Robert Graves: A Biography

By BRUCE KING

In the popular imagination, the private lives of artists are rarely happy. British poet and novelist Robert Graves thought it best they were miserable. Whether the domestic train wrecks he contrived as a consequence actually benefited his writing, as he believed, is doubtful. Bruce King?s concise and oddly circumspect biography doesn?t attempt to resolve the issue. But as an introduction to a fascinating author, it asks the right questions. As a schoolboy and during military service in the First World War, Graves was, in all but deed, homosexual. Soon, though, he was working hard to underplay the sexual preferences of his early manhood. After a failed marriage to an ardent feminist who, curiously, dressed like a man and professed contempt for the male sex, he consistently pursued women who treated him abominably and who offered no hope of regular sexual gratification. It?s enough to activate the latency sensor on the least sophisticated gaydar. Eventually these humiliating relationships produced the personal mythology of artistic creation that is The White Goddess. In that book, Graves outlines an instinctive religion in which unloving women are the idols and bad sex the central rite. Thankfully, the metaphysics and melodrama didn?t stop him writing wonderful books. The novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God are an uncanny imagining of patrician life in ancient Rome. The deceptive simplicity and traditional structures of his poetry helped preserve the English lyric from Pound and Eliot?s elitism. Did Graves really need the White Goddess to write? Did he actually believe in her? King doesn?t say. But at least this biography should leave readers wanting to know more.

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