Posted by: zhiv | April 22, 2011

Robert Graves and Laura Riding: The Movie

Quel disastre! Not really I guess–I’ve been through this before, many times and many ways. This morning is a good time to take a simple approach and go over the sequence; nothing fancy.

Lots of reading time recently, and most of it has been Robert Graves: The Years with Laura, along with the Gender of Modernism Anthology now. I had powered through most of RP Graves’ second biographical volume (TYwL) and at some point–it’s in my journal, not the exact moment, but a clear mention–I realized that part of my hunger for this story was that it might make a great script and movie, and I was studying something with real dramatic potential. I mentioned it to my partner TB and he was skeptical, of course, and rightly so: “sounds like a tough one!” The job of a successful producer is to find the easy ones, the commercial ones, the no-brainers. But you’re also supposed to be looking for great stories, and I knew that Riding was an extraordinary character, and the general storyline was just as good. Yesterday I made it to the end of TYwL, reading RPG’s epilogue, which gives strong and even surprising credit to LR. And I was wondering about the next step. I had made good progress on typing out my first Graves-Riding missive during the day, and I thought I would get around to finishing that up. It was interesting to read and consider, as it was half-baked and hasty and filled with errors and elisions, shooting from the hip. So in the evening I got around to typing the last couple of paragraphs. I had looked up William and Ben Nicolson on Wikipedia earlier in the day at work, trying to get the story right–in my draft and after reading Miranda Seymour I had thought that William Nicolson was connected to publishing somehow, and I’m confusing him with some one else; he was an artist–, not that Wikipedia helps sufficiently; it certainly didn’t do more than get things started with the story of Graves and Riding. And now, finishing, I jumped into Google search mode.

I started with Riding, curious about RPG’s positive final note (quote here), and wondering about the current state of the Riding camp. I had gotten this far without knowing that she’s also called Laura Riding Jackson. She and Schuyler Jackson moved down to Florida and grew citrus, I think, and their home is a museum. A scholar named Elizabeth Friedman has published an LRJ reader and a biography. LRJ’s papers make up a collection at Cornell, where she went to college. The Dictionary that she and Jackson were working on was published in 1997, after her death, by the University Press of Virginia as Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words. So it appears that Riding steadied and shored up her work and reputation during the post-WW2 era, and she was around through the 50s, 60s, and 70s. She battled with Graves from a distance as he became a 60s icon, and she claimed ownership of The White Goddess and its concepts. My cursory net search turned up a rather sensational 2008 news article about Riding letters and research on the topic of Graves’ “theft” from Riding.

I had been reading biographical and critical introductions in the spectacular Gender of Modernism Anthology at the same time, over the past couple of days. The anthology is from 1990, 20 years ago now, and I wonder if it has been revised and updated, and it has undoubtedly spurred all kinds of new work and scholarship in the interim. I love this book, and want to write about it soon. I started looking at it at the same time that I was getting a better picture of Laura Riding, and I checked early on to see if she appeared anywhere, or if she was in the index. No dice. But reading the anthology and the bios of its subjects, which include many snippets and pithy statements, good ones, about what Modernism is and how it was practiced, and especially the role of feminism in its development, made me think that Riding was working this angle in a major way. The anthology has a stark, bold dedication in sizable type: To the forgotten and silenced makers of modernism. And that’s Laura Riding, I’m guessing–and the crazy, funny and sad thing is that she might say that the excellent Bonnie Kime Scott, author of Joyce and Feminism (1984) and editor of TGoM, was thinking specifically of her and the dedication should be singular. So there’s a 20-year gap to consider now, and we have to see what has happened and if Riding has made progress towards inclusion. Does she belong?

But nothing about Riding really diminishes Graves and his accomplishment. Within the context of TGoM, however, I started to gain a better understanding of Graves and his work. I still believe that Graves wrote GtAT coming, as it were, when his relationship with Riding was taking shape, and she guided and edited its approach and content, and I Claudius going, when their relationhip was on the wane. Graves and Riding had already collaborated on their influential Survey of Modernist Poetry before Graves wrote GtAT. Is GtAT a modernist war memoir? Is it, or should it be, an important modernist text? It was radical in its stance of rejection. It was certainly informed by the literary developments of the 20s, in which Graves participated. I don’t have quite the hold on the central tenets of Modernism, not yet (planning to make notes on TGoM piths), that I would like to, to see how it fits, but that has the making s of a fun and interesting study. And the Modernist angle provides another way of reading I Cluadius. (How am I not reading that yet?) It’s not just thinking about Graves and Riding as models for Claudius and Livia, but thinking of the project itself as a response to Joyce’s Ulysses perhaps, and other Modernist reinterpretations of classical literarure and experience.

So I’m on Graves, thinking deeply (for me, but surfing google, after all, and doing it rather belatedly in terms of my “project,” such as it is). And Google quickly gets me to the Robert Graves Trust, a handsome website, with an association with St. Johns College. I get the immediate impression that Graves studies are in extremely good shape, and that Oxford is taking very good care of its own. Graves was meant to go to Oxford in 1914 when he went off to the war, he studied and lived there from 1920-26, not taking a degree, and most imporatantly he returned intermittently to give SRO lectures as a Professor of Poetry from 1960-65. The RGT website appears to have a thoroough biography section, and lots more.

But just as I was getting started clicking and racing around, returning tho the homepage, a headline about “the Laureate” in the upper right hand corner caught my eye. A moment of dread; perhaps even a gulp. Click. Yes, Robert Graves is… Orlando Bllom. Bravo. Well done. Shooting this summer in Ireland (tax credit), telling the story of Graves and Nancy Nicolson and Laura Riding. Sigh. I told you it was a movie, and so it is. And it so happens that this literature and movie thing is what I’m good at, sort of, even if I don’t seem to make them. Let’s just hope that this works out better than Revolutionary Road. And who would have guessed that Robert Graves would be my 2011 version of Richard Yates 2008? Didn’t see that one coming.


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