The White Goddess is the inaugural book for Norfolk-based publisher Galley Beggar Press as well as Simon Gough’s debut. It’s a heady and heavy-weight mix of memory, passion, deception, and poetry set in the Spanish sun on the island of Majorca and in Franco’s Madrid. It is the first of two ‘Auto-bi-fantasies’ – as Gough insists on calling them – which deal in novelistic fashion with the author’s tempestuous relationship with his poet ‘grand-uncle’ Robert Graves and his passionate love for the muse Margot Callas, the White Goddess herself. The narrative moves between the middle-aged and cancer-stricken Gough of 1989, his ten-year old self in 1953, and the teenager of 1960. All three are in love with Deya, the home of Robert and Beryl Graves, their wild son Juan, beautiful daughter Lucia, and many bohemian hangers-on in the villages surrounding the house. He first arrives with his brittle mother Diana in the wake of her divorce from the actor Michael Gough and falls in love with the island as he and Juan perpetrate plenty of mischief in the first major section Genesis which culminates in a drug-induced frenzy of magic and self-harm aimed at binding Simon to the island forever.
Everything I could see could see me. Everything I felt and did would be left here, like an indelible stain in time, as a charm to bring me back.
This is what my mother, referring to Graham Greene, once called a ‘hot novel’: tense, relentless, and full of unease. Gough interweaves the different periods, eventually coming to focus on the teenager of the Sixties and the memory-laden middle-aged man of the late Eighties as each experiences and recalls the enchantment and obsession of all around the White Goddess herself, Margot. The magnetism of the woman is remarkable and evokes dangerous heights of passion and threatened violence from the men who worship her. Gough is torn between his deep loyalty to his grand-uncle and to the woman he loves with a young man’s fierceness:
‘I love him – I’d – kill for him –’
‘There!’ she cried accusingly –
‘But I’d kill for you, too,’ I cried, ‘don’t you understand? I’d – give my soul for you. I’d – die for you – ’
(There are a lot of italics and dashes throughout. It must have been hell to type).
One can see where all this is heading and Gough draws it out well, perhaps too well after a certain point. Graves’ frightening breakdown underlines both the great heights and the profound depths that creativity and its inspiration can bring with it. One could and should question the degree to which those around him defer to his behaviour and his fierce belief that loyalty is owed to him and him alone: ‘Your loyalty is to me!’ he cries as things come to a head in the Majorcan sun.
‘The Muse is always fatal to poets, Robert knows that…Muses are sirens…’
One of the revelations of The White Goddess is its inclusion of Robert Graves’ poetry, much of it inspired by Margot. As well as demonstrating the heights that Graves could reach (I’m not convinced that he always hit the mark) the relation of the poems to the events in the book is highly effective and lends a great weight to the emotional torment and near-madness the poet felt when his work was threatened. Graves appears to have been convinced of the affinity between poetry and the feminine, finding a focus for that sentiment in the perceived caprice of both. (Hence his book The White Goddess which outlines his theory of the nature of poetic myth). Indeed, throughout the novel women seem to be both the cause of and the answer to most problems one might care to name. Graves’ indefatigable and long-suffering wife Beryl props up the fairly useless men, while Margot and others entangle, aid, and abandon various bohemian and literary types, all whilst looking rather ravishing in the sun.
As one might expect of a debut novel this is a passionate and occasionally uncontrolled work. There is a little bit too much weeping, banging his head, and moping in bed from the protagonist than seems strictly necessary. Of course, if this is what happened Gough might argue he should represent it, but he does emphasise that this is a novelised autobiography, so the moping might have been minimised for the sake of the reader. But then this novel does nothing by halves. It is a rich espresso served in a bucket, which is as intoxicating and occasionally hard to stomach as its sounds. The sun and its punchy presence bolster the febrile nature of Gough’s recollections and passions. That feverish pursuit can lead to the occasionally overblown phrase ‘Memory – so innocent and naïve in itself, so potentially fatal when stirred, like the coiled snake that it was in its pluperfect lair’, but that can be excused because it is this enchanted aspect which underpins the mythic aspect of Gough’s writing. Myth is an intensification of human experience for the purposes of warning and praise: Robert Graves is a fitting idol for both, towering as he does over the lives of Gough’s friends and family. The whole thing feels like a (very long) dream.
The White Goddess is enthralling in every sense of the word as it flings the reader head-on into a chaos of desire and inspiration, deception and place. The spirit of place and the spirit of poetry orbit and constrict the figure of the Muse which is their liberation and their undoing. This is a book I would encourage you to throw yourself into, accepting the frustrations that may come as indispensable to the sheer energy of the writing and the force of recollection, even if it is sometimes exhausting and might be sleeker in places and the structure clearer. There is a moment in Toledo when Margot is lost in El Greco’s The Burial of the Count of Orgaz that might stand not only for Graves himself, but for the transition between interment and apotheosis that Gough is aiming for in the novel: a luminous but grief-stricken realism of ashen flesh transforms into the pliant radiance of the divine as the picture stretches upward. That tension between flesh and heaven is as responsible for The White Goddess’ power as it is its shortcomings. I recommend you see for yourself.
The White Goddess: An Encounter is out now.
My thanks to Galley Beggar Press for this review copy.