Friday, July 24, 2020

This Day in Literary History (Birth of Robert Graves, War Poet and Would-Be Nobelist)

July 24, 1895—Robert Graves, a soldier physically and psychologically wounded during WWI, who went on to a long career as a wide-ranging man of letters, was born in Wimbledon, near London, England.

Writing well in one genre is a major achievement in and of itself, but how many writers can you think of succeed as well at fiction as at poetry? As far as I’m concerned, though many have tried their hand at both, only a halfway have consistently equaled their achievement in each: Goethe, Pushkin, Hardy, and Graves.

During the 1970s, I became familiar with Graves’ work through the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of his I, Claudius and its sequel, Claudius the God.  The miniseries revived interest in these two novels from the 1930s that had been inspired by a work he translated: Suetonius’ gossipy history The Twelve Caesars. As the 13 episodes featuring delicious imperial intrigues unfolded, the two Graves novels climbed to the top of the trade paperback bestseller list.

By this time, the octogenarian Graves, living for decades as an expatriate in Majorca, Spain, had come to resemble “a prototypical sea captain, a weathered oak of a man with a leonine face, ropy hair, and the brusque hauteur of a man used to exercising his command,” according to English journalist and longtime Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke.

It had taken the world quite a while to come around to Graves’ own high self-estimate, which had emerged continually in outspoken interviews over the years. In fact, he had become “such a professional surpriser that only a conventional opinion from him could still shock us,” wrote the English-born American novelist-essayist Wilfred Sheed in The Good Word and Other Words (1978):

“It has been a unique privilege of our time to watch the building of Graves, from shell-shocked schoolboy in World War I to Mediterranean warlock, encanting at the moon. As an expatriate in Majorca, Graves remains a bit of an Edwardian tease, as willful and unflaggingly facetious as a Sitwell; yet in another sense, he has grown more fully and richly than is given to most. His literary opinions are so quirky that they seem designed solely to start lengthy feuds in the London Times; yet in terms of his own art they are not quirky at all.”

The professional making of Graves could easily have been the personal unmaking of him, as implied by Sheed: his traumas in the trenches of France in the Great War. Breaking off his studies at Oxford to enlist at the outbreak of hostilities, he had fought in the Battle of Loos and again in the Somme offensive in 1916, when a shell fragment lodged in his lung was so severe that he was mistakenly reported dead on his 21st birthday. 

After convalescing, Graves returned to the trenches in 1918, suffering yet another injury. The Armistice announcement in November of that year only led him to wander “along the dyke above the marshes of Rhuddlan…cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead.”

Forty years after his service, Graves was still counting the cost, as demonstrated in his poem “The Face in the Mirror”:

“Grey haunted eyes, absent-mindedly glaring
From wide, uneven orbits; one brow drooping
Somewhat over the eye
Because of a missile fragment still inhering,
Skin deep, as a foolish record of old-world fighting.”

In the decade after the Armistice, Graves’ reaction was even more visceral, as he found himself recoiling at strong smells (from fear of gas attacks) and loud noises. He was only finally able to confront his anguish head-on in his 1929 anti-war memoir, Goodbye to All That.

It is still regarded as one of the finest literary products of the Great War, even though, as critic Paul Fussell noted, it was really more like “fiction disguised as a memoir,” with so much deviation from literal fact that it pained fellow veterans Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Blunden and Doctor J. C. Dunn.

Proceeds from Goodbye to All That were substantial enough to enable Graves to reside most of the rest of his life in Majorca. It also meant that he could write and live much as he pleased.

His personal nonconformity manifested itself most vividly in his relationship with the American poet Laura Riding. Already a father of four by the mid-1920s, Graves brought her into his household to reside with him and wife Nancy, then decided to add to the proceedings Geoffrey Phibbs, an Anglo-Irish librarian. (At one point, Graves even threw himself from a third-story window in imitation of Riding, who had just thrown herself from the fourth floor.)

His poetry would eventually amount to 55 collected volumes, but Graves turned his hand to other genres, too, such as a biography of Lawrence of Arabia, translations, cultural criticism (The White Goddess, a meditation on myth-making), and historical novels that took in not only ancient Rome but also the misunderstood wife of poet John Milton, a British soldier’s view of the American Revolution, and even Christ (King Jesus).

One work that particularly appealed to me when I came across it in my college years was a collaboration with Alan Hodge, The Reader Over Your Shoulder. Grammarian Patricia T. O’Conner has termed it “the best book on writing ever published.”

Under normal circumstances, it would be hard to resist any volume that not only offers 41 principles for writing but also examples of how they were violated by luminaries such as T.S. Eliot, George Bernard Shaw, J.B. Priestley, H.G. Wells, and Bertrand Russell. (In one barb, British philosopher A.N. Whitehead is charged with "becoming as conventionally loose as any featherheaded undergraduate.") But the book is even more delicious when Graves and Hodge own up to mistakes of their own.

So prolific and versatile was Graves that in 1962, he ended up on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize in Literature. It was only revealed seven years ago that he missed out on this great honor not so much for the inferiority of his work to that year’s winner, John Steinbeck, but because of the frequent behind-the-scenes politicking associated with the award.

In 1962, a key Nobel Prize committee member was reluctant to award any Anglo-Saxon poet the prize before the death of Ezra Pound. Even though Graves wrote far more than just poetry, the heart of his achievement was seen as lying in that genre, so that members pressed colleagues to look for other candidates.

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