Friday, June 15, 2012

Robert Graves and Good-bye to All That by Paul Fussell

Of all the memoirs of the Great War, the ‘stagiest’ is Robert Grave’s Good-bye to All That, published first in 1929 but extensively rewritten for its reissue in 1957. Like James Boswell, who wrote in his journal (October 12, 1780), “I told Erskine I was to write Dr. Johnson’s life in scenes,” Graves might have said in 1929 that it was “in scenes” that he was going to write of the front-line war. And working up his memories into a mode of theater, Graves eschewed tragedy and melodrama in favor of farce and comedy, as if anticipating Friedrich Durrenmatt’s observation of 1954 that “comedy alone is suitable for us,” because “tragedy presupposes guilt, despair, moderation, lucidity, vision, and a sense of responsibility,” none of which we have got:

In the Punch-and Judy show of our century . . . there are no more guilty and also, no responsible men. It is always, “We couldn’t help it” and “We didn’t really want that to happen.” And indeed, things happen without anyone in particular being responsible for them. Everything is dragged along and everyone gets caught somewhere in the sweep of events. We are all collectively guilty, collectively bogged down in the sins of our fathers and of our forefathers . . . That is our misfortune, but not our guilt . . . Comedy alone is suitable for us.

And in Grave’s view, not just comedy: something close to Comedy of Humors, a mode to which he is invited by the palpable character conventions of the army, with its system of ranks, its externalization of personality, its impatience with ambiguity or subtlety, and its arena of conventional “duties” with their invariable attendant gestures and “lines.” “Graves,” says Randall Jarrell, “is the true heir of Ben Jonson.” Luxuriating in character types, Graves has said few things more revealing about his art than this: “There is a fat boy in every school (even if he is not really fat), and a funny-man in every barrack-room (even if he is not really very funny). . . .”

In consideration of Good-bye to All That, it is well to clear up immediately the question of its relation to “fact”. J. M. Cohen is not the only critic to err badly by speaking of the book as “harshly factual” and by saying, “It is the work of a man who is not trying to create an effect.” Rather than calling it “a direct and factual autobiography,” Cohen would have done better to apply to it the term he attaches to Grave’s Claudius novels. They are, he says, “comedies of evil.” Those who mistake Good-by to All That for a documentary autobiography (Cohen praises its “accurate documentation”) should find instructive Grave’s essay “P.S. to ‘Good-bye to All That,’” published two years after the book appeared. Confessing that he wrote the book to make “a lump of money” (which he did – he was able to set himself up in Majorca on the royalties), he enumerates the obligatory “ingredients of a popular memoir:

I have more or less deliberately mixed in all the ingredients that I know are mixed into other popular books. For instance, while I was writing, I reminded myself that people like reading about food and drink, so I searched my memory for the meals that have had significance in my life and put them down. And they like reading about murders, so I was careful not to leave out any of the six or seven that I could tell about. Ghosts, of course. There must, in every book of this sort, be at least one ghost story with a possible explanation, and one without any explanation, except that it was a ghost. I put in three or four ghosts that I remembered.

And kings . . . . People also like reading about other people’s mothers.. . . And they like hearing about T .E. Lawrence, because he is supposed to be like a mystery man. . . . And, of course, the Prince of Wales.

People like reading about poets. I put in a lot of poets. . . . Then, of course, Prime Ministers . . . a little foreign travel is usually needed; I hadn’t done much of this, but I made the most of what I had. Sport is essential. . . . Other subjects of interest that could not be neglected were school episodes, love affairs (regular and irregular), wounds, weddings, religious doubts, methods of bringing up children, severe illnesses, suicides. But the best bet of all is battles, and I had been in two quite good ones – the first conveniently enough a failure, though set off by extreme heroism, the second a success, though a little clouded by irresolution.

So it was easy to write a book that would interest everybody. . . . And it was already roughly organized in my mind in the form of a number of short stories, which is the way that people find it easiest to be interested in the things that interest them. They like what they call “situations.”

Furthermore, “the most painful chapters have to be the jokiest.” Add ‘the best bet of all is battles” to “the most painful chapters have to be the jokiest” and divide by the idea of “situations” and you have the formula for Grave’s kind of farce.

“Anything processed by memory is fiction,” as the novelist Wright Morris has perceived. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes puts it this way: “Imagination and memory are but one thing, which for divers considerations hath divers names.” And in An Apology for Poetry, Sir Philip Sidney apprehends the ‘poetic’ – that is - fictional – element not just in all “history” but specifically in history touching on wars and battles:

Even historiographers (although their lips sound of things done, and verity be written in their foreheads) have been glad to borrow both fashion and perchance weight of poets . . . Herodotus . . . and all the rest that follow him either stole or usurped of poetry their passionate describing of passions, the many particularities of battle, which no man could affirm, or . . . .long orations put in the mouths of great kings and captains, which it is certain they never pronounced.

We expect a memoir dealing with a great historical event to “dramatize” things. With Graves we have to expect it more than with others, for he is “first and last,” as Jarrell sees, “a poet: in between he is a Graves.” A poet, we remember Aristotle saying, is one who has mastered the art of telling lies successfully, that is, dramatically, interestingly. And what is Graves? A Graves is a tongue-in-cheek neurasthenic farceur whose material is “facts.”

Asked by a television interviewer whether his view that homosexuality is caused by the excessive drinking of milk is “based on intuition or on what we would call scientific observation,” Graves replies: “On objective reasoning.” His “objective reasoning” here is as gratuitously outrageous as the anthropological scholarship of The White Goddess, the literary scholarship of his translation (with Omar Ali Shah) of The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam, or the preposterous etymological arguments with which he peppers his essays.

But to put it so solemnly is to risk falling into Grave’s trap. It is to ignore the delightful impetuosity, the mastery, the throw-away fun of it all. Graves is a joker, a manic illusionist, whether gaily constructing flamboyant fictional anthropology, re-writing ancient “history,” flourishing erroneous or irrelevant etymology, over-emphasizing the importance of “Welsh verse theory,” or transforming the White Goddess from a psychological metaphor into a virtual anthropological “fact.” And the more doubtful his assertions grow, the more likely he is to modify them with adverbs like clearly or obviously. Being “a Graves” is a way of being scandalously “Celtish” (at school “I always claimed to be Irish,” he says in Good-bye to All That). It is a way – perhaps the only way left – of rebelling against the positivistic pretensions of non-Celts and satirizing the preposterous scientism of the twentieth century. His enemies are always the same: solemnity, certainty, complacency, pomposity, cruelty. And it was the Great War that brought them to his attention.

Actually, any man with some experience and a bent towards the literal can easily catch Graves out in his fictions and exaggerations. The unsophisticated George Coppard explodes one of his melodramatic facilities in Good-bye to All That with simple common sense. Graves asserts – it is a popular cynical vignette – that machine-gun crews often fired off several belts without pause to heat the water in the cooling jacket for making tea. Amusing but highly unlikely –Coppard quietly notes that no one wants tea laced with machine oil. Another of Graves machine-gun anecdotes collapses as “fact” upon inquiry. At one point he says:

There was a daily exchange of courtesies between our machine-guns and the German’ at stand-to; by removing cartridges from the ammunition belt one could rap out the rhythm of the familiar prostitutes call: “MEET me DOWN in PICC-a-DILLY,” to which the Germans would reply, though in slower tempo, because our guns were faster than theirs: “YES, with-OUT my DRAWERS ON!”

Very nice. But the fact is that if you remove the cartridges from the belt the gun stops working when the empty space encounters the firing mechanism. (These stories are like the popular legend that in a firing squad one man is given a rifle secretly loaded with a blank so that no member of the squad can be certain that he has fired one of the fatal bullets. But as attractive as this is as melodrama, there’s something wrong with it: the rifle containing the blank is the only one that will not recoil when fired, with the result that every man on the squad will end by knowing anyway. The story won’t do.)

But we are in no danger of being misled as long as we perceive that Good-bye to All That is no more “a direct and factual autobiography” than Sassoon’s memoirs. It is rather a satire, built out of anecdotes heavily influenced by the techniques of stage comedy. What Thomas Paine says of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France applies directly: Burke, says Paine, makes “the whole machinery bend to produce a stage effect.” No one has ever denied the brilliance of Good-bye to All That, and no one has ever been bored by it. Its brilliance and compelling energy reside in its structural invention and in its perpetual resourcefulness in imposing patterns of farce and comedy onto the blank horrors or meaningless vacancies of experience. If it really were a documentary transcription of the actual, it would be worth very little, and would surely not be, as it is, infinitely re-readable. It is valuable just because it is not true in that way. Graves calls on paradox to suggest the way it is true:

The memoirs of a man who went through some of the worst experiences of trench warfare are not truthful if they do not contain a high proportion of falsities. High-explosive barrages will make a temporary liar or visionary of anyone; the old trench-mind is at work in all, over-estimation of casualties, “unnecessary” dwelling on horrors, mixing of dates and confusion between trench rumors and scenes actually witnessed.

In recovering ‘the old [theatrical] trench-mind” for the purposes of writing the book, Graves performed a triumph of personal show business.

He was in an especially rebellious mood when he dashed off the book in eight weeks during May, June, and July of 1929 and then sent the manuscript to Jonathan Cape. His marriage with Nancy Nicolson had just come apart, he owed money, he had quarreled with most of his friends, his view of English society had become grossly contemptuous, and he was still ridden by his wartime neurasthenia, which manifested itself in frequent bursts of tears and bouts of twitching. His task as he wrote was to make money by interesting an audience he despised and proposed never to see again the minute he was finished. Relief at having done with them all is the emotion that finally works itself loose from the black humor which dominates most of the book.


  1. "Comedies of evil" is a helpful and inspiring concept. I really liked the TV version of "I, Claudius". As for the depths of artist cynicism explicated in the rest of this excerpt, I find it pretty deep. Sounds like it would be a good contrast with "The Naked and the Dead". Graves and Ted Hughes and Idries Shah make good bedfellows.

  2. The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell; Oxford University Press, 1975. He discusses Naked and the Dead and Ted Hughes as well. He makes some very nice points about homo-eroticism in the literature of the Great War and of the Second.

  3. Ted Hughes was too young for the Second War, but in the early fifties he performed his National Service as a ground wireless operator in the RAF. By means of early poems like “Bayonet Charge” and “Out” he explored the topographical and psychological landscape not of the Second War but of the First. So firm was his imaginative grasp of the Great War material that he instinctively perceived the principles of “threes” and invited it to dominate poems like “Six Young Men” (of whom the fate of only three is known definitely) and “Griefs for Dead Soldiers” (which conceives the kinds of grief as three). B Some years later, as if peeling back the layers of Great War imagery – trenches, wire, mass graves – to see what they really represented, he arrived at the violent simplicities of the poems constituting the volume Crow (1971), poems whose sentimental primitivism and mechanized emotional exhaustion speak precisely to the late-twentieth-century condition. It was his early instructive detour through the landscapes of the Great War that brought Hughes finally to this ultimate wasteland.

  4. Pynchon ( in Gravity’s Rainbow) is not the only contemporary novelist to conceive of the close relation between perverse sexual desire, memories of war, and human excrement. In An American Dream Mailer offers a scene analogous to that of Pudding and Katje, only here the memories are of the Second War. It is after recalling the sadistic, bloody details of his shooting of four Germans in Italy that Stephen Rojack proceeds to sodomize the “Kraut” Ruta. It is this scene that Kazin has in mind when he observes “As always in reading Mailer’s descriptions of intercourse, one is impressed by how much of a war novelist he has remained.” As we perceive in the work of Mailer and Pynchon and Lames Jones, it is the virtual disappearance during the sixties and the seventies of the concept of prohibitive obscenity, a concept which has acted as a censor on earlier memories of “war”. That has given the ritual of military memory a new dimension. And that new dimension is capable of revealing for the first time the full obscenity of the Great War. The greatest irony is that it is only now, when those who remember the events ate almost all dead, that the literary means for adequate remembering and interpreting are finally publically accessible.

  5. We may be surprised to find in what untraditional places, unlike those frequented by Thomas Mann and T. S. Eliot, the Great War can be perceived to still go on. In the world of Ginsberg’s Howl, for example, where we encounter this nightmare of the beautiful innocent young men destroyed on the battlefields of Making It:

    . . . burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors . . .

    We may conclude that, as Francis Hope has said, “In a not altogether rhetorical sense, all poetry written since 1918 is war poetry.”