Was Robert Graves' early life so remarkable that simply recording the facts was sufficient to create a classic? Or do his skills as a writer make the careful construction and delivery of this memoir seem effortless? Either way, the status of this work as a singularly powerful historical record is well deserved.
Graves' life, from middle class public school, to an officer in the trenches of WWI, and then an impoverished radical poet in post-war Oxford, seems like another world. Seemingly trivial details now seem bizarre, and life in the trenches under enemy fire (or gas attack) is hell on earth. Graves takes a factual, analytical, almost objective approach, recording public opinion and sentiment, and giving well-argued reasons for what now seems like military madness. This has the effect of hiding his own personal drama from the reader, so his anti-war feelings and eventual nervous collapse come as something of a surprise.
The book is not without its weaknesses. His time after the war seems to consist largely of name-dropping famous poets and encounters with Lawrence of Arabia, but seventy five years on there is limited interest in these figures, and instead we yearn for more characters such as Daisy, the daughter of a down-and-out who the Graveses temporarily adopted and gives us an insight unto life at the other end of the social spectrum, and regret that Graves did not record more of the social consequences of the radical socialism and feminism he and his wife adopted in what was still a conservative and socially claustrophobic society.
Graves toyed with turning his experiences into a novel. Ford Madox Ford did just that with the Parades End series. Some may find this allows a more considered approach of the same period, and where Graves gives us anecdote Ford leaves the reader with a deeper understanding. None of this, however, challenges the status of Goodbye to all That as an outstanding historical document of life in another age.