Lately I’ve been rereading books that impressed me in my youth. Some still impress, some no longer do, and some raise questions I would never have thought of when I took everything I read as simple truth.
Now I found myself asking: what was Robert Graves saying ‘goodbye’ to? When he published Goodbye to All That (1929), his startling memoir of his youth and his experiences on the Western Front in the First World War, he was 34. Most of the book recalls events that had ended a decade earlier. He says: ‘I had by the age of 23, been born, initiated into a formal religion, travelled, learned to lie, loved unhappily, been married, gone to the war, taken life, procreated my kind, rejected formal religion, won fame and been killed.’ Are these life events to which one can bid adieu?
Graves’s bestseller broke fresh ground and turned the genre of the war memoir (previously the province of glory-hunting military men) on its head. He told how the daily terror of extinction, amid incessant noise and mud and dysentery, ground personal existence down to intensely vivid and interminably dull moments. In matter-of-fact prose, hardly altered from diaries and letters, Graves’s stiff upper lip scarcely trembles. Even when wounded and near death at the Battle of Mametz Wood, he does not weep and wail. This restraint gives the book an enduring – and endearing – solidity. As the poet Wilfred Owen famously wrote, ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.’
Incidents are described with hellish clarity. After the Battle of Loos, the clear-up party finds a dead officer who, only a few hours before, had been an inspiring leader. With seventeen wounds, he had died with his fist crammed into his mouth to stop himself crying out and attracting the attention of the enemy, having first sent a message apologizing for groaning. As such scenes unfold, the relentless recurrence of death deadens the living. Months later, Graves goes for a stroll and finds the bloated, stinking corpse of a German soldier, eyeglasses still on nose. He is upset, not by the sight, but because he realizes there is ‘no excitement left . . . no horror in the experience of death’.
Graves is possibly the first writer to record how boredom as much as heroism forces men into crazy heroics. That, and the vileness of the trenches. At first the trenches were a novelty, so that people put up with paddling about in water. But as t
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