s sense that the real traedy of the war was the peace, that the Allies were unable to honor the sacrifice of the dead by forging a compassionate program for the future, so it was all just a meaningless slaughter, the industrialized destruction of the 19th century and its assumptions and way of life.
Graves’ book does a superb, amazing job of memorializing what it was that was lost. It has a very strange and compelling tone of detachment and rejection, while at the same time it is somehow dynamic and fully engaged. It’s interesting how the books of Sassoon (which I’m extremely eager to read now, as soon as I finish Brittain), Graves and Brittain were published ten years after the war ended, as if a decade was necessary to gain perspective and find the right tone and approach to write about the experience.
Graves and Brittain also share the accident of timing of being members of the very specific version of the Lost Generation, which is explored fully and with great poignancy in All Quiet on the Western Front. I had always thought that the idea was more general, a Hemingway-Gertrude Stein construct, also referring to the fact that fully one-third of British men (not to mention even more German and French, etc.) were casualties in the war. But these books all look at the “class of 1914,” 18 year-olds who had expectations to enter adulthood in the standard desultory manner, who were surprised, naive, and unformed at the onset of war, and then became twisted, damaged, and confused survivors after it, wandering through the wasteland.
Graves has his own approach to this phenomenon, outlined above. He writes about his strangely complete life experience, turns it into a book, and walks away. He expected to be a poet, and he became one, a poet of the trenches, but he struggles at being a pastoral or socially engaged poet in the aftermath of the war, a Virgil or a Milton. He has to walk away and do it all differently, put his experience and his past aside, disengage completely. Of course there are romantic and money complications involved with his stance, but those aren’t part of the book itself.
Graves’ approach is an amazing contrast to Vera Brittain and her combination of romanticism and feminism. It’s great fun, and deeply interesting, to read these books together, and the entire sequence of reading through WWI Lit has been fantastic. Graves seems to realize that he was never really connected to anybody, that his life of privilege and intellectual detachment, his clear and sober insider’s view of the male world of public schools and its relationships, was bound to be smashed up. He established his own character as a boxer and survivor early on, literally pugnacious, surprised at his own strength, steadiness, resources, and ability to get up and keep going. So many, virtually everybody he knows, won’t get up, won’t survive, won’t carry on. It’s a completely different perspective from Brittain. Great stuff.