Top positive review
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on 30 August 2008
GOOD-BYE TO ALL THAT is the autobiography of the 34 year old Robert Graves, who, at this book's 1929 publication, was a former army captain who served with distinction in The Great War, an emerging poet, and a father, separated from his wife, with four young children. As a Yank, I'm not quite sure where Graves fit in the English class system of his day. But his family was distinguished and comfortable and Graves endured the bullying at Charterhouse, a prominent English public school.
Certainly, the two great themes of GBTAT are life in the British army in World War I and the friendships of Graves, the poet. For anyone with special interests in the war, I recommend Chapter 15, where he describes his participation in the disastrous Battle of Loos, a poorly planned and executed debacle where many senior officers showed haughty indifference to the plight of the common soldier. Those interested in the lives of poets might read Chapter 28, where Graves describes the many poets living in his midst at Oxford in 1919. Meanwhile, Chapter 29 offers profiles of T.E. Lawrence, his friend, and Thomas Hardy, who Graves visits while biking with his wife.
Graves's style in GBTAT is fabulous. This style is very efficient--he never lingers--yet also slightly discursive. This has the effect of building a rich texture around the distinctive theme of each chapter. In Chapter 9, for example, Graves describes his experiences as a rock climber. Here, his subject is the techniques and dangers of this sport, as well as its sometimes eccentric practitioners. But, he also works in a story about George Mallory, a mountaineer who died on Mount Everest, who was a friend and teacher at Charterhouse. This allows Graves to comment on the grim culture of the public schools of his day, where the beneficent Mallory was wasted. At the end of this chapter, my marginalia reads: fluid and very interesting.
Likewise, Graves's voice is also fabulous. Basically, he is an honest observer, always near a center of interest, who is never seriously political. As he writes, he both sketches the traditions of his era while he personifies the aspirations and experiences of his rising generation. Once in a while, there is a dated remark. But even this adds to GBTAT, since it helps Graves summon and explore a vanished world. A great work!