The 100 best nonfiction books: No 44 – Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929)

Robert Graves’s account of his experiences in the trenches of the first world war is a subversive tour de force

The first world war is renowned for poetry (Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg) more than prose, but there is one volume, this “autobiography”, partly set in the trenches, that continues to enthral readers with its irreverent, comic, and often bawdy first-hand account of frontline action in France. Graves opens Goodbye to All That with a saucy, candid,and even outrageous, statement of intent that will set the tone for all that follows: “The objects of this autobiography, written at the age of 33, are simple enough: an opportunity for a goodbye to you and to you and to you and to me and to all that; forgetfulness, because once all this has been settled in my mind and written down and published it need never be thought about again; money.”

Graves certainly made money from Goodbye to All That, and perhaps he did “say goodbye” as he intended, but he was never free from what he had just “written down and published”. It was simply too good, and too entertaining, to be “never thought about again”. And it also caught the war-weariness of the interwar years, in which the greatest sin (for the writer of memoir) was to be boring. Graves is never boring: “There was no patriotism in the trenches. That was too remote a sentiment, and rejected as fit only for civilians. A new arrival who talked ‘patriotism’ would soon be told to cut it out.”

As the critic Paul Fussell writes in The Great War and Modern Memory, the indispensable guide to the literature of the first world war, Graves is, first and foremost, “a tongue-in-cheek neurasthenic farceur whose material is ‘facts’”.

The original 1929 edition, which varies significantly from the revised version of 1957 was completed, fast, in less than four months, inspired by Graves’s lover and muse, the American poet Laura Riding, and composed in a spirit of burning-his-boats excitement: Graves wanted to raise enough money to retire to Majorca. This first version has a raw and ragged energy that’s missing from the later edition, which eliminates Riding, from whom he had become estranged. As Andrew Motion has written, the 1929 printing contained “a version of events that told the poetic truth about his experiences, the emotional truth, rather than being primarily fact-driven”. For instance, Graves also reports the killing of captured Germans by British troops, although Graves himself had not witnessed any massacres. He seems determined to shock his readers, cheerfully working in bestseller ingredients to his story: “Nearly every instructor in the mess could quote specific instances of prisoners having been murdered on the way back. The commonest motives were, it seems, revenge for the death of friends or relatives, and jealousy of the prisoner’s trip to a comfortable prison camp in England.”

Goodbye to All That is not all about the war, but it has a strong internal coherence. The first nine chapters describe Graves’s school days, including his homoerotic experiences, at Charterhouse, and his friendship with George Mallory, the doomed mountaineer. School becomes a prelude to his life in the regiment (the Royal Welch Fusiliers), in which discipline, serving men’s jargon and the indignities of communal life get magnified by the jeopardy of the frontline. Graves was writing out of psychic pain; his jokes are cracked in the shadow of death. Indeed, he had been traumatised by the war, and took many years to overcome the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

His account of trench life is the thing that still grips the reader 100 years on. In keeping with the account of modern warfare reported by his friend Siegfried Sassoon, Graves describes a campaign that’s a succession of “bloody balls-ups”, in which farcical incompetence and stupidity are responsible for a casual and gruesome slaughter. He, in turn, adds his wild protest by ruthlessly celebrating the horrors of trench life – rotting corpses, scattered brain-matter, and visceral, almost animal, suffering. It would be wrong to focus exclusively on his irreverence. Among several set pieces, Graves’s account of the heroism of “Samson”, who died in no man’s land, is especially poignant: “The first dead body I came upon was Samson’s. I found that he had forced his knuckles into his mouth to stop himself crying out and attracting any more men to their death. He had been hit in 17 places.”

Subsequently, Graves’s comic account of his own misreported death in action is another famous high point. He had been wounded by a German shell while leading his men through a cemetery on 20 July 1916. The wound had at first seemed so severe that his regiment erroneously reported his decease (“died of wounds” etc). In a richly entertaining coda to his passing, while also mourning his death, Graves’s family received word from him that he was alive, and put an announcement to that effect in the newspapers. To add hilarity to pathos, he describes how his colonel wrote to him with: “I cannot tell you how pleased I am you are alive.” Soon he was back in the trenches, but then invalided home where he got classified B-1, “fit for garrison service abroad”. The armistice followed soon after: “The news sent me out walking along the dyke above the marshes of Rhuddlan… cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead.”

After this, he catches Spanish flu, almost dies, and is tormented by a lot of bad dreams. Goodbye to All That ends with Graves sailing for Egypt to become professor of English at Cairo University. He would shortly write I, Claudius, the book for which he would become world-famous. Goodbye to All That remains his masterpiece, a classic of English autobiography, and a subversive tour de force that would inspire, among others, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy.

A signature sentence

“The Catholic padre had given his men his blessing and told them that if they died fighting for the good cause they would go straight to Heaven, or at any rate would be excused a great many years in Purgatory.”

Three to compare

Siegfried Sassoon: Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928)
Winston Churchill: My Early Life (1930)
Vera Brittain: Testament of Youth (1933)

Goodbye to All That is available in Penguin Modern Classics (£8.99). Click here to order a copy for £7.37


Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

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