Good-bye to All That

Great writers often seem to lead messy lives, and none more so than great memoirists, for tidy lives do not make great memoirs. While not as talented a poet, Robert Graves was every bit as batshit crazy as William Butler Yeats, with more cause, and as with Yeats, I have repeatedly fallen in and out of love with Graves over the decades. As Paul Fussell explains in his magisterial [book:The Great War and Modern Memory|154472] the only way to understand Graves' Good-bye to All That is as a mordant burlesque on the darkest of events. (A commonly cited example is Graves' story about making tea from machine gun coolant.) It may seem irreverent to write about the "Great War" in a comic vein; in fact, it undoubtedly is. But there is no reason that war should be regarded with reverence, and, as Fussell points out, perhaps humor is the only way to come to grips with the horror.

Graves' own approach to Good-bye to All That is perhaps summed up by his comment on life after the War:

I still had the Army habit of commandeering anything of uncertain ownership that I found lying about; also a difficulty in telling the truth — it was always easier for me now, when charged with any fault, to lie my way out in Army style.

Graves, Good-bye to All That 287 (Anchor 1985). These are lies in pursuit of a larger truth (as Fussell also points out). Even for someone with the good luck and mental toughness to survive the horrors of the trenches, it must be hard to look back into the abyss straight on. Sometimes, mockery is the only antidote to madness. Sitting here on a Sunday morning in my bathrobe at the keyboard with a cup of strong coffee, it is easy to contemplate the sucking, shell churned mud of half-frozen ditches, swarming with rats, amidst the heavy whine and thud of the shells, the moans and shrieks of the wounded in no-man's land, the ever present fear of gas, and the fatal knowledge that sooner or later one would be ordered to march straight on with bayonet fixed into the stuttering maw of a machine gun. Perhaps not quite so easy to contemplate for one who has lived the experience — a possible explanation for the taciturnity of so many old soldiers.

P.S. As a bonus, for anyone who has ever taught English as a Second Language abroad, see Graves' penultimate chapter on his assignment to Egypt as a professor.