Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves
Goodbye To All That is a biographical novel detailing experiences of Robert Graves from childhood through the First World War and the post-war years of the 1920s. This book is particularly famous for its depiction of the horrors of the First World War and the terrible slaughter and sometimes bizarre experiences of those who fought in that war.
The book’s narrative can be summarized into three basic phases:
- Graves’ childhood, family history and student years
- The First World War
- The post-war years
Graves grew up in a moderately prosperous middle-class family in England in the late 19th century. His early life included a quite happy, if somewhat complex family life. He also had German relatives and used to visit them before the war. His description of the prewar years is quite poignant, and includes quite drastic contrasts to what is to follow.
He attended Oxford University and was in the middle of his studies when the First World War broke out. He was attached to the Royal Welch Fusiliers as an officer. The Royal Welch Fusiliers were a particularly traditionally-oriented British military unit, and Graves, like the other New Army recruits, was seen as an outsider.
Graves soon discovered that trench warfare was basically a form of slaughter. Goodbye To All That contains several descriptions of the fighting, including one memorable attack using gas which was nothing more or less than a complete fiasco, with heavy loss of life. It was at this time that he met the British poet Siegfried Sassoon, who was to be a friend until a major falling out a decade later, after the book was published.
Graves was severely wounded during one attack, and eventually invalided home to Britain. Sassoon remained in France, but was driven to the point of a nervous breakdown as a result of severe stress, leading to a medical board hearing at which Graves, appearing for Sassoon, was told that he probably needed a medical assessment as well. Graves describes the contrast between life in England and life in the trenches very pithily and mentions that while he was at home his mind remained in the trenches.
At the end of the war, Graves married and set up a small shop near Oxford. Neither the marriage nor the shop was a success, and Graves eventually drifted back to his original Oxford University academic pursuits, becoming one of Britain's best-known authors. The book closes with an epilogue deal detailing subsequent experiences and his emigration to Spain.
Goodbye To All That was a particularly controversial book when it came out. Graves deals with issues in relation to the horrendous waste of lives, and the almost incomprehensible military culture which was largely responsible for millions of deaths and the maiming of countless bodies and minds. Like many authors of his time, Graves expresses the extreme loathing and resentment of his generation of the war and its effects. Graves is one of the truly significant 1920s authors, and Goodbye To All That is generally considered a classic.
Graves' writing style is unambiguous, tough and uncompromising, but often sensitive. The almost poetic contrasts of his visits to his relatives in Germany and the war in the trenches fought against the Germans are quite inescapable. Graves is a truly humanist writer, placing anecdotes and impressions like an exhibition of paintings. Graves doesn't linger on the horrors of trench warfare, unlike many writers, but does include enough information for the reader to get a glimpse of hell and humanity in close proximity to one another.
The one person not spared in these anecdotes is Graves himself. Graves tries incredibly hard to be honest and expresses his opinions and feelings as they were at the time, unadorned with euphemisms. Goodbye To All That could be described as an "unintentionally great book" in the sense that there is no hiding behind literary technique and absolutely no filler material.
There is one particular scene in England in which Graves describes the unspeakable torment of a bereaved mother at Sassoon's home where he was a convalescent. The poor woman was quite holding seances attempting to contact her dead son. He found it unnerving in the extreme, "worse than the trenches". This is a pretty typical example of how Graves turns the First World War into a human experience on a regular basis in Goodbye To All That.(Including this episode in the book was supposedly the cause of the falling out between Sassoon and Graves. Unfortunately, it was also a good representation of the misery of bereavement for an entire generation, and really belonged in the book.)
Goodbye To All That is a truly unique book. It is unlikely that this book will ever be used as a "how-to" manual on how to write a biography, but it will always be one of the truly great biographical novels. It’s a matter of opinion how many biographies could actually match Goodbye To All That as a lucid expression of human life in an impossible environment.
Goodbye To All That had the rather ridiculous distinction of being a book written by a well-known author, and later revered as such. What most people don't seem to realize is that of the many biographies written regarding the First World War, this is absolutely typical in terms of describing personal experiences. The books of this genre really weren't written as "books for the literati". They’re books for the human race.
If you want to read Goodbye To All That, I suggest you put aside some time and space to fully appreciate it. Graves has made every effort to create a readable book and done a pretty good job of it, but to appreciate this book you really need to go into your own personal "reader mode". Wherever is the most comfortable, or a preferred secluded place where you prefer to read is the best place to read Goodbye To All That. It's a very special book.