Day 591: Goodbye to All That

Cover for Goodbye to All ThatThis is my book for the most recent Classics Club Spin! I originally announced that I would post my review a day late, on October 7, but I decided to post it early instead, so as to meet the spin deadline, since Monday, the deadline, is Literary Wives.

Goodbye to All That is the only memoir by Robert Graves, written in his 30’s about a dozen years after World War I. Nowadays, Graves may be best known as the author of I, Claudius, but the publication of Goodbye to All That was extremely controversial. It was one of the first memoirs about the war, and it was one of the most critical.

But before Graves turned a satiric eye on the war, he pointed it at the public school system. I did not always understand what was going on in his boy’s school, but the layers of hierarchy and the customs seem ridiculous. Not surprisingly, this same complexity extends to the different regiments in the military and their customs—where to wear their decorations, what to wear (for one regiment in France, the answer is shorts), and who may speak or drink in the officer’s mess.

Graves, who enlisted early in the war at the age of 21, was soon viewing it all skeptically. One scene of high satire takes place in a meeting of battalion officers, who are all called in to listen to the complaints of their colonel that the men aren’t buttoning their pocket flaps and so on—the worst offence being that he heard a soldier actually call a noncommissioned officer “Jack”! This meeting takes place at the same time that the division is issuing commands for the men to perform impossible missions that would have gotten them all killed had they not been cancelled at the last minute.

Graves also deals somewhat facetiously with the premature reports of his own death, sent by the military to his family after he was wounded, by putting a polite announcement in the Times.

This memoir is interesting enough, although at times I could not follow the nuances of the events, having no knowledge of British school or military terms. There is a short glossary of military terms at the beginning of the book, but it is insufficient. These days, news of incompetency and jingoism during the war is no surprise, but when this book was published, it was the cause of a storm of letters containing all kinds of accusations against Graves.