Monday 28 January 2013

Desire Under the Algarrobos

The White Goddess: An Encounter, by Simon Gough (Galley Beggar Press, 2012)

To be 18 years old and have your lovesick little heart twisted all out of shape is the merest banality. To have that happen when you’re going on 65 is, to say the least, indecorous. But for Simon Gough to fall wildly in love with his mother’s uncle’s mistress suggests ‘a contempt for the decencies of ordinary family life which reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution,’ as Wilde’s Lady Bracknell remarked.

Now imagine that your ardent grand-uncle is Robert Graves, who wrote some of the most accomplished, emotionally pitch-perfect poems in the English language about the experience of love in its romantic, gynocentric heterosexual variant. You can hardly let the ‘one story only/That will prove worth your telling’ be interred in silence, even though half a century has passed since the feelings evoked at such inordinate length were actually being felt by anyone.

Gough’s narrative is remarkable for its absence of reticence and a surfeit of personal detail that runs the page count up to 650. Allowing a tale of trauma to mature for decades in the cask usually imparts mellowness. But Gough, now writing in his seventies, dishes out his adolescent longings as fresh and steamy as they were in 1960, the year he returned to Deyá, the village on the terraced edge of Mallorca’s craggy west coast where Graves had made his home since 1929 that Simon had last visited as a child.

Biographers can be consulted—Miranda Seymour is best– on the inner and outer lives that Graves had custom crafted for himself and his family on the Mediterranean island. What matters here is that he pledged his poetic gift to the service of the White Goddess, an iconic figure supposedly common to all ancient mythologies who is the divine source of inspiration, and who, when incarnated in a living woman, serves as the poet’s muse, bestows her magic upon him and eventually destroys him. 

When Simon appeared, Graves was on the second of the four muse incarnations that were to occupy the centre of his poetic output from around 1950 until his death 35 years later. Margot Callas was six years older than Simon and 37 years younger than Graves. Surprise, surprise: Simon came down with a severe case of the hots, in its starry-eyed, mooncalf mode. Margo was strikingly lovely, and, in contrast with some of the other women elevated to a plinth in the Graves goddess gallery, intelligent and classy.

But the pedestal came with a price. Simon’s fixation was coolly exploited by freedom-seeking Margot and her secret lover, Alastair Reid, Graves’s friend, working associate and confidante, as a smokescreen so they could run off together. The book’s steamy bits suggests that Margot came within a zipper’s length of having sex with Simon, until she realised that wouldn’t even be necessary to bend him to her will. A distraught Graves was not pleased when he found out, and set to work exorcising Margo (and excoriating Reid) from his poems, life and affections. The tale ends with the ‘disloyal’ youngster being sent home in disgrace, thinking he’ll likely never see Deya again.

Overwrought, overlength and overwritten (‘choppy braille-fingered waves on white gloves brushed against the rocks at either side of the cover, blindly searching…’) I do wonder what the casual reader will make of all this. But having been acquainted with some of the people and the Mallorcan mis en scène of ten years later, I can only be dazzled by the precision with which Gough evokes his characters and the peculiar corner of reality they chose to inhabit. Little things like this: 

‘Here, have an algarroba,’ he said with a grin, giving me a curious dried up fruit like a huge French bean the colour of polished mahogany. ‘Break it in half and chew it. It’s rather pleasant. Good for the memory. ’

The fruit was dry and strong smelling and tasted slightly sweet, like a very old date.

‘Polished mahogany’ is spot on. And I experience a moment of olfactory flashback evoking the pang of the fallen, fermenting pods of the algarrobo—St John’s bread or locust tree in English—in those days, Deya’s only cash crop (olive oil was consumed locally), collected in burlap sacks slung over mules, eventually shipped to manufacturers of soup mixes and pharmaceuticals for its milled starch that dissolves easily in water.

I may have utterly forgotten that the banquette seats in the long-extinct, forever to be missed Bar Formentor were upholstered in green leather, but Gough sure hasn’t. This photographic exactness I find amazing enough to justify the 650-page slog. But still it puzzles. Within a year of being turned down by Charlotte Buff, Goethe was at hard at work on Werther as his way of getting over it. Hazlitt required the same short turnaround time to transform his fatal attraction to his landlord’s sluttish, manipulative daughter into literature. So why did Simon Gough keep so many tumultuous memories of his ‘young remembered self, Porphyry-prosed, passionate, moody’ locked away for so long?

I think this book is most valuable for its true-to-character portraits of the people involved in the story, more than for the story itself. Biographers have mostly shilly-shallied around the evidence indicating the poet was quite daft and growing steadily daffier from about age sixty onwards, but Gough faces it squarely. (Graves’ son William attributes the decline it to a botched gall bladder operation.) You also get to see Graves’ essential kindliness, his mischievous sense of humour, his generosity (usually misplaced), and moments of razor wire insight, as well as his absolute dedication to his poetic calling. (They could still be glimpsed when I interviewed him for Publishers Weekly on the eve of his 80th birthday in 1975. But memory and acuity were fading fast and two years later he had succumbed to the cruel form of dementia that erases personality as well as mind). 

Not only does Simon Gough remember exact detail, his ear has caught speech patterns that sound familiar to me. This is true of his portrait of Beryl Graves, Robert’s second wife and mother of his second set of four children. Gough’s depiction should forever put paid to the canard spread by the sycophants and sharpers Beryl turned away from their door, alleging that she was a distant, severe woman who cared more for her cats than for her children or her marriage.

Actually, Beryl Graves was one of those women who would never dream of displaying her feelings in public. In a rare moment of candour, she admits to Simon that ‘not many wives can fulfil everything the poet needs – not forever, Luckily, I’ve liked almost all his muses – although to be truthful, I suppose I like Margo the best’. Her husband’s chasing after goddesses was a constant source of hurt, but she knew it would keep the poems coming and that the poems were fundamental to his existence. Apart from all else, she was Robert Graves’s biggest fan, and expertly co-edited posthumous collections of his verse. 

One thing seems to be missing. Since Graves was obviously a substitute father to Simon, making the act of betrayal that much more terrible, one would like to have some information about Simon’s relation with his real father, the actor Michael Gough. His coming to Deya at age ten was largely meant to palliate his parents’ then-recent divorce, so I should think it would be relevant to bring that up.


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