Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography by Robert Graves

Graves, Robert. Good-Bye to All That. New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 1929, 1998.

English poet Robert Graves, in his autobiography Good-Bye to All That, traces the first three decades of his life. He opens with his childhood, growing up in the middle-class Victorian era with a mother of German descent and an Anglo-Irish father – both of whom seem to have had little humor. We see his struggle through a progression of schools, to graduation, and then his entry into WWI with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. There are friendships, struggles, death, anger, bewilderment and eventually love, marriage, children, love again, and goodbyes. Good-Bye to All That reads like the darkest of comedies with occasional flippancy to the horrors of war, and yet the reader understands the author’s struggle. He is telling the world through eloquent quips and abrasive humor what it feels like to lose one’s innocence during World War I. His slide into depression and disillusionment in the government bureaucracy is clear, but in true Robert Graves’s style, humor replaces melancholy, the story continuing to his final goodbye. He is not only saying farewell to his wife and children, family and friends, but his life as he has lived it. As this book was finally published in 1929, the soldier poet’s metamorphoses is complete.

Graves’s personal life was turbulent and showing distress at the memoir’s end, continuing to harass him for years. Perchance his particular style of writing required a type of dysfunction or disturbance, and these trials are what made him great. This work ends before such stories have been lived but it is important to note since he seems to take a more liberal view of relationships. His first marriage with Nancy Nicholson ended with four children and the placement of his then girlfriend, Laura Riding, as the main woman in his life. Their riotous relationship ended during a stint in the United States. Once back in Britain he took up with Beryl Hodge, who was at the time married to Alan Hodge. Prior to this relationship, he and Alan had co-written The Long Week-End and The Reader Over Your Shoulder. As mentioned before, turmoil seems to have a gratifying effect on the author. When he was with Riding, he collaborated on several projects including A Survey of Modernist Poetry and A Pamphlet Against Anthologies. Though his personal life consisted of a string of love affairs, illicit and lawful, he continued as he began, as a prolific writer who produced over 140 works. He received numerous awards and accolades, especially for I, Claudius and Claudius the God, which were later turned into a television series in Britain and the United States.

In Good-Bye to All That, the first nine chapters are devoted to his education. These years of preparatory schools were clearly not fond memories. There was King’s College School in Wimbledon where he was born, this after the first dames school was found wanting, then Penrallt, Hillbrow, Rokeby, Copthorne, and finally Charterhouse. As Graves writes about his school experiences he does not allude to pretentions, knowing quite clearly that he was a ‘square peg in a round hole.’ Unfortunate incidents accumulated from the age of six. His intelligence rubbed many the wrong way and bullying was one of the consequences. According to Graves, homosexual relationships were common in the all-boys schools, and he was not immune to this type of connection. He admits to falling in love with a younger boy, whose pseudonym is Dick. He contradicts the experience of homosexuality as a perversion but writes his dabbling is a result of the public school system. He does admit that most boys like himself were “…as honourably chaste and sentimental as I was.” (p. 19) This budding relationship was carried out only through letters once the war was declared on Germany and he enlisted.

In the Introduction, historian Paul Fussell reminds the reader that in reference to his memoirs, Graves himself wrote that when a man has gone through a war and writes his autobiography “…some of the worst experiences of trench-warfare are not truthful if they do not contain a high proportion of falsities.” (p. vi) Even with the altering of some facts, Fussell contends that this book is brilliant. Bearing in mind Graves’s exaggerations, his memories dealing with the war, especially those of Loos and the beginning of the Somme are riveting. A stint of training preceded battle, which is described in his typically comedic fashion. Despite some prior O.T.C. experience, he saluted the wrong people, his uniform was not put together correctly, he spoke when he shouldn’t, and overall did not have the air of a man in charge. He was made a lieutenant in the Royal Welch Fusiliers and wrote that “…my greatest difficulty was talking to the men of my platoon with the proper air of authority.” (p. 70)

The trenches follow training and are written as detailed caricatures of the soldiers. Humor is used to describe grisly scenes, domineering commanders, animals, and old French women. It is understood that the style of writing Graves uses is done to cover his ever-increasing stress and debilitating effects of neurasthenia, or shell shock. There is no plea in his words for sympathy, no tears shed for his lost innocence. Some men could deal with the pressures, some could not, and some like Graves poured his emotions into writing.

There are some readers who prior to picking up a WWI biography assume, or expect, an overtone of social ideologies and political bashing. There is no in-depth analysis of why the war happened or what cause he was fighting for. He does mention that he wasn’t ready to endure more schooling or working in the real world, and soldiering was a good short-term diversion. His views were patriotic at first. Germany had broken a neutrality agreement, but his patriotism eventually turned to pacifism, thanks in part to friends like Siegfried Sassoon (also a poet and author of The George Sherston Trilogy, a semi-autobiography of the war but fictionalized). Though Graves’s war perspective changed, it is not the focus of the book. In the beginning, the British as a whole, including himself, seem wholly ignorant of what the war would mean for them and why they were in it. Following orders that led to the death of so many men created disillusionment, but he does not waste ink on what-ifs. His purpose is to put the reader in his shoes before the war where the taint of death has yet to touch, through the mind-numbing explosions, death, and mud of the trenches, and finally, to see him as just a man trying to cope with normalcy and living after the war.

Graves despised the burden his disabilities created for his wife and lists many of the uncomfortable habits as a result of soldiering. Using a telephone is almost impossible after a lightening storm lit up the receiver while in training camp, loud noises contrive to startle him, at times dropping him to the ground for cover. Certain smells can trigger memories he would rather forget and meeting more than a few new people at a time can cause great angst. He does mention some learned habits that are rather amusing and beneficial, talking to complete strangers with ease and urinating in public are some. He approached setting up house with his family like he would when taking over billets or trenches. “Food, water supply, possible dangers, communication, sanitation, protection against the weather, fuel and light—I ticked off each item as satisfactory.” (p. 287) A favorable habit was one of endurance, finishing tasks set before him; a useful practice when trying to write in a house full of young children and a difficult wife.

There are moments of perceived dispassion, descriptions of bodies in varying degrees of decomposition, the irritation felt with a dying man taking up valuable trench space, or the quip about a comrade shot down, these statements do not spear to be so much about aloofness but simply a reporting of facts, sights, and sounds allowing the reader to follow behind his well-trod path. Good-Bye to All That is not a reflection on sentimentality. He does not try to rationalize or bring a deeper import to the war. His approach is almost pitiless, and because of that, it is unexpected and holds the reader’s attention from beginning to end.

Especially enjoyable are his descriptions of the soldiers’ antics while off duty and the way he classifies the companies. Some were more honorable, some did not take well to orders, some, like the Scottish Highlanders and Irish took unnecessary chances, and others, like the poor, unfortunate Public School Brigades, are described as walking dead men.

The humor that a lot of men found when facing death speaks of deep bravery. Watching friends climb over the trench walls only to be shot down by machine gun fire was common, expected, and internalized. Graves writes that he was able to sleep anywhere, anytime, standing, walking, sitting, and even in the midst of a heavy barrage. The screams and explosions becoming nothing more than a slight irritant, and yet he lets the reader know that deep inside, the scars are becoming bottomless, thicker, and his time of being able to withstand them are in its zenith.

This memoir has created controversies since its publication. Graves has a very un-British way of thinking, or perhaps, not in his thinking but rather in his bravery to publicly announce those feelings. His criticisms of the school system were not appreciated, nor was his open acceptance of homosexuality, or his admittance and ease in which he entered into a romantic love for another man. One of the greatest offenses was in leaving England behind. His ‘Good-Bye to All That’ was not only referencing his youth or soldiering but to England and everything it stood for. Graves’s parting words are unsurprising and clearly show his unchanging character. He writes that if he were to relive his life “I should probably behave again in very much the same way,” as a “…rebellious nature and an over-riding poetic obsession, is not easily outgrown.” (p. 347)

Whether or not intended, this memoir reads like a novel, slight exaggerations do not diminish what an exceptional piece of WWI literature it is. There is something that appeals about Graves’s style over other war memoirs, even with the hyperbole that runs through the pages. Compare Graves’s style with German author Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel. A good portion of Junger’s memoirs read like a car mechanic’s manual, while Grave’s fall more in the Gone With the Wind category. One you can read, and one you want to read. Graves may have been a writer but he was also very much a soldier. He took his duties seriously and the obligations to his men earnestly. By every standard, Good-Bye to All That is a World War I literary classic.

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