The White Goddess: An Encounter, by Simon Gough
The line between fiction and memoir can be a tricky one. Memories are unreliable, perspectives inevitably partial. We create narratives of our past, assign meanings and interpretations, but the truth of it all is open to challenge and our truth may not be that of others who were there. Rashomon remains one of my favourite films.
The White Goddess: An Encounter is a novel by Simon Gough about, in part, his relationship with his great-uncle Robert Graves. It is, Gough says in a foreword, true in the sense that it captures the truth of what happened between them, possibly untrue in terms of precise chronology or incident. It is history then that has been turned into myth, and that’s something that I think Graves would have approved of.
In 1989 Simon Gough is a dealer in second hand and antique books. He’s been given five years to live, and he’s been invited back to Deya, in Majorca. Simon hasn’t been to Deya for nearly thirty years, not since, well, to say not since what would be giving far too much away for those who don’t already know Graves’ story.
The book cuts back swiftly to Simon’s first visit to Deya, in 1953 at the age of ten. He’s a lonely boy, from an English public school which treats him brutally. He is a nervous and rather formal child. His mother, an actress, is in Deya and he is flying to meet her there for an extended holiday. As the plane descends he starts to feel ill from the changing pressure. The stewardess checks that he’s ok:
‘Is your mother meeting you?’
The question came as such a shock that I almost forgot the pain. Of course she would! Unless she had asthma or bronchitis or something, I’d see her in a few minutes – oh, God, please make the pain go away so that she needn’t know. She’d make a fuss, get tired, cross-
I quoted that becauseI liked how much implicit context it carries. Immediately it’s obvious that Simon’s relationship with his mother is a difficult one. Simon is constantly afraid of her moods, of upsetting her or triggering her anger. It’s not that his mother’s abusive, but she is raising Simon on her own and she is deeply temperamental. He is a lightning rod for her fears and anxieties.
Deya though holds more than Simon’s mother and a bit of relaxation. It holds his great-uncle (grand-uncle, as Graves instructs Simon, “Great is for steamships and railway lines, don’t you think? Grand is for fathers and uncles, and Russian dukes, of course!”). Simon’s existence until now has been grey and painful, but Graves is a vast charismatic explosion of a man filled with life and passion and sheer vital force. He dazzles.
The White Goddess is a slow burner of a book. The first 100 pages or so didn’t particularly grab me (it’s over 600 in total). It’s not really until after around page 140 or so it really kicks into gear (Part 1 ends on page 140). Gough spends a huge amount of time painstakingly setting up his characters, his locations, ensuring that the reader can see Deya as he saw it, that they know Graves and his family and his various hangers on.
That early part of the book is made more difficult by a couple of annoying stylistic tics that Gough has as a writer. He vastly overuses italics in quoted speech. This quietens down later on but in the first 100 pages or so there’s scarcely a sentence without some italics in it telling the reader where to place the emphasis. Gough wants you to know how these people spoke, this is an act of memory after all, but I found it bludgeoning.
Similarly annoying is how characters rarely in fact do speak. Instead they grin, they gasp, they explain. Grin is actually a particular favourite. Characters grin, grinned, are grinning. Gough is planning a sequel, which I plan to read, but his editors should strike that word whenever he uses it going forward.
With all those problems why would I read the sequel? Because once the book gets going it turn’s out there’s a point to all that scene-setting. Part 1 is critical because when Simon returns in Part 2, in 1960 aged 17, you feel why this place is so important to him. You understand why Graves is so important. Sometimes a book needs a little patience, a small act of faith on the part of the reader, and this is one of those times.
Gough’s portrait of Deya makes it an attractive place, a place a ten year old might find magical. Is a ten year old’s view reliable though? Are all these people, these artists and writers and actors who hang around Graves, are they all as remarkable as they seem? As the time comes to depart back in 1953, Simon begs his mother to let them stay, to send him to school locally, to never go home again:
She took another gulp at her drink, put it down on the mantelpiece, and began to pace up and down. ‘I couldn’t bear to live here, anyway,’ she went on, in her ‘trying to be reasonable’ voice. ‘The heat, the lotus-eaters, the drunks and layabouts… the thought of becoming like them-’
‘But Uncle Robert isn’t-’
‘I don’t mean Uncle Robert – he’s remarkable, although how he can work in this climate defeats me – and surrounded by all these so-called writers and artists who never sell a word or a picture and live off private incomes and drink themselves into a stupor every night.
In that one little exchange everything we’ve seen of Deya is transformed. Again, that wouldn’t work without the slow buildup.
The heart of the novel comes when Simon returns, in order to attend university in Madrid. That’s when he meets Graves’ muse, Margot Callas. Margot is young (though older than Simon), beautiful, effortlessly herself. To Graves she is an incarnation of the Goddess, a mythic intrusion into reality which fuels his poetry, and he sees himself first and foremost as a poet. Graves cannot write poetry without a muse, for him poetry is both divine gift and act of worship. If Margot were to leave she would not just be taking herself away, she would be taking his art, and destroying her own purpose. Simon, of course, immediately falls in love with Margot, but then who doesn’t?
A core theme of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time was the creation of personal myth, a myth of self that could guide one’s own life and that somehow through one’s own belief in it could become true. Graves lives steeped in myth, he wrote a book titled The White Goddess which delved deeply into the relationship between supposed-ancient Celtic belief and poetry. He sees himself as a mythic figure, the Poet with capital P inspired by the Goddess with capital G.
Graves’ force of personality is so strong that his myth sweeps up those around him, particularly the young and impressionable, like Simon. He talks of how at Deya there are no secrets, but that is just another part of his myth. Graves has no secrets, everyone else does being merely mortal. Graves is a classicist, and so his myth is classical drawing more on the traditions of Greek tragedy than the Christian arc of fall and redemption. It is the Poet’s destiny to have the Goddess withdraw her favour, to be usurped by the False Poet.
This is a haunted novel. Haunted primarily by Graves of course, who by 1989 is dead and yet still a lowering presence. Not just by Graves though. In 1953 Simon is part of a play put on for his birthday in a grotto in Deya. When practising there he feels presences, spirits, what Graves believes are ghosts of people yet to be. Myth lends meaning to landscape, not perhaps in a way that is true but in a way that is nonetheless meaningful. Were there ghosts in Deya? I don’t believe in ghosts, so I don’t believe so. Does myth have power though? Undoubtedly.
Gough is often at his best when capturing how fragments of places survive, in our memories and imaginations but also in occasional remnant pockets which preserve what was before. When Simon returns in 1960 what was once rocks and scrub is showing signs of nascent development. Just a few houses and a restaurant so far, but the signs are there of what will follow. By 1989 Majorca will be transformed. What was though remains, sleeping until we awake it by our acts of recognition.
His absence was almost as tangible as his presence, seeming to conjure him. In the sudden air of suspense I found myself holding my breath, expecting him at any moment to come crashing through the double doors, eyes staring, words half-formed, muttering to himself as he strode to his desk and grabbed his relief-nib pen, dipped it in the ink well and started to write while still in the act of sitting down-
This is, ultimately, a compassionate novel. Simon’s mother may seem the villain to him at ten, but later their relationship improves and he understands her better. Graves is impossible, his attitude to Margot possessive and suffocating (and denying her her own agency in favour of her significance within his myth), but he is also funny and brilliant and it is easy to see why he was loved. Margot is perhaps selfish, but what woman can live up to being a goddess? And of course there is Simon himself, miserable at ten and conflicted at 17, pulled between Graves and Margot neither of whom should ever have asked as much of him as they did.
The White Goddess is also a peculiarly unfashionable sort of novel. It is written as if from an earlier age, as if Maugham were still a leading writer and Greene cutting edge. It is an old man’s novel, which sounds dismissive but isn’t. It is concerned with telling what happened, long ago, truthfully if not always with precise accuracy. It is concerned with being fair, which must be difficult when one of those the author most needs to be fair to is his earlier self. It is emotional, but not sentimental, and it is kind which is no small thing.
Often I read reviews on blogs of books that form part of a series, and the blogger praises the book but when asked if they will read the sequel is uncertain. If the book is so good why wouldn’t you? The White Goddess is flawed. Gough has some stylistic habits that he should break, that do get in the way, but his story is a fascinating one and over the course of his narrative he does bring back places and people long past and brings us into their w0rld.
All these words and I’ve not spoken of Gough’s evocation of Franco’s Madrid, of his sympathetic portrait of Graves’ wife, Beryl, or his wild cousin Juan. This is a rich book that ultimately merits its length, provided you’re able to take that leap of faith with the first 100 pages or so.
I received my copy of The White Goddess as a free review copy from the publisher.