In this warm and passionate memoir, Simon Gough recalls his youthful encounters with his grand-uncle Robert Graves in the bohemian Majorca of the 1950s and ’60s, as well as his own emotionally fraught entanglement with Graves’s ‘muse’, Margot Callas. After the grey rigours of public school and post-war austerity Britain, Majorca must have seemed like paradise to the ten year-old Gough. Travelling to the fishing village of Deya with his recently-divorced mother in 1953, he’s thrown into a world of writers and artists presided over by his charismatic grand-uncle. Chafing against his mother’s suffocating over-protectiveness, as well as her unpredictable rage, Gough flourishes in the freedoms of the Mediterranean. So powerful is the experience for him, that, encouraged by Graves’s air of mysticism and magic, he performs a hallucinatory spell to ensure that he will always be drawn back. However, when he returns as a young man in 1961, ready to start university in Madrid, Gough finds the innocence of those earlier days slowly beginning to corrupt under the influence of more adult concerns. Powerfully attracted to Graves’s latest muse, Margot Callas, Gough finds himself playing a pivotal, if chaste, role in the tortuous break-down of her unconventional relationship with the older poet, and her affair with the Scottish poet and journalist Alastair Reid. So violently upset is Graves by what he sees as Gough’s betrayal that the younger man doesn’t return to Deya for over twenty years, until after the poet’s death. At last, with some distance from those devastating events, he is able to sit down and recall what happened to him all those years ago.
Gough’s approach here is to write not a straight memoir but a self-described ‘auto-bio-fantasy.’ By revelling in the subjectivity of his approach and in the emotional truth of his memories, he achieves a breathless immediacy and a novelistic style that that enables him to recall entire conversations and dwell at length on his emotional state. It’s highly engaging, and impossible not to be swept up in the magic of Deya and by the bruising heat of first love. He also provides a splendid elliptical portrait of Robert Graves, both in his prime and as he began the long descent into senility. Graves is a curiously neglected figure these days; his poems and his greatest historical novels (the Claudius books) have never been out of print, but he is no longer taken that seriously as a major artistic force. Gough illuminates why this might be the case by providing an insider’s perspective on just how suffocating Graves’s need for a muse really was. It would be easy to portray Margot Callas as a two-dimensional femme fatale here, but her response to Graves’s claustrophobic attention, his powerful need for an inspirational figure to help generate his poetry, feels entirely understandable. If this had been an odd peccadillo of his private life it would have been forgivable (what poet hasn’t had a complicated private life?), but Graves built an entire poetic philosophy around this need for a muse figure. His book ‘The White Goddess’, to which the title of Gough’s memoir is indebted, is a 500-page excavation of the role of the ‘triple goddess’ in poetic myth across human history, and while it offers an unparalleled portrait of a poet’s personal aesthetic, it can’t help but feel incredibly eccentric when viewed as any kind of artistic programme. Among major poets, perhaps only Ted Hughes took a similar risk in revealing the well-springs of his imagination, when he published ‘Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.’ Graves and his commitment to a goddess-worshipping lyricism stands utterly outside the run of twentieth century poetry. He bypassed modernism completely, and even at his best his poetry seems not so much archaic, but out of time altogether. It’s a shame, because he is a far greater poet than he is given credit for, and his complete poems offers the greatest and most sustained meditation on love in literature.
Gough captures this grandeur perfectly, but, while he is not immune to Graves’s magnetism, he is also clear-sighted enough to point out the poet’s failings. He seems rather too keen on attention, even when it comes from a boat-load of American tourists out trawling the Mediterranean to ‘bag’ some famous writers (Lawrence Durrell apparently told them to fuck off). His mercurial qualities are sometimes seen as less than the product of poetic genius, and more the lingering traces of battle-trauma from his horrific experiences in the First World War. It’s this objectivity, embedded in a sprawling, lyrical, and deeply personal account, that makes ‘The White Goddess: An Encounter’ an important literary source as well as a highly entertaining and attractive memoir in its own right.
(Thanks to Sam Jordison and Galley Beggar Press for the review copy)