Saturday, 23 February 2013

The White Goddess: An Encounter by Simon Gough

The White Goddess: An Encounter by Simon Gough

Our 17-year-old narrator is swimming in the sea with his grand-uncle (note: grand, not great), when a boatload of literary tourists discover them. The older man is genial and welcoming, accepting their admiring attentions, much to the contempt of his younger relative. The tourists appreciate it, explaining that Lawrence Durrell gave them short shrift in Provence.

The Durrell reference is apt. The grand-uncle in question is Robert Graves, celebrated poet, friend and contemporary of Siegfried Sasson and Wilfred Owen, whose character and force of personality
dominate the book long after his departure.

The White Goddess: An Encounter is a difficult book to define. Even the author calls it an ‘autobifantasy’. Simon Gough is indeed the great-nephew of Robert Graves and relates his memories of three periods
of his life which were affected by the great poet. 1953, aged eleven; 1960, aged an agonising seventeen; and 1989, after Graves’s death. His recollections and records are extrapolated into a perfectly woven story; a balance of emotion, tension, growth and change.

The first section, when the child Simon arrives on the island of Majorca after his parents’ divorce, is described with such brilliance and intensity at ground-level detail. I could not help but be reminded of Gerald Durrell’s observations on nature and eccentric relatives. Humour bubbles up with childlike spontaneity, yet Gough adds a darker level of insecurity. The unfamiliar is fascinating, but also fearsome.

That insecurity is only exacerbated by intensity as the seventeen-year-old Simon returns in 1960. This second trip to the village of Deya is entirely derailed by Margot, Graves’s Muse. Enthralled from the outset, Simon suffers agonies and delights, in a mirror image of his grand-uncle. Again, Durrell springs to mind, but this time, Lawrence. The evocation of the place, period and atmosphere; the precise description, the adoration for a particular geographical arrangement and its peculiar ambience. All this against the threatening backdrop of the Franco regime. Certain passages I could read again and again. Gough makes us fall in love, as much with Deya as with Margot.

Finally, twenty-nine years later, he returns. Once again his memories, opinions and judgements are forced to shift, by the undeniable presence and tangible absence of Graves.

A beautiful, thoughtful and intelligently constructed book, which makes me want to re-read Graves. And to visit Deya. But I suspect the Deya of This Encounter with The White Goddess no longer exists.

A difficult book to define, but an easy book to love.

Reviewed by JJ Marsh

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