- Goodbye to All That – Robert Graves
From today onwards, I am going to introduce to my friends the books I have read and remembered. I hope to do it every day or at least every other day, until I feel exhausted! I hope to continue until I reach the one-hundredth book. The list, as it is personal, will be idiosyncratic, and since my memory is not always reliable, I will make use of the reviews and comments available on the net, if required. The list will include both fictional and non-fictional works.
Though wars are fought by humans, its canvas is hardly human. Its sheer size and dimensions suffocate whatever human in it. But now and then, a writer emerges who looks at war as a human being, as one who has participated in it, and tries to lend breath to the human side of the war. If he or she has the necessary literary skills, the work becomes a classic. Robert Graves’s ‘Goodbye to All That” is one such work. Though it had and still has its detractors -Siegfried Sassoon, the famous poet of the first world war was one of them-the work, autobiographical in nature, has become a classic right from 1929, the year in which it was published. The First World War changed the entire world, but the changes in Europe and Britain were swift. It plucked the people from the sedate and sure world they were living in and hurled them into the searing furnace of uncertainty. Every value – religious, social, political, artistic, and sexual – came to be questioned. Above all, patriotism became a word of derision and contempt, as it was in its name that millions of youngsters were sent to death. The book of Graves is about this period. It is unpretentious and stark and it doesn’t hesitate to plunge the dagger deep when it is required. The average life span of a soldier on the front was about three months by which time he was likely either to be killed or wounded or, as the author’s following narration describes, to have committed suicide. “As I went towards company headquarters to wake the officers I saw a man lying on his face in a machine-gun shelter. I stopped and said: ‘Stand-to, there.’ I flashed my torch on him and saw that his foot was bare. The machine-gunner beside him said: ‘No good talking to him, sir.’ I asked: ‘What’s wrong? What’s he taken his boot and sock off for?’ I was ready for anything odd in the trenches. ‘Look for yourself. sir,’ he said. I shook the man by the arm and noticed suddenly that the back of his head was blown out. The first corpse that I saw in France was this suicide. He had taken off his boot and sock to pull the trigger of his rifle with his toe; the muzzle was in his mouth. ‘Why did he do it?’ I said. ‘He was in the last push, sir, and that sent him a bit queer, and on top of that he got bad news from Limerick about his girl and another chap.’”I first read the book in the late sixties. I borrowed it from the MDT Hindu college library, a treasure-house of books. I read it again a few years ago. It hasn’t staled. If you like the book, please remember to read Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth”She was about 20 when the war started. She loses her fiancé, her brother, and two of her closest friends in the war. The Guardian rightly says, when it writes about the book to mark the 80th year of its publication, “In Testament of Youth, the words seemed to pour out of her, a potent mixture of rage and loss, underpinned by lively intelligence and fervent pacifist beliefs.”Anyone who has a romantic attachment to war should read these two books (I am counting them as one!), and there is every chance that the person will instantly be cured of the romance.