Tyler 's Reviews > Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography

Good-Bye to All That by Robert Graves
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's review
Dec 22, 13

it was ok
bookshelves: gay-interest
Recommended to Tyler by: WWI Bibliography
Recommended for: Anyone
Read in February, 2010

Herbert Marcuse describes in One-dimensional Man a world where clashing ideas are held together in a way that makes them impossible to evaluate. We see this with the current PBS ads which, in service to some obscene aesthetic, combine classical opera with film of a napalm attack on Vietnam. A kindred juxtaposition makes the technique of Goodbye to All That recognizably modern. Graves relates his life in a succession of caricatures that shift between the comic and the horrific. Young Graves faces two hurdles: British boarding school and World War I. It’s his accounts of both that bring this book fame. But is it really all that?

In upper class schools for boys we find, as the story begins, bastions of intramural sex that administrators ignore. Graves takes a partner, Dick, as a matter of inveterate custom; his tone tells us it would be in bad form to register much more than a raised eyebrow over this. True, it’s not as graphic as Céline’s frank account of British boarding school in Death on the Installment Plan. But later comes a kind of punch line. Dick gets arrested for coming on to an officer. Graves denounces him, realizing, apparently for the first time, that Dick really is “like that.” I’m not gay, Graves tells us, but my boyfriend is. Having torn the mask off British boarding school, Graves, we find, has adapted to its carnal secrets quite nicely, thank you. Wickedly funny, sir. Take a bow but please, no encore.

Adapting to anything is the link that gets us from sex to war. One moment finds Graves killing Krauts and tripping into rotting corpses; next thing you know he and Siegfried Sassoon are sitting in the grass reciting poetry. Graves plays on this contrast between Britain’s home front dream of war and France’s reality. These absurd transitions take events in stride without regard to their moral status. Graves chronicles them. Conclusions are left to the reader.

A light touch helps sidestep the in any case inexplicable enormity of the Great War. But at this point we run up against the circularity of the author’s worldview. Implicit in the book is a concession that the system that causes war is its own raison d’etre. This undertone weakens the farce we might otherwise notice. The memoir is in part a comedy of evil; but Graves’s comical approach, because of his dry class humor, often turns a fuming crime into a desiccated absurdity. It’s hard to read the theatricality the way the author may have meant it.

A puritanical upper class conformist, Graves is content to be part of the state of affairs he excoriates. The book's light moments rely on a satire of manners that plays to his immense vanity; the rich details of a catered life flesh out various sketches – every faux pas made, the style of the place settings, his illustrious friends and family, the weave of the many strings he pulls. He drops names with astonishing recall, and I certainly can’t deny his entitlements. Yet it’s hard to effectively attack this system from within. The sheer scale of the evil doesn’t yield easily to jaunty farce. Readers in our day can only too well see World War II just dying to climb out from these pages.

Fans of satire might disagree with me as to how effectively it works here. But I can safely say that this is not the scorching declamation of injustice one might be led to expect. Even so, this important war memoir received special attention in the elegantly conceived The Great War and Modern Memory. Graves’s book is in fact well structured and well written, containing all the effects that make for good storytelling. It’s a precise read that doesn’t tarry too long on any one point and an unexpected page turner.

The particular attraction of Goodbye to All That is for students of World War I, fans of memoirs, people who like poetry (although the book contains none) and poets, and anyone curious about the scandal endemic to boarding schools. On the other hand, readers outside these categories may find in this autobiography an insufferable litany of manners, titles, class, ego and conformity. Proceed, but with realistic expectations.
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Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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message 1: by Ellen (new)

Ellen A suberb review, Tyler. It's interesting, though. While you give the book two stars, you seem more sympathetic to it than that and actually made me want to read the book (low expectations and all:).

message 2: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Perceptive review, Tyler. Thank you.

Tyler Thanks, Stephen & Ellen. Ellen, as long as you're aware that Graves's technique may not be "all that," the writing itself is actually quite digestible. I rated it "okay" mainly because the juxtapositions fell so very flat for me.

Bruce Very helpful review, Tyler. Years ago I read I Claudius and liked it. When, more recently, I read Pat Barker's books on World War I and found they included passages about Graves and Sassoon, I considered reading this book, too. I must confess that your perceptive review has not dissuaded me from reading it, but it is not shooting to the top of my to-read list. Thanks.

Tyler Thanks Bruce. To me, Graves applies too much insouciance, considering the totalitarian nature of this newfangled cruelty. His technique seems too awkward for it. However, he did learn a thing or two from his private school education, so the writing itself is good.

It's been noted that, oddly, the three main chroniclers of Britain's Great War experience were all poets. I also read, I think in The Great War and Modern Memory, that there's a closer stylistic bond between this book and Graves's later works (such as I Claudius) than one might expect, considering the different genres. I think that would be an interesting comparison to explore.

Bruce Interesting observation, Tyler. Maybe I'll read it from this stylistic point of view. As I age, I find that style often means as much if not more to me than actual content anyway; I'm unsure why that is so, and maybe it has nothing to do with aging. But I'm increasingly fascinated by diction and syntax.

Annette Your review is so dry and soul-less and lacking in compassion or human understanding it beggars belief. Your review is something of a 'wank' I feel designed to show how smart you are yet you are nowhere close to approaching the ability of Graves. Hot air.

Bruce I would suggest, Annetteat, that responses of a constructive nature with well crafted and supported arguments that illuminate the text and inform other readers are welcome and useful. Ad hominem attacks of the kind you have posted do nothing to provide insights to other readers or facilitate dialogue, and they are thus simply objectionable. We may disagree about our responses to books and can learn from each other, but personal attacks on each other are reprehensible and nothing more. I think you can do better than this.

message 9: by Trisha (new)

Trisha It never ceases to amaze me how people can use the anonymity of the internet as a license to say things they would most likely never say face to face. I can only hope that whoever Annetteat is, she isn't quite as rude and tactless as her comment makes her out to be. I thought your response to her comment was well put. And I for one always find your reviews to be articulate, perceptive and insightful.

message 10: by Susan (new)

Susan Found it oddly callow, snobby and bigoted - the only soldiers who committed atrocities seemed to be black or Australian, and the Scots were portrayed throughout as dirty and ill-disciplined. It is interesting, though, for its depiction of soldiering in WW1. You do wonder, however, how on earth the Allies managed to win with all these amateurs running around in confusion.

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