Robert Graves Long Fiction Analysis
The novels of Robert Graves are usually a curious combination of detective work in history, legend, or myth and a considerable gift for narration. Graves never claimed any particular ability to invent plots, but he could flesh out imaginatively the skeletal remains of adventures he discovered in the past. Thus, the emperor Claudius lives again as the gossipy information in the works of Suetonius and other Roman chroniclers passes through Graves’s shaping imagination. Sometimes, as in King Jesus, a traditional tale takes on a startling new dimension through an unconventional combination with other legendary material.
My Head! My Head!
Graves’s first attempt at converting ancient history or myth into fiction was a short novel about Elisha and Moses, somewhat inauspiciously titled My Head! My Head!It was begun, as most of Graves’s subsequent novels were, because the original accounts were somewhat mysterious, leaving much unsaid about what really happened and why. The novel elaborates on the biblical story of Elisha and the Shunamite woman (2 Kings, chapters 8-37) and, secondarily, through Elisha’s narration, on the career of Moses.
The novel demonstrates both Graves’s tendency to explain miracles in naturalistic terms and his contrary fascination with a certain suprarational possibility for special persons. The writer’s curious views on magic are not entirely consistent with his debunking of miracles. The inconsistency is quite noticeable here because of the omniscient point of view. In most of his later novels, Graves wisely used a first-person narrator, which makes seeming inconsistencies the peculiar bias of a persona rather than of the author. King Jesus is thus told by a first century narrator who is neither Jewish nor Christian. In such a person, rational skepticism about specific miracles such as the virgin birth might well coexist with a general acceptance of magic.
In spite of its technical shortcomings, My Head! My Head! shows Graves’s interest in a number of themes that would continue to concern him for the rest of his life: the changing relationships between men and women, the nature of the gods, and the way in which knowledge of the past and of the future must depend on an understanding of the present.
No Decency Left
On those two occasions when Graves did not depend on mythological or historical sources for his fiction, the results were strange, satiric compositions, lucidly told, but somehow disquieting. The first of these, No Decency Left, a collaboration with Laura Riding, appeared under the pseudonym “Barbara Rich.” It is a satiric potpourri of events, drawing on such discordant elements as the rise of dictators, the man in the iron mask, the miraculous feeding of the multitude in the Bible, and comic-opera romance. The ideas in this fantasy may be attributable more to Riding than to Graves, though the attitudes displayed are quite consistent with Graves’s views on the follies of men and the hidden strengths of women.
The action occurs in one day, the twenty-first birthday of Barbara Rich, who decides that on this special day she is going to get everything she wants. She forthwith crashes high society, becomes incredibly rich, marries the heir to the throne, feeds a multitude of hungry unemployed people by invading the zoo and arranging for the slaughter and cooking of zoo animals, captures the Communists who try to take over the country when the old king dies, and becomes a dictator in her own almost-bloodless revolution.
If the tone of this outrageous fable were lighter and itsprotagonist more lovable, it could be converted into Hollywood farce or Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, but everyone in it is disagreeable. The characters are either uniformly stupid and cowardly or utterly unscrupulous. The book was probably written primarily to make money when Riding and Graves were short of cash. (Graves always claimed that he wrote novels primarily to support himself while he wrote poetry.) It is obviously accidental...
(The entire section is 4,862 words.)