The White Goddess: An Encounter

Robert Graves
How many literary memoirs are compulsive page-turners? Not many, I can tell you, having read more than my share of them. But, in less than a week, I devoured Simon Gough's hefty recollection of his encounter with Margot Callas, Robert Graves' 'muse' of the early 1960s. (Callas later married the director Mike Nichols.) The book runs to more than 600 pages, but they fly by.

At the start, I wasn't sure where the story (The White Goddess: An Encounter, Galley Beggar Press) was going, and I urge you not to give up after the first 50 pages. Gough wants to give you all the background you need to understand his experiences on Mallorca as an 18-year-old, so he has to dig deep. He begins by recounting his idyllic boyhood experiences in and around the house that belonged to Graves and his wife Beryl. Gough is their great-nephew. (That's Graves, in later life, in the photo above.)
As one of Gough's reviews has observed, he uses Thomas Mann's technique of drastically slowing down the action to draw the reader in. When that happens - and when you understand that Gough had so blocked his memories that he himself didn't know where the story was going when he began to write - you're hooked. You quickly see that there's disaster ahead, because Gough falls head-over-heels in love with Margot, whom he's supposed to be keeping an eye on in Madrid, on behalf of his great-uncle.
But there are many things that the young Gough - and the reader - don't know, and they set off a fearful set of events. Whether she is accurately remembered or largely invented, Margot may be one of the most charismatic characters you'll meet between the pages of a book. Yet the real star of the story is Beryl Graves. If Margot is the White Goddess, Beryl is a female Merlin who sees deep into the turmoil-driven hearts all around her. 
In the coda to the book's harrowing climax, Beryl tells Simon that Robert had predicted it all in his book, 'The White Goddess.' Graves believed that the female deity who rules the heavens once governed earth as well. Now only true poets worship her, and to guide them, she sometimes takes on the form of a mortal woman. But that unstable relationship always results in betrayal and loss. Graves mapped out the process almost two decades earlier in 'To Juan at Winter Solstice': 
Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfailingly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall ...

Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-grey eyes were wild
But nothing promise that is not performed. 
Gough promises a second volume, supposedly telling how he and his great-uncle were eventually reconciled. For Graves eventually forgave both Margot and Simon. That may be the impetus behind this later poem: 
We are less than friends.
What woman ever
So ill-used her man?
That I played false
Not even she pretends:
May God forgive her,

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