Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves (1929)
1. Swipe to the end for hilarious WWI propaganda poster
2. I’m morbidly fascinated by the similarities between Edwardian Britain and contemporary America, and this sometimes prompts me to fall into strange WWI melancholia. It’s the war that feels most relevant to me today, because it seems the most likely to repeat itself in my lifetime.
3. This book is 80% riveting, 20% boring and confusing. A lot of the boredom comes up top.
4. The thing that hits the hardest is Graves’ transition from a self-contained, stoic young man, to one who cries quietly on the train from London with Siegfried Sassoon, overwhelmed by the death of all his friends. In his first battle, he writes, “I felt like screaming.” Later, he simply screams.
5. When they first meet, Sassoon shows him a poem. Graves writes: “’Return to greet me, colours that were my joy,/ Not in this woeful crimson of men slain…’ Siegfried had not yet been in the trenches. I told him, in my old soldier manner, that he would soon change his style.” Incidentally, the Sassoon-Graves friendship is heartbreaking. When Sassoon was shot in the head in a near-suicidal mission, Graves wrote him an awkward, jocular letter asking him for money. Sassoon responded with a devastating poem-letter about the war, with lines like “Yes, you can touch my Banker when you need him./Why keep a Jewish friend unless you bleed him?” He signs off “Does this break your heart? What do I care?” Their friendship was destroyed when Graves published the broken, vulnerable letter in the 1929 version of Goodbye To All That without Sassoon’s permission. Graves was bisexual and Sassoon later said there was “a heavy sexual element” to their relationship.
Robert Graves, most famous for writing I, Claudius, dictated his autobiography Goodbye to All That when he was 34. The result is a strange, prickly, funny and immediate description of life before, during, and after WWI, bolstered with anecdotes about his friendships with Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Thomas Hardy, and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia).